Coach's Corner

One of the problems of playing 18 and 19-year old freshmen is that often times they break down physically, especially in the shoulders. It's usually because they haven't developed the tendon strength necessary to withstand the big hits that come with stepping up to the college level.

Such is the case again this spring when no less than five true freshmen will be eased through contact drills following off-season shoulder repairs.

Cornerback Gregory Ducre, safety Taz Stevenson, and linebackers Princeton Fuimaono and Cooper Pelluer are all going through post-season rehabilitation due to surgery to repair their shoulders. Add another true freshman, safety Sean Parker, who was plagued by a stinger or pinched nerve, and that's five kids who will not be going full-contact in this their first - and most important - set of spring drills.

These five all lettered as true freshmen and would have been poised to contend for starting positions, especially with the graduation of linebackers, Mason Foster, Victor Aiyewa, and safety Nate Williams. Those three were the leading tacklers on the team last year, and their replacements will be critical to the success of next year's Husky defense.

Now most of these players will be involved in non-contact drills, but regardless, their injuries will rob them of the important reps they would normally receive in live drills. Football is all about hitting on the defensive side of the ball, and the best and most important practices you can do are those that are live. That's the way the game is played, and not getting to tackle on defense is akin to not getting to block on offense.

Unfortunately, these five will be joined by four defensive veterans, because Talia Crichton (knee), Chris Robinson (knee), Semisi Tokolahi (broken ankle), and now cornerback Adam Long who suffered an ACL tear in winter workouts, will likewise be missing all contact drills. That's nine players on the defense, and all of them had lettered and all were in the depth last year. Oh well, better to miss spring rather then fall camp.

None of these players are really good enough yet to be missing these important 15 practices, though all will be counted on to be in the depth come fall. Remember that Aiyewa sat out all of last spring, and still led the conference in tackles for loss.

You are only as good as your depth; it especially impacts your special teams. Most of these injured freshmen gained their spurs playing on special teams, and it is hard to practice that aspect of the game without at least fitting up returns. Weak shoulders effect their ability to block on punts, much less tackle in coverage.

Crichton, Tokolahi, and Robinson are all front players, and it is almost impossible to practice along the lines without contact. Tokolahi really made a difference at the end of last season. His dislocated and fractured ankle, suffered during the Apple Cup, will take him out of almost everything, but he more than proved he is capable of playing the three technique or outside shade of the offensive guard.

Tokolahi is actually the only returning starter amongst all of these players, and he will certainly bolster the depth with his return in August.

Personally, I really liked Fuimaono's feet and reactions as a first year linebacker, and he caused a big fumble versus Nebraska. He was definitely in the mix to replace Foster before his required surgery.

Pelluer, who played almost exclusively on special teams, showed some great range and has a frame to end up 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds. He would have been right there in the competition to replace Aiyewa.

With these two missing, that means there will be extra reps given to junior college transfer Thomas Tutogi, and that should prove beneficial for his development. He is really a "MIK" or middle linebacker, and currently Cort Dennison plays that position.

With Fuimaono missing from the competition, it wouldn't be surprising to see Cort move over to Mason's spot and give Tutogi a chance to prove himself in the middle. Regardless, Fuimaono and Pelluer both really needed this spring to make their slide up the depth chart, all of which helps Tutogi's chances of moving up.

Missing spring will certainly give the other linebackers, like Garret Gilliland - who started against Nebraska - a chance to move by them in the rotation. It wouldn't surprise me to see incoming freshman Jarett Finau get right into the mix.

Finau played as an outside linebacker/defensive end at Juanita High, and is already 6-foot-3.5 and 235 pounds. He looks to me to be a natural at the outside linebacker spot that Aiyewa manned. He is already physically bigger than most of the others but has a major learning curve ahead of him. His speed and quickness will be the biggest questions, but physically he looks like he can compete.

Tutogi has already played a year of junior college ball, and that should help him move up. He also has a brother who plays for Arizona, which means he already has a good idea of what it takes to play at this level.

Tutogi enrolled winter quarter and was joined by Fuimaono's high school teammate, John Timu, who also entered winter as a greyshirt true freshman. Timu, who played safety at Long Beach Jordan, was also a quarterback and is an excellent athlete. He has put on 20-plus pounds and is a good enough football player to get into the mix as a linebacker at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds.

There is also the possibility that Josh Shirley, who worked almost exclusively at defensive end last fall, could be tried at the outside linebacker spot too. Still, all of the newcomers like Tutogi, Timu, and Finau will be new to everything and will enter spring behind the others in knowledge of the system. That is precisely why playing Aiyewa as a true freshman was an obvious mistake; he should be returning this spring as a red-shirt senior and an all-conference player. So it goes.

Victor Burnett and Jamaal Kearse both red-shirted as linebackers and they, along with Tim Tucker, know this is the time to make their move. All three still appear raw to me as linebacker prospects, but that's what spring is all about. They need to take advantage of the reps and prove they are capable of contributing. This spring is big for them.

Both Parker and Stevenson looked like they would be the primary competition to replace Nate Williams, and now they must watch as others get a chance to move by them in the depth. Veteran safeties like Greg Walker and Justin Glenn will contend with Will Shamburger to play next to Nate Fellner on the back end of the defense.

Fellner looks like a lock to start again, especially after last season when he proved his hitting ability and led the team in interceptions at the free safety position. Heck, if Fellner had better hands he probably would have led the conference in picks, but his leadership will be a key in the development of other players in the secondary.

I was really high on Shamburger last spring but he was used sparingly during the season. He did come on during bowl practices. Both Walker and Glenn have played, and even started in the past, so they will definitely be trying to re-establish themselves this spring.

There are three other incoming true freshmen who could help next fall at safety, but the return of Stevenson and Parker may allow them to be red-shirted. James Sample, Travis Feeney, and Evan Zeger are all rangy looking kids, but they won't be here this spring.

With two safeties and two corners out, the Husky secondary will really lose much of the depth they had build up during last season. Long is a proven backup and past starter on the corner, and Ducre showed some great skill as the season progressed.

Ducre, like Stevenson and Parker, was a true freshman in 2010, and when you have to play true freshmen, it's always a gamble. Unfortunately, shoulder surgery also takes him out of any off-season heavy lifting, and that sets back their long-range development. Still, the depth the UW defensive staff inherited more or less forced them to play many of these youngsters.

Strength training works on both the tendons and the muscles, and the shoulder socket is one of the most important joints when it comes to tackling. That doesn't even include the collar bone and chest areas, all of which absorb blows from form tackling.

The Huskies definitely addressed their linebacker and safety needs with this last recruiting class by bringing in as many as eight players who could help in those areas. Regardless, most of those players could really use a year in the weight room to help them prevent the injuries suffered by some of last year's true freshmen. When Washington can get back to red-shirting most of each class, you will see a correlation between shoulder injury reduction and physical development.

Unfortunately there will be nine kids on the Husky defense missing for this spring, and that hurts them but it also gives the other kids a chance to move up. Injuries are simply part of the game and depth is the answer. Red-shirting helps most in the physical development of your players, and then in the development of your depth.

Depth is also most important on your special teams, and most of the missing players will not be able to work on what got them on the field in the first place. Unfortunately special teams is also an area that needs to improve for the Huskies to contend for a championship.

From a coaching standpoint, it is what it is, and you are who you are. You can't change that and can only try to get the players you have better. This spring will still be critical in their climb to a championship and hopefully all the players sitting out the heavy hitting this spring return healthy and ready to go come August.


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