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Your 2014 UW Huskies Defensive Preview

Defense wins championships, I’ve heard. I’m not sure that’s always true, but should the Huskies win a championship, the defense will likely be the main reason why. This is the most loaded UW has been on this side of the ball in a long time. It does have some issues on the back end I’ll discuss below, but if they can sort those out, points could be few for UW opponents. Offense was covered here, if you missed it.

Defensive Line

With the coaching change, it’s hard to be sure what the defensive alignment is going to look like. Players and positions are being moved around a bit, but it’s unclear how that will actually look onfield. For my purposes, I’m considering players where they played last year. For example, and as a good place to start, Hauoli Kikaha was a defensive end last year, but they’re listing him at linebacker now. I imagine his new role will be similar to Wilcox’s Rush End, where he can be moved around some and plays in space and coverage a bit more. Whatever the specifics, Kikaha will be rushing the passer, and if last year was a starting point and not a peak, he will cause massive amounts of havoc. Kikaha overcame knee issues and lots of time off to turn in one of the better pass rushing seasons in UW history. He had the most sacks of any returning player in the nation, and if he builds on 2013 at all, he could be an All-American and 1st round pick.

While Kikaha gets more credit, big Danny Shelton is the true key to the defense. The massive tackle blossomed last year, eating up blockers for other guys to get into the backfield. At his best, Shelton occupies two or three blockers, clogging the inside of the line and preventing running plays from going whichever direction was planned. Shelton was extremely effective last year, but if he can find a bit more burst and get into the backfield with regularity, he’ll be in the discussion for the best D tackles in college football. It’ll be important to keep Shelton on the field, because the depth behind him is quite young. RS frosh Elijah Qualls has loads of potential, so it was surprising to see less heralded true freshman Greg Gaines listed above him on this week’s depth chart. That may be as much about Gaines having a bigger body as anything to do with their performance. Both have good to great potential, but there will be a noticeable drop-off when Shelton leaves the field.

Completing the line are the Hudson brothers (not really brothers) Evan and Andrew. Both are cool stories. Evan was a walk-on from Bothell who started out at TE. Last year they moved him to the line, and he started most of the year as a big end/smallish tackle. I kind of think of him as playing a similar role to what Red Bryant did for the Seahawks, where he did more to hold the edge or occupy guys than make plays in the backfield. That said, I have no idea what his role will be this year, or what kind of upside he still has in him. He could become a star or lose his job to a younger guy and I wouldn’t be surprised. Andrew Hudson was a starter early in his career before rarely seeing the field last year, leading the old staff to decide it was time for him to move on. Peterson had other thoughts and invited him back, and now he’s slated to start. He never showed a huge amount of explosiveness, but he used to be a serviceable starter. No idea what he’ll do this year. LIke at tackle, the depth here is talented but young. I’d feel better about guys like Jojo Mathis, Jarrett Finau and Psalm Wooching seeing the field, though. They’ve at least gotten their feet wet, and there are some interesting skills there.

Linebacker

This could be as good as any backer group in the conference. John Timu is finally a senior and has developed into a dependable leader in the middle. He’s not an elite athlete, but he makes up for it with great instincts and a nose for the ball. Shaq Thompson has not quite delivered on his talent and athleticism, which isn’t to say he hasn’t been excellent. He has. He just has so much potential, that anything short of a dominant year would be a bit of a disappointment. Maybe that’s not fair, but he’s capable. The third spot is a bit undecided, but it’s not for a lack of good options. At times, Travis Feeney has looked like the best backer on the roster. He’s listed as a co-starter with RS freshman Keishawn Bierria. Both are lighter guys who can cover ground and be effective in pass protection. Bierria’s fellow RS freshmen Azeem Victor and Sean Constantine are in the depth and should see time. Victor in particular is developing a rep as a big hitter and could become a fan favorite before long. Scott Lawyer is the long experienced reserve besides Cory Littleton, who’s become a bit of a forgotten man with some minor injuries in camp. I don’t know if he’ll serve as more a linebacker or a rusher, but he should make his presence felt at some point.

Secondary

If there’s one area that could hold the team back (other than QB), it could be the secondary. UW is replacing 3 of 4 starters along with some key reserves, and all of the contenders for those spots are young. Luckily, the one returning starter is CB Marcus Peters, and he’s one of the best in the country. Peters is the latest and maybe the best in the Dawgs’ recent run of excellent corners. If he has the season everyone expects, he’ll likely go pro and be picked in the top round or two. Opposite him, RSFr. Jermaine Kelly looks to be the guy. He’s a tremendous athlete who’s received nothing but raves since he showed up on the recruiting radar. He’ll likely have some growing pains at times, but I expect him to look like the Huskies’ next star corner by the end of the year. Depth will come from senior Travell Dixon, who seems to have responded well to the coaching change, and some true freshman. Naijiel Hale and Sidney Jones are first up, and both have the talent to excel. Whether they can do so this year is the question.

Safety is replacing both spots, but it has a bit more returning talent. Of course, the guy turning heads is true freshman Budda Baker from Bellevue. He brings a small body but elite speed and football instincts. He’s slated to start opening night, and he should be the most exciting Husky freshman since Shaq. Opposite him at strong safety is Brandon Beaver. He was a touted recruit who didn’t play much last season, but he’s still only a sophomore. Behind him are two sophomores who saw lots of time as true freshman last year, Kevin King and Trevor Walker. Both played well at time last year. Expect to see all four of these guys on the field in different coverages and as the coaches try to find the right combinations.

Special Teams

UW lost do-everything kicker Travis Coons, so these spots are a little unsettled. Cameron Van Winkle has recovered from back issues to take the lead for field goal duty, and he and Tristan Vizcaino will handle kick-offs. Kory Durkee gets first crack at punter. He has a huge leg but has struggled previously with consistency and getting his kicks off.

John Ross returns as the kick returner, where he’s a threat to break one every time. Budda backs him up and has similar potential. Jaydon Mickens gets the call to return punts. UW hasn’t received much production there, but Mickens and others have the skills to be effective.

Go Dawgs!

-Matthew

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Washington-Illinois Review

The Dawgs moved to 2-0 on Saturday night against a feisty Illinois team.  From the get go it was obvious that U-Dub was the better team but the game was in doubt as late as the fourth quarter.  If you’re reading this, you probably have already read/watched/heard about the game so I’m not going to tell you what happened.  I’ll just add a few notes here and there and move on to this week.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a replay on TV (with it being on the Big-10 Network) and I’m not sure I want to hear those announcers for another 3 hours anyway.  In other words, I’m not going to do quite the breakdown I did against Boise.  I’ve made this weird little outline that pretty much encapsulates the main notes I have on the game.  Enjoy!

Distractions:  First, this trip seemed a little hectic for the Huskies.  On the radio show today, Sark said their bus showed up late at the airport when they landed.  He also mentioned that Northwestern University (their mascot is the Wildcats, if you need any more proof that they are stupid) cancelled on letting the Huskies having a walk-through on their field.  This led to the Dawgs having a practice in a large, public park in downtown Chicago.

Dumber Distractions:  Then, the officials happened.  Yes, the Huskies committed too many penalties, without a doubt.  The Huskies ended with 12 penalties for 104 yards.  I can remember 4 or 5 penalties I don’t particularly agree with.  ASJ was called for holding without touching anyone.  Danny Shelton was called for a late hit on a guy that was still in-bounds (although he did launch himself, this will usually be a penalty).  Jaydon Mickens was called for a late hit and was shown walking around while the player was being tackled, so I don’t know how it could be a late hit.  Josh Shirley was called for a roughing the passer penalty because he was pushed into the quarterback and his arm touched him.  There were a few other holding penalties that didn’t seem quite right.  If you take away just three of the four penalties I mentioned, the yardage is down to about 70 yards.  That’s not good but it’s not nearly as crippling, obviously.

Dumbest Distractions:  The Huskies also fought off a number of trick plays.  There was around ten trick plays the Illini tried.  Most of them worked for about ten yards.  One led to a big first down on a pivotal play and went for about 40 yards.  Other than that, the Huskies survived.  I hate those plays.  Not as much as my fellow Good Guys hate them but I can’t stand them.  It seemed fitting that the Huskies pretty much ended the game by intercepting a double pass.

The Real Story:  When you take into account and consider these first three points, the Huskies really dominated the game.  The offense racked up over 600 yards, led by a running back who should be considered for the Heisman Trophy.  The defense played fast in the first half and looked like the same team that played against Boise.  They had their lapses (more on those in a minute) but they dominated a team that played with a lot of confidence and tenacity.

Cause For Concern – Offense:  As I said, there were lapses on both sides of the ball.  First the offense.  In the Red Zone, the Huskies settled for field goals twice.  At the end of the half, the Huskies drove down into the red zone before stalling there.  The drive ended because of some really questionable play calling.  There was no running plays once the team got in there even though they had all their time-outs and there was plenty of time on the clock.  The other drive that resulted in a field goal ended similarly.  I know Kasen and ASJ are great Red Zone weapons but right now Sankey is our best weapon.  He needs the ball no matter where we are on the field.  I think Sark will remedy this problem but it’s something to be aware of.

Another Cause for Concern – Offense:  After really impressing in the opener, Dwayne Washington really struggled on Saturday.  He had 2 carries and 2 fumbles.  Not exactly the ratio you want.  Dwayne will get it right, but it was a tough day for the freshman and the Huskies need him to be effective as the season goes on.

Cause for Concern – Defense:  The big plays that were prevented against Boise came against Illinois.  The defense had a few blown coverages and Ducre was burnt for one long touchdown.  That touchdown kept Illinois in the game when it looked like the Huskies were about to put it away completely.  After being so sound defensively in the opener, the Huskies need to clean up some assignments and their mental game to prevent the big play.

Another Darn Cause for Concern – Defense:  In the second half, John Timu sat out because of a shoulder injury.  It is expected that he’ll be able to return, if not this week, next week.  It was apparent that Timu is very important to the defense.  In the second half, Illinois moved the ball pretty well and often ran right up the middle.  The defensive line got pushed around a little bit and the linebackers weren’t as effective because of that.  I’m curious to see if power teams will have success running right at us, even with Timu in.

Lots of Offensive Good News – Now that we have the lowlights out-of-the-way, let’s get to the good stuff.  The whole offense played really well.  I’ll just go position by position here.  Price played a great game.  He was very accurate and made good decisions.  He made a few really good plays and otherwise simply controlled the game.  At running back, Bishop Sankey was the star.  The guy is on fire and might be the best player on the team, right now.  Jesse Callier had a great return and added a few huge plays.  The receivers weren’t quite as good as the opener but were still dynamic and exciting.  Mickens and Smith continue to look fantastic.  I expect a big game from Kasen soon, as he seems to catch the ball every time it’s been thrown at him ASJ looked a little tired and didn’t perform his best.  He was on the field for over 80 snaps, which probably wasn’t the best move for his first game.  The offensive line had one of the best games in recent memory.  They gave Keith sufficient time and dominated the line of scrimmage.  Price was sacked twice but one of those he literally ran to the defender on his right and made sure he was tackled by him.  It was as weird as it sounds.

Don’t Get Defensive, There’s More Good News!  While the defensive came out to be the weaker link this week, they still did plenty of things right.  On the defensive line, Shirley had maybe the best game of his career.  He recorded three sacks, but what I think is more impressive is his two tackles for a loss.  Shirley has been called a liability against the run but he proved to be solid against it on Saturday.  Danny Shelton is not putting up numbers but the defense is noticeably worse when he’s taking a rest.  Hau’oli Kikaha continues to get better and better.  The rest of the D-line was so-so and many of the pressures were due to good coverage.  The linebackers looked very quick in the first half and were often in good position to make plays.  Their tackling, again, wasn’t the best but they are still one of the best groups on the team.  Timu truly makes a huge difference.  The secondary has played really well so far.  Ducre gave up the touchdown, but that was a great play by the offense, and then came back and sealed the game with an interception.  There were a few more blown coverages but the man-to-man defense was great.

Review and Preview:  All in all, it was a great victory by the Dawgs.  After the horror of the Apple Cup last year, the team didn’t buckle when Illinois made a run at them.  The Huskies toughened up when they needed to and ultimately dominated the game statistically.  As they move ahead they get an easy game this week against Idaho State and a home conference opener against Arizona.  The Huskies should be 3-0 and about to breach the top 15 by the time they open Pac-12 play.  It’s been too long since we’ve gotten to say that.

Until next time, go Dawgs!

Scott Lawyer!!

Scott Lawyer!!

– Andrew

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Keys to a Breakout

Steve Sarkisian has done a solid job of transforming the Huskies from a winless and destitute program into a perfectly average squad.  They’ve won seven games for three straight years, marking 2013 as the time to step past average.  Realizing that it’s time for this to happen is easy, but actually accomplishing it is not.

While it’s not easy for bad teams to get back to mediocre or average, it’s also not terribly difficult.  When a team is terrible, especially as bad as the 2008 Huskies were, there are so many areas for improvement.  If every area of the team is bad, each area improved brings the team up.  The players brought in don’t have to be amazing, they just have to be better than the bad ones they’re replacing.  Often, just the change in coaching or attitude summons improvement from the holdovers.  Improving from terrible is not that hard.

Improving from average to good or great is hard.  Becoming good and then great requires good and great players, and unsurprisingly, those players are a lot harder to find.  Sometimes, coaching can elevate average players, and sometimes offensive or defensive schemes can neutralize talent disparities.  Most often, a team just needs to find better talent and better athletes.  Talent often underachieves, but poor talent rarely beats elite talent.  It’s just the way it is. Continue reading

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Looking at the Dawgs – Defense

A few days ago, I wrote about the probable starters and depth on the Huskies offense.  Today, we move over to the defense.

This picture is too pretty to leave out of this post.

This picture is too pretty to leave out of this post.

Defensive Overview: Heading into 2012, expectations weren’t exactly high for the defense.  They had just come off one of the worst seasons in school history (statistically) and even a decent jump in performance wouldn’t put them at average.  The change of the defensive coaching staff was sure to be an upgrade but how much was hard to predict.

The season started, and the offense sputtered.  Thankfully, Wilcox, and staff, performed a minor miracle and transformed the Husky defense to slightly above-average and in the top half of Pac-12 defenses.  They led the team to wins against San Diego State, Stanford and Oregon State.  The defense was led by a lockdown corner in Desmond Trufant and a slew of young linebackers in Travis Feeney, Shaq Thompson, and John Timu.

Heading into 2013, it’s still a little strange to think of the defense as a strength but it appears to be just that.  I don’t know if the unit as a whole will be way ahead of the offense but they should at least be equals to the other side of the ball.  While the offenses switch to a hurry-up offense was to benefit themselves, I do think the defense will reap benefits, as well. The defense has struggled against fast-paced spread teams for the last 10 years.  Practicing against the fast-paced can not hurt.  Also, the coaching staff has recruited a different type of athlete that’s leaning towards a longer, faster player (just look at the linebackers).

There are certainly questions on this side of the ball, but for now the positives outweigh them.  The D is young, fast, and physical and I’m excited to see what they could do this season.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the best defense Washington has had in over a decade.

On to the positions.

Defensive Line:
Starters – DE Andrew Hudson (RJr.), DT Danny Shelton (Jr.), DE Evan Hudson (RJr.), RE Josh Shirley (RJr.)/Corey Littleton (So.)/Hau’oli Kikaha (RJr.)
Andrew Hudson and Shelton have been mainstays on the line for the last few years and have performed admirably.  Andrew is more of your typical D. end in that he’s a little longer, isn’t quite as heavy and excels in rushing the passer.  Shelton probably has the most potential of any guy on the line (especially if you don’t consider the true freshmen).  He was solid last season in his starting spot but has had the breakout that fans and coaches have hoped for.  He should be a force in the middle and his penetration will be a key in stop the run game.  Evan Hudson is a converted tight end who looks like he’s set to start next to Shelton.   The position is listed as a defensive end because the team runs a bit of a 3-4 defense but really Hudson is almost like a defensive tackle as well.  He’s another tall guy who weighs in at 280.  Maybe the defensive line was in such bad shape that they need Evan to start or maybe he truly is that talented on this side of the ball.  I’m guessing it’s a mix of both but I do feel a bit uneasy about him coming in and starting right away.  The rush end spot is up for grabs with Josh Shirley, Corey Littleton, and Hau’oli Kikaha (formerly Hau’oli Jamora) all battling for the starting spot.  Shirley has been a very one-dimensional player in the past in always just trying to speed rush right past the tackle.  With that being said, he is probably the best pass rusher the Huskies have and could challenge for double-digit sacks this year.  Littleton saw a few games last season as a true freshman and played about how you’d expect a freshman on the line to play.  He’s said to be much improved in practice and may have been playing in front of Shirley at times during the camp.  Hau’oli has suffered 2 straight ACL tears in the last 2 seasons and has battled back to have an impressive Fall Camp.  Before the tears, he was one of the Huskies best defensive players.  If he can get to that level, the Huskies pass rush will definitely be a much stronger force.  The rush end position is one of the more intriguing spots on the team with three talented guys at one position.  I will be excited to watch it play out over the season
The Depth – DE Joe Mathis (Fr.), DT Sione Potoa’e (Sr.), Lawrence Lagafuaina (RJr.), DT Josh Banks (Sr.), DT Drew Schultz (RJr.), DE Connor Cree (RSo.), DE Jarrett Finau (RSo.), DT Elijah Qualls (Fr.), Damion Turpin (RFr.), DT Taniela Tupou (RSo.), DE Marcus Farria (Fr.)
The depth on the D-line is slowly improving during Sark’s tenure.  This group of players could look really good in a year or two but for now there are a few decent guys and then question marks.  Joe Mathis, a freshman, is challenging for a starting spot and will probably play this year.  If he doesn’t redshirt, which is highly unlikely, expect to see him on the field quite a bit.  Potoa’e, Banks, and Schultz have all played enough defensive tackle to feel okay about.  Potoa’e was a very impressive recruit but has never reached his, thought to be, potential.  Lagafuaina tore his ACL last year and is still getting up to speed, but when he’s in the game he takes up a lot of space in the middle.  Cree and Finau saw limited action last year and provide decent depth.  Qualls may or may not redshirt but he was a heralded recruit.  The other guys might get some action in the game but have figured in to the rotation as prominently as the guys I have listed above them.  Farria will probably redshirt.

Linebackers:
Starters – OLB Shaq Thompson (So.), MLB John Timu (Jr.), OLB Travis Feeney (RSo.)
On paper, this is easily the best position group on the team.  They are quick, young and physical.  They close fast to the ball and could be the best position group the team has had in years.  In my last post, I said ASJ was the best player the Huskies have had in at least a decade.  By the end of Thompson’s career here, he could hold that title.  Shaq is incredibly talented, bringing a mix of speed and size that you don’t see often.  He could be an All-American by the end of the season.  Timu continues to grow and improve.  He was very impressive in a few games last year draws rave reviews from the coaching staff for his intelligence.  Timu did struggle against power teams last year and I wonder if that has improved this season. As good as the other two were last year, Feeney may have been the best linebacker on the team.  He also has great speed and loves to hit people.  All of these guys were safeties in high school and you can see that athleticism in their linebacking.  The only concern is against the power teams of the world.
The Depth:  Princeton Fuimaono (Sr.), Thomas Tutogi (Sr.), Jamaal Kearse (RJr.), Scott Lawyer (RSo.), Connor O’Brien (Fr.), Azeem Victor (Fr.), Keishawn Bierria (Fr.), Sean Constantine (Fr.)
The depth helps make this position the best on the team.  Fuimaono has been challenging Feeney for his starting spot and will be the first guy off the bench as a linebacker.  Princeton can probably play both outside linebacker positions.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see a package where the three starting linebackers are on the field with Fuimaono.  This coaching staff is pretty good at getting their best players on the field.  Tutogi proved to be a valuable piece of the puzzle last year at middle linebacker.  He played quite a bit against the power teams and was a very physical force.  I’m curious to see if he’ll play in Timu’s spot against power teams on running downs.  I expect to see a lot of Tutogi and Fuimaono on the field plenty this year. Kearse has had an interesting career and is a very capable backup.  He’s started a few games in his career and come up with some big plays.  Lawyer has impressed people in camp and will start to see a lot of time come next year.  He’ll play on special teams quite a bit this year.  I’m hoping all of the freshmen get to redshirt but some may have to be used on special teams.  They’re an impressive group with a lot of size.   Continue reading

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