Post-Spring Review: Defensive Backs

Starting Wednesday, Dawgman.com will be breaking down all the position groups to see where Washington stands after the first 15 practices of the Chris Petersen Era. Up now is the defensive back group, the one collection of Huskies sorely lacking in depth and experience. How will the freshmen impact both the cornerback and safety spots? I think we're going to find out sooner, rather than later.

Cornerback:
21 Marcus Peters - Jr.
35 Brian Clay - Jr.
40 Aaron Chapman - Fr. walk-on


Safety:
27 Trevor Walker - So.
39 Thomas Vincent - Jr. walk-on


Safety:
9 Brandon Beaver - So. OR
20 Kevin King - So.


Cornerback:
6 Jermaine Kelly - RFr.
26 Travell Dixon - Sr.


What did they do in the spring? - With the loss of a senior corner in Greg Ducre and four senior safeties in Sean Parker, Will Shamburger, Tre Watson and Taz Stevenson, replenishing the Washington secondary was going to be a must for the 2014 recruiting class, and they did that by signing eight defensive backs. Since none of those players enrolled early and took part in spring ball, the new UW Coaching staff had to try and cobble together what they could with the bodies available. That was no easy feat.

Gone was Cleveland Wallace from the post-season; gone was Patrick Enewally by the middle of spring practice. That was two scholarship players expected to participate in an already thin defensive back group. The new staff tried to supplement the group with as many quality walk-ons as they could muster - including Chapman, Jonathan Kwon, Hayden Schuh, and Nick Zelle - but they are obviously a stop-gap measure until the scholarship frosh enroll in the summer. Chapman, who committed to walk-on at Boise State before Petersen left, is probably the most athletic walk-on in the group, and he's got the best chance to hang on in the fall and not just be a service player.

The group is led by Marcus Peters, who really came into his own last year. He continued his improvement this spring, and despite dealing with a new coaching staff, new terminology, and everything else that goes into a transitional period, the junior from Oakland has clearly solidified the cornerback spot on one side of the field. He is this year's Desmond Trufant; a lock-down corner that can take away the opposition's best receiver.

After Peters, it's really slim pickings with the rest of the group. Jermaine Kelly started out spring behind senior JUCO transfer Travell Dixon, but moved ahead of Dixon by the end of spring. It's a testament to the redshirt frosh and his ability that he'll probably be counted on as the starting cornerback opposite Peters against Hawaii in August. He came into spring with a full season of getting bigger, stronger, and faster, and while he started out slowly with the new coaching staff and defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake, the 6-foot-1, 188-pound Kelly came on strong at the end.

Dixon has become the real enigma of the cornerbacks group. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, the one-time Alabama commit come to Washington with a lot of fanfare, but really has fizzled more often than not. He's got all the athleticism and ability physically, but the game just doesn't come as naturally to him as it does the others, and therefore he seems to typically be a half-step slower to react and anticipate what's happening on the field. He still has time to make an impact, but what kind of an impact is still yet to be seen. So far in his brief UW career, Dixon has been a bit of a disappointment.

The one player that came on big this spring right out of the gate was Brian Clay. Clay came in last year under Steve Sarkisian as a walk-on transfer from the University of Hawaii but couldn't play at all in 2013 due to transfer rules. He's good to go now, and at 6-foot-1 and 193 pounds has the size you love to see in a cornerback. In fact, Lake talked about Clay's positional versatility in spring, saying his value continues to go up because of his ability to play out wide, in the slot, or even at safety. That kind of utility will definitely put Clay in good standing heading forward, and he should be a definite factor for the two-deep battles come fall.

At safety, as you would expect with four departures, the position is razor-thin. Of the redshirt players available in spring, only Brandon Beaver came back with starts, and he had only one in his career to date - the Fight Hunger Bowl win over BYU last December. Both Trevor Walker and Kevin King - true freshmen at the time - also saw some playing time in 2013, and King even had two starts! That's impressive, considering the Huskies had four senior safeties. That's the one silver lining to the group as spring football progressed; there were two sophomores competing for time (King sat out most of spring as a precaution), and all of those players should be that much better come fall.

But that also highlights just how the depth at that position took a major blow after the 2013 season. King got some reps in April with the yellow shirt still on, and hopefully he's taken full advantage of the mental reps and the film study to get a feel for how Lake operates and what he expects out of his safeties. Walker and Beaver had productive - if not spectacular - springs. Beaver had a number of good interceptions during the 15 spring practices, mostly tips, and Walker continued to ramp up his development in his first spring in the purple and gold. Despite playing a handful of games each, and King even starting a couple of games - it's important to note that both the true sophomores are still very young, and now they have a coaching change to deal with as well.

It was thought that Thomas Vincent, a former quarterback at King's, might move back to offense considering there were only two quarterbacks available in Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams. But the 6-foot, 200-pound junior stayed over on the defensive side of the ball and got a ton of meaningful reps due to the low numbers. Will he be in the mix to compete for a spot in the depth come fall? Ironically the numbers suggest otherwise, especially with four true frosh safeties coming in to battle, led by Budda Baker. But Vincent has a wealth of experience and could prove to be a vital piece of the puzzle if depth once again becomes an issue because of injury in the fall.

Where does the position stand heading into the summer? - Well, it's looked better. Until the true frosh come in during the summer LEAP program, even Lake admitted he doesn't have a great feel for how his position groups look. With eight new bodies coming through, that makes an immediate impact. That being said, even the best true frosh don't blow up from the start of fall camp, so players like a healthy King, Walker, and Beaver, are going to be critical at the safety spot until guys like Budda Baker, Lavon Washington, and Jojo McIntosh are seen and get a chance to assimilate.

The same goes for true frosh corners Naijiel Hale, Sidney Jones, and Brandon Lewis at the cornerback spot; until the time comes when the UW coaches trust a couple of those guys to go in and play the position the way it needs to be played, guys like Clay and Dixon are going to have to hold the fort opposite Peters. No frosh is going to supplant Peters the way he is playing at this point, he's just too valuable and too talented.

What will be interesting to find out is how the summer workout goes in terms of the receivers coming back and giving the defensive backs a great test. We've all heard over the years about the battles between Jermaine Kearse and Desmond Trufant. Last year it was guys like Jaydon Mickens and Kasen Williams against Peters. If Williams can get back to full health and Damore'ea Stringfellow gets a chance to work his way back to full fitness during the summer, they should complement guys like Mickens, John Ross, Marvin Hall, DiAndre Campbell, and Kendyl Taylor to give the defensive backs fits during one-on-ones. And frankly, that's the the corners and safeties need.

In those situations, Peters - as the only legit upperclass secondary starter - needs to step up and lead from the front. He needs to kick the rest of the group in the butt and they have to follow his lead. During the spring I noticed an even chattier Peters than before; clearly he's gotten comfortable in the role as a vocal presence for the defense, and that role needs to ramp up as the team gets closer to that Hawaii opener. How the group responds to his leadership is something that will show up early in fall, in my opinion.

What to look for in the fall - If it wasn't already obvious reading before, let me spell it out clearly; how quickly the true freshman assemble and join the position battles is going to be the biggest talking point in the fall when looking at the secondary as a whole. It's just that simple. Both the cornerback and safety positions are in desperate need of quality, athletic bodies, let alone playmakers. That's why it's so hard to assess the group as a whole now, because they are so clearly incomplete compared to where they will be in a few months' time.

That being said, it's also very easy to assume that even the most talented players - like Baker - should not be expected to start right away. Compete in the position battles and give those sophomores something to think about? Absolutely. And I fully expect, as it has been proven in the past, those talented frosh will really start to blossom around mid-season. So if the current crop of secondary players can get through the non-conference schedule intact (and that shouldn't really be that much of a problem, given the opposition), then by the time Pac-12 play comes around the freshmen won't be freshmen anymore.

The other talking point that has to be addressed is the double-duty possibilities for guys like John Ross and, to a lesser extent, Jaydon Mickens. Lake talked about Mickens being a possibility for some slot defending, but he didn't do it nearly as much as Ross, who played nickel in a couple of games last year. How much will Lake and the UW defensive staff rely on Ross to help supplement the thin secondary until the true frosh get up to speed? It's a real possibility, and one I'm sure Lake will be asked about when the team reconvenes in August.


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