Great Finish Sets Up Defense For Bowl Game

The score was the same as against the Beavers, only this time the good guys won. The 38-21 final, however, did not do justice to the Husky defensive dominance of the Cougars, particularly at the line of scrimmage. Washington clearly won the game up front on both lines, posting a season high seven sacks on defense while giving up only one on offense.

The Huskies' big boys were simply better than the Cougars' linemen, and it started with Alameda Ta'amu, who was up field all day long. It was partly made possible by moving him to the three-technique and letting Danny Shelton play the nose (a good coaching adjustment, I might add). Danny handled the double-teams all day long, while Meda simply destroyed their guards one-on-one with his constant push.

That middle force collapsed the pocket from the inside out and allowed Josh Shirley and Andrew Hudson to have their best days with their upfield and outside pressure. Shirley clearly had his best game of the season and Hudson was a constant presence around the Cougar quarterback. Both are redshirt freshman and reflective of the importance of red-shirting linemen, even though Shelton was clearly ready as a first year player.

It has been the emergence of Shelton that has offset the slow physical comeback of Semisi Tokolahi, who was seriously injured in last year's Apple Cup. Shelton is one of only five true freshmen to play this year, and he obviously looks to be the noseman of the future. The only other true freshman to play on the defense was James Sample, and the Huskies will surely appeal for a redshirt year based on his shoulder surgery, which took place over Thanksgiving.

That will mean they redshirted nine scholarship kids on the defensive side of the ball. Husky fans need to know that many of these kids could have helped out the Husky defense this year but the coaches did the prudent thing and saved them for the future.

Based upon watching them in practice, I am confident that some of these true-freshmen will make major impacts starting next year. Marcus Peters will play on the corner next year and may be the best cover corner in the program before it's all said and done. The 6-foot-1 Antavius Sims may play corner as well even though he played quarterback at Ventura College, where he was also an excellent defensive starter in basketball. Both are bigger kids, and along with safeties 6-foot-2 James Sample and 6-foot-4 Travis Feeney, are bigger and rangier than any secondary players Washington has in years.

Feeney will end up at 225 to 235 pounds, and he is a great hitter. I saw Sims on the sideline at practice the other day and he definitely passes the "eye" test. Sims will likely help at corner, but adding those safeties to Sean Parker, Nate Fellner, Justin Glenn, and Will Shamburger (all starters this past year) and you have as many as six big-hitters at the safety position alone - and that's before even mentioning Taz Stevenson. Those guys will all grow and will really benefit from the competition at their position and will all be major players on special teams.

Next, you get 334-pound Tokolahi back to full speed and throw in redshirt frosh Jarett Finau - who is already at 6-foot-2 and 254 pounds and will likely help immediately at defensive end - and then add Taniela Tupou to Sione Potoa'e and Lawrence Lagafuaina at the defensive tackle depth position and now Washington is starting to finally get some depth up front.

Freshman linebacker Scott Lawyer is a good 6-foot-2 and now about 215 pounds, but certainly will get to 225 pounds by next fall. He has great feet for a 'backer and has unique closing speed. He should immediately push for playing time at linebacker, where five of the top six players all return.

Then you return of the currently injured players, like Hau'oli Jamora and speedster Adam Long, and the Husky defense will more than offset the loss of their four senior starters - Ta'amu, Everrette Thompson, Quinton Richardson and Cort Dennison.

Sophomore linebacker Thomas Tutogi ended the season as one of the best special teams players, and had two huge plays against the Cougars with a blocked punt and a kickoff return. He is the probable replacement for Dennison as the middle 'backer and he and Lawyer both should contend to start. The Huskies also redshirted linebackers Matthew Lyons and Nick Holt, and both will help this team down the road at least on special teams.

The point is, with the exception of the four seniors, everyone returns on this Husky defense, and all these young kids will get even better in their 15 bowl practices. Of the 47 Husky defenders listed on the Husky roster, 40 will return and this Husky defense will be much better statistically simply because they will be bigger, faster, stronger, and mentally capable of understanding the bigger picture of the defense.

Experience is the only way to understand the speed of the game. On defense it's really about reading, recognizing, and reacting so that the more times you do it the better you get at it. Building a defense is a process along all those lines of understanding the game plus the constant adding of talent. Of the 132 total defensive starts in 2011, 89 starts were made by returners for 2012. That means two out of every three defensive starts were made by players coming back, and that's huge from the experience angle.

Washington's defense actually improved with their losses to Oregon, USC, and Oregon State, but it was hard to see because of the results. I know Husky fans assumed a win over the Beavers, but that game was simply reflective of a developing defense, and that is exactly what Washington's is. Unfortunately, critics of Defensive Coordinator Nick Holt don't know most of the facts from even a personnel standpoint. He had only two redshirt seniors on the whole defense who started. I can remember years ago when we would often start 6-7 seniors, and usually 4-5 had been redshirted.

That is not what Coach Holt has been working with - in fact, just the opposite. He could have burned some redshirts but decided it was best to save their years and have them for the next four years. That is how you develop a defense. When those players are 21 and 22, you can do more things from a schematic standpoint and have a bigger package to choose from. Older and stronger defenders blitz better, cover better and anticipate better simply because they have been to the well many times before.

The upcoming 15 bowl practices will have certain "developmental" periods designed to reinforce fundamentals, skills, and the evaluation of all the younger players, starting Saturday. It is a great time to change positions and try kids in other spots that might help the team down the road.

Think about this; after the first two games of the season the Huskies had given up close to 806 passing yards. That was obviously reflective of their early season youth and inexperience in both rushing and covering, as well as the fact that they were playing teams that loved to throw. They went into both games trying to keep everything in front of them and therefore gave up lots of yards, but still won both games. Still, statistically, they were never going to be any good on the year simply because those 806 yards have skewed all their stats the rest of the season: California also threw for 349 and Arizona threw for 388 and the Cougars for 344, but all of teams also lost to Washington. That's 1,877 yards of passing offense and yet Washington won all those games. Stats don't always tell the real story of a game - points do.

This defense also held six opponents to less than 60 yards rushing a game, and held the Cougars to a net 38 yards and a 1.3 yard average. The bottom line is this much-maligned Husky defense and their coordinator, Nick Holt and the other four defensive assistants, did their part and helped this team win seven games this season. That is the only statistic either offensively or defensively that is important. There are lots of teams who throw for lots of yards and have losing seasons: Arizona, Washington State, and Arizona State are classic examples, and all of their programs are in turmoil, having just recently fired or replaced their head coach.

You win in this conference by running the football when you want to, playing good defense, and being solid in the kicking game. When Washington did those things they won those games and when they couldn't stop the run and lost the kicking game, they lost those games.

These next 15 practices are as critical to the overall development of this team as the 15 they will have in spring. They will no doubt be underdogs in whatever bowl they are invited to, but if they can play like they did last winter then the defense should help them pull off the upset; forget about stats and just get stops. That's what defensive football is all about - get stops and get off the field and give the ball to your offense. The Husky defense learned that this season, although they learned it the hard way. Now they have a chance to help win one game they're not supposed to. That would be a great finish to this year of development.


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