Washington free safety Nate Fellner won a Central Section championship at Clovis West High in 2008, but he's got bigger dreams this season.
The Huskies are one victory away from a possible bowl bid. Standing in the way today is Washington State and quarterback Jeff Tuel, Fellner's former Clovis West teammate, in the 103rd Apple Cup game in Pullman.
Fellner, a sophomore, has been an integral part of coach Steve Sarkisian's renewal of the Huskies program. He took over a team that went 0-12 in 2007 and now has Washington (5-6) on the verge of perhaps its first winning record since 2002, the last time the program was bowl eligible.
Fellner, a Bee All-Star as a senior and third-team all-state at Clovis West, will be making his 15th start for the Huskies. He cracked the starting lineup the last three games of 2009 when the team went 5-7 in Sarkisian's first season.
This season, the 6-foot-1, 201-pound Fellner ranks fifth in team tackles with 66 and has intercepted three passes and recovered a fumble. He turned in his best game in Saturday's 16-13 win at Cal with seven tackles and four assisted tackles.
Fellner, who plans to major in communications, took time this week to talk to the The Bee about Washington's bowl chances.
Question: You played a little in the Apple Cup game last year. What's the atmosphere like? What can you compare it to?
Answer: It was packed, even when both teams didn't have a bowl to play for. Both schools hate each other. I'd compare it to Clovis West against maybe Clovis East or Buchanan. Obviously, it's a bigger deal now, bragging rights for the state of Washington, and there's a lot on the line this year.
What will it be like facing Tuel, your buddy? Do you keep in touch?
We do keep in touch, but only texted at the beginning of the week. We'll let the game happen, then talk after. It will be interesting facing him. We'll both do whatever it takes to win. I know I'd like bragging rights when I come home.
What attracted you to Washington? Arizona and Stanford also recruited you.
I thought I had a good opportunity to play right away. Washington, after I didn't choose Stanford, was the next-best academic situation. I'm comfortable here. The defense is similar to Clovis West, and Washington had the best stadium.
What adjustments did you need to make from high school to college?
The game is so much faster, so adjusting to the speed is a big thing. There's also a big playbook and I had to learn all the terminology and study a lot more film.
How were you able to crack the starting lineup so fast?
It happened last year the last three games due to injuries, but I kept it this year. I gave the coaches faith in that I knew the plays, could make adjustments and could be accountable.
What did Coach Sarkisian do to get things headed in a positive direction?
He's instilled the mantra that we expect to win. A lot of our players went through that 0-12 in 2008, but he's gotten their spirits up and playing with confidence. The coaches ... put a lot of pressure on us in practice so games can be less stressful.
Are fan perceptions of the team starting to change?
Definitely. We have great turnouts for games. There's a whole different feel around the program. Now you're seeing lots more people wearing Washington football stuff around campus.
What win was bigger this year, USC, UCLA or Cal?
At Cal, because it was much more critical. We have to win out to keep our bowl hopes. I think beating those three schools shows we're trying to get back to relevance and it helps with recruiting.
Why were you so effective vs. Cal last week?
We had a good game plan from the coaches, stuck to what we do best. We were really sound on defense and playing assignment football.
If you make a bowl game this year, how will it compare to playing for a Central Section championship?
It will be better. But, I don't even want to look ahead to that. We need to take care of business first. All that matters is beating Washington State. All I can say is: It would be sweet.