Sarkisian, Washington begins season of soaring expectations at high altitude of BYU

So much for all the fuss around Washington about having to play in the breath-zapping elevation at Brigham Young.

To hear coach — and former BYU star quarterback — Steve Sarkisian tell it, the elevation of 4,500-plus feet in Provo, Utah, is the perfect place for his Huskies to begin their season of soaring expectations.

"Well, the sky's always the limit, right? Nothing should ever hold anyone back. But that's just a philosophical little note for you," Sarkisian said wryly on Monday, five days before the season opens at BYU up in the Wasatch Mountains.

He was talking about the expectations he has for Jake Locker, Washington's senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate.

But Sarkisian could have been talking about how Washington seems to be on the cusp of a revival, and its first bowl game since 2002.

A reason many believe Locker could win the Heisman, and even become the first overall pick in next spring's NFL draft, is because he is entering the second season in Sarkisian's offense far more advanced in it than he was 12 months ago preparing for a 31-23 loss to LSU in the 2009 opener.

In his first year running Sarkisian's plays, Locker threw for 2,800 yards with 21 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. His completion percentage was 11 points higher than his freshman season — the last full, healthy year he played — when he was in a more spread-option style offense under Tyrone Willingham.

Another reason one voter in the Pac-10's preseason poll even voted Washington to win the conference two years after it bottomed out at 0-12 under Willingham is the return of a healthy Chris Polk. Last season as a freshman, Polk became just the second Husky since the late 1990s to rush for 1,000 yards.

Monday, Sarkisian said Polk is unlimited and in "tremendous shape" following shoulder surgery, and that he was excited to watch Polk run against BYU.

Then there's a fast, skilled group of receivers that many see as the Pac-10's best.

"We have a talented offense," Locker said. "We have a talented group of guys and we're really comfortable in a system that we've been running for two, 2½ years. I think it's allowed guys to play a little faster, do some things that are a little more advanced than what we did in the past."

It's on defense where the Huskies have concerns — especially against the dynamic and sometimes tricky Cougars.

BYU is already messing with Washington. Coach Bronco Mendenhall did Sarkisian and his staff no favors while announcing last weekend that junior Riley Nelson and freshman Jake Heaps, a prized recruit from Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash., who got away from the Huskies, will be sharing the quarterback job this week.

Sarkisian said the two passers are opposites, meaning the Huskies are essentially preparing for two different offenses.

"And I would not be surprised if both quarterbacks are on the field at the same time for them," Sarkisian said. "So we have some real challenges."

Washington's defense is welcoming back junior inside linebacker Cort Dennison from a knee injury. Dennison was an all-state tight end and top basketball player at Judge Memorial High School in Salt Lake City, and he will have about 40 friends and family down the highway in Provo for Saturday's game.

"I'm extremely eager," Dennison said of his return to Utah.

So eager, Sarkisian has already spoken to Dennison about controlling his emotions and keeping this as any other game.

Dennison has been to LaVell Edwards Stadium. That puts him in the minority of Huskies.

So Sarkisian is going to take extra advantage of Friday's walkthrough practice in Provo, to get the players used to soaring punts and kickoffs, plus other peculiarities of the altitude in which he starred as a Cougar in 1995 and '96.

Locker has never played at such an elevation in his Washington career. He thinks the thin-air talk is more than just hot air.

"I don't think you can ignore it," he said. "I think it's making sure we stay up tempo at practice this week, (getting acclimated) and understanding that it might be a little bit difficult."