Keys to success - Defense

Washington will need to find a replacement for Mason Foster, perhaps the best defensive player in the Pac-10 last season. Husky fans will finally have an idea of just how dependable and valuable he was now that he's gone. Replacing him is one of five keys to how successful this Washington defense will be in 2011.

1) The play at linebacker has to pass the test.
How defensive coordinator Nick Holt schemes for the loss of Foster and utilizes the guys in his rotation will have a huge bearing on how good of a stopping unit the Huskies will put out onto the field in 2011. Mason Foster had 163 tackles last year, the most since James Clifford had 168 to lead the Pac-10 back in 1989. Mason amassed 378 tackles in his four years, and he will be missed no matter how you spin it.

Cort Dennison will try to utilize his high football IQ and knowledge of the defensive sets to offset the loss of Foster. Dennison is a different type of player than Mason was, but he is efficient. His 93 tackles was third on last year's team. Expect that number to go up. He is the undisputed captain of the defense, and although not as fast or strong as Foster was, he should prove to be a solid inside linebacker. It will be his second year anchoring the middle for UW, so Cort is only getting better.

Dennison's play allows Holt to move Garret Gililand into one outside linebacker spot. The true sophomore started one game for Dennison last year, and it happened to be the Nebraska game in Seattle. That was a rough way for Gilliland to start his Pac-12 career, but he'll be better for it in 2011. Gilliland is undersized, but very quick and a sure tackler. He appears to be ahead of Jordan Wallace and John Timu at this point, but both Wallace and Timu are a bit bigger and may push for time. Timu, in particular, looks like a beast, and can play either the strong or weak-side spot. He is basically a 225-pound safety learning the linebacker position. Timu may remind some of Victor Aiyewa in that way, and if he can even have half the productivity of last year's Pac-10 tackles for loss leader, he'll be well on his way.

The other spot will go to either Princeton Fuimaono or Jamaal Kearse. Fuimaono impressed last year as a true freshman, but is pretty small. Kearse has the size you like to see at linebacker, and he moves his 230 pounds around very well. At the end of spring I felt that Kearse was close to taking over the starting role. Cooper Pelluer may figure into the rotation as well.

As you can see, there are a lot of guys here with little to no experience. One mistake by an outside linebacker in a crucial sequence can cost you a game. The play at linebacker needs to be solid in order for Holt's charges to be successful.
2) The cornerbacks must be more consistent.
Washington has two extremely skilled and experienced cornerbacks in senior Quinton Richardson and junior Desmond Trufant, but their careers have seen both good times and bad. Richardson was in such a funk that he was actually benched for a while last year. He finished the year on a tear and was probably Washington's best playmaker with the ball in the air. Trufant was also spotty at times last year, suffering somewhat of a sophomore jinx. Both will be counted on to provide some sticky man coverage so the rest of the defense can play tighter defined zones or flood other zones with mismatches (blitzes).

Richardson co-lead the team (along with Nate Fellner) in 2010 with eight passes broken up, and had two interceptions. Look for that picks number to grow in 2011. Trufant is a solid tackler and must now show that he can lock down the boundary corner with vigor, and shut that side of the field down.

Behind those two is a host of youth, as only Gregory Ducre and Adam Long have any real game experience, and Long won't be available in 2011 due to an off-season knee injury. Ducre is speedy, but not very big. Anthony Gobern and Marquis Persley had solid springs backing up Richardson and Trufant, but how much will the coaches trust them in key situations? If a young corner like Marcus Peters can show up with the proper tool set to go with a proper mind set, it would make the depth situation a little more tolerable. As it stands now, the drop off behind Trufant and Richardson is considerable, save for Ducre - but he's still very young.
3) The defensive line needs to own the line of scrimmage.
This falls into the "Duh, Dawgman!" category, but I'd like to clarify just a bit: The defensive line that played Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl needs to be on the field in 2011, not the one that got absolutely abused in Husky Stadium by that same Cornhusker team.

Alameda Ta'amu needs to be the guy that commands double teams, allowing Sione Potoa'e to realize his vast potential. Potoa'e has had some troublesome knee issues nagging him this off-season, so incoming freshman Danny Shelton will need to play right away. Luckily, Shelton's body is already Pac-12 ready, as he comes to Montlake already one of the strongest guys on the defense. Larry Lagafuaina might help some inside as well, but I have to believe that Shelton is the guy that Holt is most excited to add to the mix. I'm not sure how much to expect from Semisi Tokolahi this year, as he still rehabs his leg.

If Ta'amu plays up to what he was doing the final three contests of the year, and if Potoa'e and Shelton can compliment his play with stout trench warfare of their own, it will go a long ways in helping the young linebackers gel and develop. That's a lot of if's, but it's possible.

At the defensive end position, look for a big year from senior Everrette Thompson, who should finally be 100 percent healthy. He played at 238 pounds last year, and should be closer to 260 for the Eastern Washington opener. Hau'oli Jamora will man the other side, and should also be considerably bigger than the 235 pounds he carried last season. Those two make a formidable bookend pair on the line of scrimmage. Thompson will defend the strong (tight end) side, while Jamora will wreak havoc on the weak side. Talia Crichton and Andrew Hudson provide solid depth. Crichton is finally healthy, while Hudson is slowly budding into a beast.

The wild card here is pass rush specialist Josh Shirley, a 225-pound wrecking machine who bench presses well over 400 pounds and can run like a deer. He adds a new dimension to the defense.
4. A young safety must emerge.
Fellner will be the stalwart at free safety. He's earned it, and his five interceptions show what a nose for the football the Fresno native has. Next to him the Huskies will go with fellow ball-hawker Sean Parker, a 200-pounder whose hits belie his smallish size. Parker needs to now show that he can be trusted on the field for every down. If he cannot, Taz Stevenson is poised to make a run for playing time there. Stevenson is the speediest of the safeties and had a big spring.

Still, someone must step up and provide consistent play at the strong safety position. Will Shamburger may also figure in that mix. One bad angle by that position can turn an 8-yard rushing play into a 70-yard touchdown. Just ask Taylor Martinez.

If Parker or Stevenson can't lock it down, incoming freshman James Sample might be next in line. Sample is bigger than either Parker or Stevenson, and man can this kid pack a wallop. He will probably carry close to 210 or 215 pounds on his frame in short order. His neck is huge. I think he is a future star in the Husky secondary.
5. The defense now must force the action.
For perhaps the first time since Holt arrived, they can play the type of defense that he has always envisioned. In theory, it will be a more attacking, force-the-offense-to-change-what-they-are-doing type of scheme. The coaches wanted to try it earlier, but they never quite trusted the personnel they had on the field to employ it with much enthusiasm or optimism. Instead, they went to more passive zone type of schemes based on reading and reacting. The idea was to limit the bleeding until help would arrive.

Now, their guys are on the field - guys that they recruited to play their defense now inherit those roles. And now is the time for Holt to pin their ears back and turn them loose. Armed with experience in the trenches, two solid corners in the secondary, a free safety that showed capable of big interceptions, and a middle linebacker they trust implicitly, Holt should show no reticence.

He should put his foot down on the accelerator and drive his car into the red.

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