Player Spotlight - Connor Cree

SEATTLE - Before Sammie Long, there was Connor Cree. When the 6-foot-4, 245-pound defensive end committed to Washington nearly two years ago to the day, it was a pledge received with little fanfare. Sure, it's always great to keep the local studs home, but Cree - from Skyline High School on the Plateau - seemed to be a pick made with the future in mind.

Well, the future has come a little earlier than expected as Cree has made his presence known during UW Spring Football.

Growing Up - Cree showed up at Montlake last year at 230 pounds. Now he's a stout 245 pounds, and he's not the only redshirt frosh defensive lineman that has gotten bigger in the off-season. Jarett Finau has bulked up to 260 after showing up at around 240 pounds in the summer. Former Everett Archbishop Murphy star Tani Tupou played his senior year at 260 pounds, but is now listed on the Washington roster at 275 pounds. And Corey Waller, who played his Long Beach (Calif.) Poly football at 210 pounds, showed up this spring at 223.

Hands Off! - Cree mentioned to us Wednesday that he 'has a lot more freedom' this year to take on blocks as opposed to last year - where he was set up as a straight defensive end going up against tackles from a three-point stance. It's part of new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's plan to utilize the physical abilities of players in positions where they can impact play - instead of trying to put the proverbial round peg in a square hole.

Jack of All Trades - Last year it appeared that Cree's usability as a straight defensive end would be limited due to size; obviously that has changed this spring - and the same could be said for the other redshirt freshmen that find themselves freed up to do a number of different things within a philosophy designed to create confusion, as well as provide improved speed and tracking against fast offenses employed to take advantage of their abilities in space.

Now Cree's world is wide open. He can play head up against tackles, or he can shade out even farther toward the sideline and play tight ends as a hybrid SAM/LEO/RUSH player. He can even move inside from time to time like Andrew Hudson is being asked to do if Wilcox wants to bring even more linebackers off the edge or bring blitzes from the secondary. Wilcox can even use Cree as a standup rusher inside the tackles, reminiscent of current 'Amoeba' looks where the defense tries to disguise blitzing by having as many rushers stand up as possible to give the appearance of the blitz literally coming from anywhere - or no blitz at all, depending on what the defense wants to do and what they check in and out of.

Scouting Report - Connor Cree came to Montlake as a rangy athlete, a player good enough to play either along the defensive line or as a tight end. The main reason for that? Speed. Not many Huskies move as quick for their size as Cree does, and it's been evident during the OL/DL one-on-one drills. Coming off the edge as a 7, 8, or 9-technique, the redshirt frosh doesn't have the fear-raising rush yet that a player like Josh Shirley has, but he's not as far off as you might imagine. His get-off allows him to be a step ahead of the tackles (and yes, it's against UW's tackles, so obviously take that into account when reading this; your mileage may vary when lined up against tackles from other teams), and his foot speed pushes him even faster into the backfield where he is big enough to cause damage. And if the play breaks down, a pass goes into the flat, or the ball is handed off as a delayed run - Cree knows how to pursue and is very good at traveling sideline to sideline. He's not as aggressive as a Victor Aiyewa or John Timu - so it's doubtful Wilcox will play Cree as a true LEO/SAM 'backer - but his size gives him a great shot of holding up play at the point of attack, meaning Cree can't be pigeonholed as a role player either.

Ideally, I see Cree playing along the defensive line with a teammate like Hudson, Finau, or Sione Potoa'e off his inside shoulder - meaning they can take the brunt of any double-teams that might come, giving Cree as much freedom as possible one-on-one to attack slower tackles. And in the base 34 look, he can line up at the weak side end position and hold up play or roam along the line and drop back into coverage if Wilcox decides to throw a fire zone blitz at the offensive line.

Quotable - "He's working a lot with fundamentals.  You do a lot of different drills and mix it up a lot.  Everything that applies in the game, we practice, so it's a good transition to scrimmaging and games." - Cree on what he's learning from new DL Coach Tosh Lupoi

Competition - On the one hand, it's easy to identify the competition for Cree; Shirley and Waller. Just like you can group the bigger defensive ends together - Hudson, Finau, Potoae, Talia Crichton, and Hauoli Jamora could be in that other bunch. And this fall, Pio Vatuvei would be placed in that grouping of bigger ends, while the smaller ones - Kalei Auelua and DE/LEO hybrid Cory Littleton - aren't expected to challenge for playing time right away.

Right now Cree isn't just a straight rush end, much like Shirley and Waller aren't just straight defensive ends - but they are getting closer to being those every-down ends so that it doesn't matter what Washington's base defense becomes because they will have all contingencies covered. What they do have right now is the athleticism and speed to make up for any size deficiencies - and given that Cree has put on a good 15 pounds since coming to UW he's putting those questions to rest in a hurry.







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