Mid-Season Grades - Defense

On Monday, Steve Sarkisian mentioned he doesn't hand out grades - but that isn't going to stop Dawgman.com from dishing out some gold stars where warranted as the Washington Huskies head into 'halftime' of the 2012 season. And when it comes to the defense, they get more stars than Grauman's Chinese Theater. And that is the biggest bright spot so far through UW's .500 campaign.

Defensive Line - This was supposed to be a big strength of the Washington defense heading into the 2012 season. The interior was chock full of big bodies ready to clog things up inside; Danny Shelton, Semisi Tokolahi, Lawrence Lagafuaina and Sione Potoae were the known quantities, while Josh Banks and Pio Vatuvei would come in to find their niche in the crowd. Lagafuaina suffered a knee injury in practice that has sidelined him for the full year, but the emergence of Banks and Vatuvei has more than made up for his loss.

Shelton has been the anchor inside, and he has been as solid as a rock. Tokolahi has also done well inside and Banks is starting to really come on as the season develops. All five of the remaining interior players need to find their given roles in the rotation and master them, because the Huskies can't count on consistency out wide for pushing the quarterback toward the middle. In fact UW has only nine sacks in six games, a mark that is currently second to last in the Pac-12. Only Arizona, the team they play on Saturday, has less (6).

On the outside, Hauoli Jamora's return from an ACL tear in 2011 was derailed for another year during fall camp, meaning Talia Crichton would have to step in and play substantial minutes. The senior has been serviceable but he's never been as good as Jamora in his prime. On the other side, Andrew Hudson has also been solid but unspectacular. Unfortunately for Washington, you have to have dynamic defensive ends to really make a defense tick and they haven't had a great pair since Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and Greyson Gunheim a half-dozen years ago. In fact it's intriguing to think what new Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox could have done with that pair of rangy, tenacious defenders.

Josh Shirley has definitely disappointed from a sheer numbers standpoint but I feel that has as much to do with how Wilcox prefers to use him as much as anything else. I get the impression Shirley is going to become very much a situational player from here on out, only coming in during down-and-distance situations where Wilcox gambles on the offense passing the ball. In those scenarios, Shirley can cut loose and do nothing but go kill the quarterback - which is his best strength. Remember, Sarkisian designated a position just for him on the depth - RUSH - and that's pretty much all he's good at right now - so Wilcox wants to try and put him in a many situations where he can play with only one thought in his head; sack.

Overall, the defensive line has been average. The interior players are holding up their end, but the ends aren't delivering like they should. The fact that no defensive lineman has more than 2.5 tackles for loss (and the one player that does, Shirley, looks to have been given a spot role) so far through six games is a testament to their lack of penetration. There's signs of improvement on the horizon, but all UW fans can think about right now is how good this defense could be with an above average line - especially given the thought of how massive the improvement has already been so far in six games from a disastrous 2011 season.

Grade: C
Linebackers - This group has undergone a renaissance of sorts with Nate Fellner, Taz Stevenson, Evan Zeger, Travis Feeney and Shaq Thompson added to the mix from the secondary - and the positional resurrection that has taken place has been impressive to watch. Given the fact that Matt Lyons, Garret Gilliland and Tim Tucker are history, it was clear new Linebackers Coach Peter Sirmon needed a player transfusion - and he got it.

Timu, named a team captain, has been his normal tough self - and has added the role of tackler to his position. Last year he constantly put himself in great positions to make plays but was let down by a lack of form tackling, but he hasn't been bothered by that this year nearly as much. Is he a finished product yet? Far from it, as he's still learning the position - but the sophomore is making strides all the time. Backing him up is Thomas Tutogi, and we're now starting to see why teams like USC offered him. The junior college transfer is a load and really brings it on every play. Because of his size he's somewhat limited in the kinds of situations Wilcox will put him in - for instance he probably won't be in every down against a team like Arizona that likes to play offense like they are playing basketball on grass - but against bigger, more straightforward offenses he has come up trumps time and time again.

The biggest revelations so far this year have been the two freshmen - Feeney and Thompson. Combined, they have more starts this year (10) than any of the other linebackers put together not named Timu (2). Feeney, who spurned Arizona for Washington on Signing Day two years ago, has brought a toughness and attitude the linebacker corps hasn't had since the days of Lester Towns. Players like Mason Foster had the same athleticism, but Feeney plays downright angry. And with Shaq Thompson, it's no surprise at all he's started every game this year as a true freshman - he's that gifted. It's nice to have former starters like Fellner, Fuimaono and Jamaal Kearse in reserve, but the frosh are playing for a reason - they are the best the Huskies have right now. And that means they are willing to take a dose of growing pains in order to allow those players to grow - which means in turn some spotty play mixed in with some phenomenal results. There's no guarantee playing the known quantities would frankly do any better at this point.

Grade: B-
Secondary - This is where things start to get good. Let's go straight to the spotlight - Desmond Trufant - who has earned straight A's all season long. Tru, the lone senior in the cornerback two-deeps, is the unquestioned superstar of the defense. He is playing at an All-American level right now, limiting USC's Marqise Lee to two catches for 32 yards last weekend. Lee, who currently leads the Pac-12 in receiving yards and all-purpose yards, was turned into a non-factor by Trufant almost single-handedly. The two catches were a season low for Lee by six and the 32 yards a season low by 34 yards. He was also held scoreless for only the second time all year.

Trufant led a secondary that held pre-season Heisman Trophy frontrunner Matt Barkley to 10 completions - 10 lower than his previous season low. Overall, the Huskies have the second-stingiest pass defense in the conference and 12th toughest to throw against in the country.

The play of the cornerbacks across from Trufant has been mixed. Tre Watson won the starting job out of fall camp and immediately had an interception during the Huskies' first defensive series against San Diego State - but has since lost his job to redshirt frosh Marcus Peters, the bigger, more athletic alternative. Greg Ducre, he of the nine career starts, is there in case either Watson or Peters falter - so there's plenty of depth to be had. But in general, the gauntlet has been thrown by Trufant to match his play and that hasn't happened yet, but let's be fair - that's a heckuva bar that has been raised. We'll see if they are up to the challenge the second half of the season.

Everyone thought the safety spot before the season was going to be the real strength, but that was before the mass exodus to linebacker. Still, they are a quality group with three players with substantial starting experience - Sean Parker, Justin Glenn and Will Shamburger. Fifty-five starts, to be exact. And they all do things a little differently; Parker, while having the ability to ballhawk is known for being more of a banger closer to the line of scrimmage. Glenn is equally good in both situations and has a great positional sense and football IQ about him. Shamburger is solid and can do the job of either Parker or Glenn in a pinch. Is this group at the same level the corners are right now? Not quite, but they aren't that far behind either. I'd give them a solid B to go with the corners' A-.

Grade: B+
Coaching/Play-Calling - It's hard not to give Wilcox straight A's for his game-planning and ability to put guys in positions to succeed. Contrary to his predecessor, Wilcox isn't afraid to mix up coverages and attack different teams in distinctly different ways. The base defense always seems to get a sizable tweak during practice week depending on the offense involved. I give a lot of the overall improvement on the field of play to Wilcox and his ability to break down opposing offenses, finding their weaknesses and scheming accordingly based on the personnel he has. In that way he's earned an A without question.

In regard to the position coaches, they basically mirror the performances their groups have given on the field. Tosh Lupoi is starting to get a better handle on what he has and how he can push their buttons to play their best down-in and down-out; however the numbers aren't there to suggest he's really dialed in on a go-to formula at this point in the year.

Same goes with Peter Sirmon and the linebackers - who are playing with great effort and 'want-to'. In the case of the 'backers, they may have the toughest job adjusting to the myriad of offenses the Huskies have faced so far this year. To go from power games to spread games to more power to more spread can't be easy for a group looking for continuity and something they can hang their hat on in the form of an identity. So far it's been elusive.

For the secondary, I think this group has benefited from the new coaching changes the most. The corners kept some familiarity when Donte Williams, a graduate assistant in 2001, was again asked to coach them up, but the inclusion of both Wilcox - who played in the secondary at Oregon - and Keith Heyward has also made a world of difference. After some blown assignments against the Ducks, Heyward made all the defensive backs sit together side-by-side at meetings to create bonds of camaraderie and communication that clearly spilled over to the USC game. I expect these coaches to continue drilling the things that have put their guys in positions to make plays and increase the number of interceptions. As good as the secondary has played through the first six games, an average of one pick per contest is not reflective of how opportunistic this group can be.

Grade: B+


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