Huskies look good, moving ahead after summer of turmoil

Updated: August 23, 2003, 2:55 PM ET

SEATTLE -- After a summer of turmoil, the Washington Huskies are focused on an autumn brimming with potential.

The program made plenty of news over the past three months. Former coach Rick Neuheisel was fired for participating in NCAA basketball pools and lying about it to NCAA investigators.

Keith Gilbertson, who spent four seasons as Neuheisel's offensive coordinator, was promoted to head coach. Forced to scramble leading to an Aug. 30 opener at Ohio State, the new coach isn't looking back on how he arrived.

"That's old business," Gilbertson said. "I'm really into this now."

It's the third head coaching position for Gilbertson, a native of Snohomish, Wash., who went 28-9 in three seasons at Idaho (1986-88) and 20-26 in four seasons at California (1992-95).

Within the Washington program, Neuheisel's departure wasn't celebrated. His coaches were loyal to him and his players love him. But if a change was necessary, the administration made a popular choice in Gilbertson.

"We came here to play for coach Neuheisel, but coach Gilbertson is a great guy and a great coach," quarterback Cody Pickett said. "If it had to be anybody to take over, I'm glad it was him. We're all excited."

With 14 returning starters, there's plenty of reason for fans to be optimistic that Washington can improve on last year's erratic 7-6 season, which ended in a Sun Bowl loss to Purdue.

"I feel good about this team. I like this team," Gilbertson said. "This team feels it has something to prove. As a coaching staff, we feel the same way. We're still smarting from the way we played against Purdue."

The roster isn't exactly bare, either. The Huskies have two of the best skill position players in the country in Pickett, a senior, and junior receiver Reggie Williams.

Last year, Pickett's 4,458 yards passing made him the first Pac-10 quarterback to break 4,000 yards in a single season. The Pac-10, of course, produced passers like Jim Plunkett, Troy Aikman and John Elway, as well as last year's Heisman Trophy winner, Carson Palmer of USC.

Williams was a first-team All-American after averaging 101.1 yards receiving a game. He's 6-foot-4 and 225-pounds, but quick enough that coaches used him at cornerback in end-zone situations last year.

"When you've got a guy like Cody who's real confident throwing the ball, it makes you feel confident," tackle Khalif Barnes said. "Then you've got a receiver like Reggie, who can out jump anyone to make a big play."

The biggest question is whether the Huskies can establish a running game to offset the one-dimensional offense that launched both standouts to such big seasons statistically.

Rich Alexis, who averaged 62.5 yards rushing a game last year, missed spring practices while recovering from shoulder surgery. Redshirt freshmen Kenny James and Shelton Sampson, both highly recruited, could contribute.

Last year's defense ranked 11th nationally against the run, holding opponents to 97.7 yards a game. While the Huskies were susceptible to long plays through the air, eight starters return to bolster the defense.

The secondary includes eight players who started at least once last season, though Washington will have to make up for losing cornerback Nate Robinson. A two-sport star last season, he decided to focus on basketball.

Marquis Cooper, who led the team with 100 tackles in 2002, is back. Greg Carothers, a safety the past two years, is moving to linebacker. Overall, the defenders like their chances.

"For the first time ever, I've seen Cody Pickett pump the ball in practice and then bring it down and run. That's special," said TerryJohnson, one of three returning starters on the defensive line.

Washington is No. 17 in the preseason rankings and reporters covering the Pac-10 picked them to finish second behind Southern California. The Trojans travel to Seattle for a key game Oct. 25.

"We're legit,"Johnson said. "Anytime you have big guns like we have, Cody and Reggie, and a defense that can stop the run, that's a solid core. As long as guys work hard and make plays, we're going to be fine."

And while the X's and O's haven't changed, the tone at practice seems less laid back under Gilbertson. The new coach recently made everyone line up for five minutes of punishing up-downs after he felt one player had rested.

"When one person loafs, everybody works," Gilbertson explained. "We're always going to address it. Your team's going to suffer. It's a team concept."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index