Washington’s embattled Senior class has left their mark on the Husky program

That picture is Autzen Stadium in August 2008. I took to the road to see Washington’s season opener with naive expectations that the Huskies would be able to compete with the Ducks and that it would be a glorious beginning to a year that would culminate in bowl eligibility for the Huskies. A halftime 10-7 score had me brimming with optimism.

I ended up leaving the stadium midway through the second half.

For kids like Jermaine Kearse, Senio Kelemente, Chris Polk, and Alameda Ta’amu, kids that are now household names for Husky fans, this was the start of Husky careers that will come full circle at CenturyLink field tomorrow.

The class of 2008 was unquestionably Tyrone Willingham’s most anticipated haul of talent. Sprinkled with talent brought in in 2007, the 2008 class which was his first in the top 25 of Rivals and Scout, Willingham had finally surrounded QB Jake Locker with the talent he needed to make the program become competitive. And, to be fair to Ty Will, that would ultimately prove to be the case.

Just not on that August night in Autzen. Just not with Willingham at the helm.

Because what happened that day at Autzen stadium had a direct impact on the program today. Washington embarrassingly lost 44-10. As the game went on, hope began to dwindle more and more. A perfect omen for the rest of the season, as hope for the program as a whole began to dwindle more and more as the season went on. By the time Washington went into Memorial Stadium to finish their season against Cal, hope wasn’t even a word in a Husky fan’s personal dictionary.

And then Steve Sarkisian came in. And kids that are now Seniors, Willingham’s last fingerprint on the program, became the focal point of his rebuilding process.

Since Sarkisian’s arrival Chris Polk has become a national name. At Autzen in 2008 Polk, whom Willingham convinced to spurn USC for Washington, unceremoniously rushed for less than 20 yards in his first collegiate game. He was shortly thereafter sidelined with a season ending shoulder injury and granted a medical red shirt. Chris Polk has rushed for 3769 yards under Sarkisian on an over 5 yards a carry clip. While not a Senior due to the redshirt, it is unlikely Polk returns for his Senior year, and it will be treated like his last game when the Dawgs square off against Washington State.

Chris Polk (left) and Devin Aguilar (right) have been huge pieces of Sarkisian's offensive renaissance. Both are Willingham recruits.

For Jermaine Kearse, he quickly took the reigns of Sarkisian’s offense and became Washington’s number one target. In 2010 caught 63 passes for 1005 yards. The biggest catch? A TD grab with a minute left in last year’s Apple Cup, guaranteeing Washington it’s first bowl berth in eight years. Kearse will be on the NFL radar.

Left Tackle Senio Kelemente spent his first collegiate action that night at Autzen….on the defensive line. Willingham switched the big man to the other side of the ball out of desperation for more size on the line. Under Sarkisian he has blossomed into an NFL prospect protecting the blind side of Keith Price. Manning the offensive line that has grown into a strength for the Huskies.

Alameda Ta’amu has been a defensive line mainstay even since his true freshman year in 2008. Each year he has progressed from simply eating blocks to this year regularly living in opposing offenses’ backfields. The progression has Ta’amu pegged as a first round prospect in next April’s NFL draft.

Everette Thompson, Alameda Ta'amu and Senio Kelemente(in order) endured the misery of 0-12. All are making their mark as the Huskies go after their second consecutive bowl victory.

Cort Dennison(class of ’07, redshirted) might be the most unheralded Senior Husky. A recruiting afterthought from Salt Lake City, Dennison started to make his mark in 2009 when he took over a starting Linebacker spot due to injury. Alongside Donald Butler and Mason Foster(both now in the NFL), Cort rounded out a linebacking core that was usually the only bright spot on a porous Husky defense. As a Senior Dennison is manning the Mike position averaging over ten tackles a game.

For the rest of the Senior class including WR Devin Aguilar(07, Redshirt), K Erik Folk(07, RS), P Kiel Rasp, and DE Everette Thompson rounds out a list of Seniors that survived the attrition of the Ty Will to Sark transition and have contributed to a near 180 change of fortunes for the Washington program.

As much flak as Willingham gets for his role in the continued free fall of the program under his watch, and he certainly deserves much of it, he did a very admirable job increasing the talent level in the program and selling what the Huskies had to offer. There should be little argument that this has made Sarkisian’s job easier than it was for Willingham when he took over for Keith Gilbertson.

These are kids who witnessed the lowest valleys of low that a program could experience. And in three short years are about to play in the program’s second consecutive bowl appearance.

In a couple of years the Washington roster will be filled with kids who had nothing to do with Tyrone Willingham and will have had nothing to do with the 0-12 year that most Husky fans would love to forget. But for now, 0-12 is the driving force of motivation for kids who were hungry to make sure that never happened again in this program.

And in that, they have been successful.