Post-Spring Review: Safety

When it comes to Washington's defense and what UW fans can expect from it in 2011, one thing became clear during the spring; the Huskies have some very good safeties, and more appear to be on the way. The departure of senior Nate Williams will definitely be felt, but they seem to have a player back there ready-made to pick up the mantle of leadership and carry it forward.

Nate Fellner, a true junior, did nothing this spring to dissuade me from believing he's a force to be reckoned with in the new Pac-12. Fellner, a 6-foot-1, 201-pounder from Fresno - the grandson of former Washington State Head Coach Jim Sweeney - has shown that bloodlines can indeed be a difference-maker. He had five picks in 2010, starting all 13 games at free safety. He had 52 solo tackles - more than MIK Cort Dennison - and went from a player the UW coaches weren't even sure about bringing in right away as a true freshman, to an indispensable part of their future.

Fellner's hit of Carl Winston during the 2009 Apple Cup became an iconic play, symbolizing the move away from the passivity of Tyrone Willingham to a new day and a new way of doing business under Steve Sarkisian.

A closer look at the 2008 safety situation at Washington underscored how quickly the Huskies' fortunes have turned under Sarkisian. At the free safety position, it was all Nate Williams, who was second on the team in total tackles, behind Mason Foster.

The strong safety position was a Ted Nugent-sized free-for-all; four players started games during their awful 0-12 campaign - Darin Harris, Johri Fogerson, Tripper Johnson, and Victor Aiyewa. By 2009, Harris had graduated, Fogerson had switched to offense by the fall, Johnson was gone, and Aiyewa was pushed to SAM a year later, where he promptly led the Pac-10 in tackles for loss. Alvin Logan, who had moved to the secondary from receiver in 2009, moved up to linebacker but the switch never stuck. He finally had to give up the game due to bad knees in 2010.

Here was UW's post-spring safety depth chart in 2009:

Free Safety
Greg Walker (RFr.) OR
Johri Fogerson (So.)
Alvin Logan (So.)

Strong Safety
Nate Williams (Jr.)
Victor Aiyewa (Jr.)

Jump forward to the present day, and the changes appear quite extraordinary; the depth behind Fellner at the free safety position, for example, not only has experience, but starting experience - the by-product of having to throw young players into the mix early, and often. Both Justin Glenn and Greg Walker started games in 2009 - Glenn for four games before breaking his leg at Notre Dame, and Walker started in Sarkisian's first game as UW's head coach, against LSU. Between the two of them, they've played in 37 games. Both have a year of eligibility left, so theoretically the free safety position will have three seniors duking it out for playing time in 2012. Washington's safeties haven't had that kind of quality and quantity for at least a decade.

During this past spring, Glenn saw a lot of time in Washington's packages requiring an extra defensive back - nickel, dime, etc… Part of that was because they were short on cornerbacks due to injuries sustained by Adam Long and Gregory Ducre; part of it was due to the fact that Glenn is extremely capable of covering ground and being at the right place at the right time. He was a ballhawk coming out of Kamiak High School, and despite a nasty injury in 2009 has come back with a vengeance. The coaches trust Glenn with any safety role because of his football IQ and his experience.

Same goes for Walker, who showed enough during Sarkisian's first spring and fall to get the starting nod against LSU. He's another player who is hovering, looking for an opportunity to get playing time whenever and wherever possible. Like Glenn, he's veteran enough to handle playing multiple roles in the secondary, including both safety spots.

Glenn and Walker May need to play some strong safety in the fall, simply because of possible injury concerns to Sean Parker and Taz Stevenson. Parker was sidelined with stinger issues, while Stevenson had the same shoulder clean-up that also put Ducre, Princeton Fuimaono, and Cooper Pelluer on the shelf for the heavy hitting of spring. They weren't held out of practice altogether but were limited to keep them fresh and 100 percent for fall.

Both Parker and Stevenson saw extensive action in 2010 as true freshmen - Parker played in the first nine games of the year, while Stevenson saw time in every game. Parker, who verbally committed - and later that day signed - to Washington during 2010's signing day spectacular on ESPN, came into last year with high expectations. He came up with a key interception in the Huskies' double-overtime victory over Oregon State, while Stevenson held it down on defense and special teams, coming up with four stops in Washington's Apple Cup win, as well as two tackles in their Holiday Bowl upset of Nebraska.

The veteran of the group is Will Shamburger, the 6-foot, 190-pound redshirt sophomore from Compton, Calif. Shamburger looked poised to make the free safety spot his own the first three games of the season, backing up Williams. Parker and Stevenson started to emerge as UW's backups, pushing Shamburger down in the depth. By the end of the season, he was limited to mostly special teams.

Determined to move back up the ranks, Shamburger had a very solid spring - good enough to make this fall's competition between him, Parker and Stevenson must-see TV. Regardless of who eventually wins out, they will be replacing a four-year starter - never an easy deal. The upside is that there are three of them, so if one stumbles there's another right behind to pick them up. They may need some help from Glenn and Walker early, simply because starting a game is a different animal than just playing a series here or there - but all of them showed last year they are more than capable physically to handle the job. All three have football smarts, pick up concepts easily, and can be relied on. Now it's just a matter of who gets that opening-day nod on September 3rd.

When talking about the safeties, it's a dream scenario to have six quality players available with game experience, as now Sarkisian and the UW defensive staff can go into this fall with the idea of redshirting all the true freshman safety talent coming in - and there's plenty. That is, unless they show they are better than what's already out there - and if they do that

James Sample comes in with the biggest fanfare, as the 6-foot-2, 191-pounder from Sacramento, Calif. was a U.S. Army All-American. The way he gets after ballcarriers, Sample's future may end up at SAM - like former safety Victor Aiyewa - if he keeps getting bigger, faster, and stronger. He certainly has the frame to add bulk. Just watching him on film, his coverage skills are solid, but he plays so much better the closer he gets to the line of scrimmage.

Former Skyline standout Evan Zeger looks like he could be the next Nate Fellner. Like Fellner, the 6-foot-2, 204-pound safety from Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman is a ballhawk; he led the state with seven interceptions as a senior - two of them went back for touchdowns. Zeger is also not one to shy away from contact, but he looks like he could do most of his damage in the open field, as he has excellent closing speed.

The last safety to commit to Washington last year just might be the most intriguing - Pinole Valley, Calif.'s Travis Feeney. At 6-foot-4, Feeney plays like former Husky Marquis Cooper - extremely rangy and extremely aggressive - especially against the run. That's why I could see Feeney also moving to Washington's linebacking corps eventually. He loves to infect opposing backfields with his presence, and he's got a bit of nasty to him as well - never a bad thing.

If Washington was able to redshirt these three big athletes, they'd still have a half-dozen upperclassmen to work with heading into 2012, something of a minor miracle considering where the safety depth was just three years ago.

Free Safety
Nate Fellner (Jr.)
Justin Glenn (Jr.)
Greg Walker (Jr.)

Strong Safety
Sean Parker (So.) OR
Will Shamburger (So.) OR
Taz Stevenson (So.) Top Stories