Defensively sound

I WAS MAKING my way through the crowd at a gathering this weekend. The wives and girlfriends were talking about something they saw on <i>The View</i>. Check, please. A couple of Husky fans were talking about their favorite aerosol cheese or something. Figures. Thankfully, I ran into some fellow Cougar alums and we started talking football. I was surprised at some of their mild expectations for the 2003 season. Bollocks, I said. Do you have any idea how good we're going to be this year?

I recently went back and watched tape of five games from last year.  (What do you mean I should seek therapy?  Doesn't everybody break down tape from WSU-USC in February?)  And I came to one inescapable conclusion:  We're not only going to be good. We're going to be very good. 


But the defense, my fellow Cougars lamented.  Rien Long, Marcus Trufant and Mawuli Davis – all gone!  That's a huge loss to the line, the secondary and the linebacking corps.


True.  But Tai Tupai didn't play much in ‘02, due to injuries, which in turn led to weight issues.  Well, he's been frequently spotted in the weight room this off-season, working his tail off.  He's not just looking to reclaim his starting spot.  He's looking to dominate, as is Jeremey Williams. Listed behind Tupai at the start of the campaign, Williams reached out and touched excellence at times last year.  He's well capable of doing it consistently.  And their tackle-mate, Steve Cook, has all the tools and should come in hungry. 


And the ends aren't looking too shabby, either. D.D. Acholonu played well last year as well, but didn't meet some of the goals he had set for himself going in.  He's looking to take it to the next level.  Isaac Brown flourished last year.  But what if he actually improves this season?  Look out.  And then there's Adam Braidwood.  The true freshman gave us all a glimpse of what greatness looks like when it first surfaces.  I absolutely can't wait to see him play this year.


I was just getting started on the d-line when they interrupted me to again point out losing Mawuli at linebacker. 


So lets talk about that.  Do you remember just before Nevada how the media said our linebacking corps was the weakest link?  Right.  How'd that work out?  Will Derting played in only 8 games last year, 7 if you don't count the Rose Bowl when he suffered a concussion early on.  But when healthy, his play could only be described as stellar.  And if he stays relatively injury free, he could be listed among the nation's best this year – he's that good. 


Kevin Sperry had a season like D.D.'s, he played well but probably expected more of himself.  After a year of Pac-10 experience under his belt, look for him to take his game up a notch.


And consider Mawuli for a moment.  Before the season, he was an afterthought; ‘that walk-on who transferred from New Mexico State'.  By the end of the season, he was one of our best defensive players.  My point is he seemingly came out of nowhere.  We always have guys like that.  So who does it this year?  Or perhaps our next great linebacker doesn't come out of nowhere - maybe he's one of those guys who suddenly goes from being solid to becoming a difference-maker.  Al Genatone? Don Jackson?  Pat Bennett?  Aaron Wagner?  Spring drills and practices might give us a pretty good idea.


But Marcus is gone, they said, and that's huge.  And while our safeties looked good at times, there were also times they didn't play that well. 


Yes, Marcus will be missed, both on and off the field.  But remember that Karl Paymah looked very good filling in last year – and he played in 12 games.  Even after Jason David came back, Paymah earned significant playing time.  I think we've only scratched the surface of what he's capable of. And given a full season, David might just challenge Lamont Thompson's interception record.


The safeties?  Yes, we need them to step up their play from last year.  But remember we were replacing 2 great safeties at the same time last year when Thompson and Billy Newman graduated.  Hamza Abdullah, Jeremy "Bomber" Bohannon and Aaron Joseph will all benefit from the experience they gained.  And Erik Coleman can be every bit as good as Lamont was. After watching game tape, there were many more times than I originally thought where the safeties, Coleman especially, did a great job of run support.  Virgil Williams looks like he's got one more year of eligibility, and this might be the year he truly shines.  And another vital point - if our defensive line plays like I believe they will, the benefit to the secondary will be tremendous. 


Those Husky fans jumped in at this point, seriously doubting our chances with a new coaching staff.  Resisting the urge to cuff them about the head and shoulders, I explained one more reason why our safeties are going to show marked improvement:  The coaching staff.


On the defensive side we've got Robb Akey, Leon Burtnett, Ken Greene and Mike Walker.  What really jumps out at you about this group is not only can they can flat-out coach, they're also some of the best teachers in the game.  Oh, and we've also got this other guy that knows a little something about defense.  His name is Bill Doba. 


And I hadn't even factored in any of the recruits yet.  We'll have to see who redshirts this year and that everyone has their academic house in order.  But if I had to pick one recruit to watch at this early date, it would be Jon Conlin.  Everything about him leads me to believe he is going to make an impact in the same way Braidwood did last year. And keep a close on eye on some other names already on the defensive roster, like Brian Boyer, Don Turner, and Alex Teems.


But here's the thing: Defensively, we're not only going to be good, we're going to be very good.  Buy in.


Next up:  Expectations, Part II: The Offense


Barry Bolton is a 1989 graduate of Washington State University. He resides in Seattle.

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