Where They Stand: A look at UW’s DB Position

We continue our position-by-position look at what happened this past season, the returning players and we give our thoughts on what things might look like in 2015. Today, we look at the defensive backs group, a young room that had no choice but to take their lumps in 2014 because of youth. Will those teachable moments turn into a much improved group in 2015?

2014 Review – We all knew Washington’s secondary was going to be young in 2014; what we didn’t know was just how young they were going to get. Marcus Peters, a sure-fire NFL first rounder, was the known quantity and everyone expected he would lock down one side of the field. What we didn’t know was how the team would respond when Jermaine Kelly, the only other cornerback with starting experience, went down prior to the Illinois game. With juco senior Travell Dixon seemingly unable to take the reigns and show the new defensive coaches that he was ready to roll, it ended up being the true freshmen (and ultimately a true sophomore) to take hold of the opportunity when it was given. That fell to Sidney Jones, who ended up starting 11 games in 2014. When Peters was dismissed after the UCLA game, the other shoe dropped. Dixon, who started the Illinois game because of Peters’ disciplinary action taken after the Eastern Washington win, fell off the map completely. John Ross, having a tough time breaking through with regular playing time on offense, was moved to defense to take Peters’ spot, and immediately made a contribution. Ross and Jones started the final four games of the season, including the bowl game, and were backed up by two more true freshmen - Naijiel Hale and Darren Gardenhire. At the safety position, they were nearly as young as the corners. True frosh Budda Baker started all 14 games, while true sophomore Kevin King started 12 games. The continuity helped, but all the young players still had to learn while being thrown right into the fire. You would have thought that after losing Peters Washington’s secondary would have been lit up, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, the UW DB’s held two of the top passing teams in the country - Oregon State and Washington State - to below their season averages. Going into the season, the secondary was considered a significant weak link, with Peters the lone bright spot. By the end of the season, Peters was gone and all the freshmen that had played weren’t freshmen anymore.
Returning Players

Brian Clay (6-1, 196, RS Sr.)
Brandon Beaver (6-0, 192, RS Jr.)
Kevin King (6-3, 183, Jr.)
John Ross (5-11, 179, Jr.)
Trevor Walker (5-11, 186, Jr.)
Jermaine Kelly (6-1, 190, RS So.)
Budda Baker (5-10, 173, So.)
Darren Gardenhire (5-11, 173, So.)
Naijiel Hale (5-10, 171, So.)
Sidney Jones (6-0, 171, So.)
Jojo McIntosh (6-0, 191, RS Fr.)
Brandon Lewis (5-10, 181, RS Fr.)
Aaron Chapman (5-11, 180, RS Fr.)*
* denotes walk-on
Incoming mid-year transfers

Ezekiel Turner (6-3, 210 So.)
Incoming Freshman

Austin Joyner (5-10.5, 191)
Jordan Miller (6-1, 175)
Position Overview

Brian Clay - The lone senior, Clay finished 2014 with 13 tackles while playing in every game. Known more for his special teams play, Clay has the versatility to play either corner or safety, but was in the safety depth for most of the season. With the number of safeties now in play, he should be expected to have another strong year on special teams but probably won’t see the field much on defense unless it’s as a nickel or dime back.

Brandon Beaver - The junior-to-be had 7 tackles in 12 games, not a lot of production. In fact, he couldn’t beat out the true sophs or frosh when it came to a starting nod, so this spring will be crucial for the Compton, Calif. native to make his move. If he can’t push the competition, Beaver’s days at Montlake might be relegated to special teams or mop up duty on defense.

Kevin King - The 6-foot-3, 183-pound junior-to-be from the Bay Area had 74 tackles, and .5 tackles for loss in 2014. King ended up with a pick in the Apple Cup to cap a pretty successful season. Given his range, it would be nice to see King put some lead in his pencil, try and maybe bulk up to 190 pounds or so. As it stands, King is your typical free safety who plays like more of a ballhawk in the deep third, and will support run defense when needed.

John Ross - Peters’ departure meant a chance for Ross to find a starting spot with the Huskies, and he took it. He finished 2014 with 18 tackles and like King had a pick in the Apple Cup. There’s no doubt UW Secondary Coach Jimmy Lake wants to keep Ross on defense, but his explosiveness and big-play ability on both offense and special teams is undeniable. It’s a beautiful problem to have, but a problem nonetheless; Chris Petersen and all his coaches are going to have to figure out the perfect balance to keep Ross in a starting spot - like cornerback - yet still give him enough touches on offense to keep his reputation as a game-breaker intact.

Trevor Walker - Walker started three games during the first eight games of the season before a torn ACL took him of the action. He finished 2014 with 14 tackles. It’s doubtful the junior-to-be from Texas will be ready to do anything significant until fall camp, so if he can come back in 2015 to offer up some quality depth that would be considered a win for the 5-foot-11, 186-pound Walker.

Jermaine Kelly - The same could be said for Kelly, but his rehab is nearly complete so the sophomore-to-be will have both spring and fall camp to get back in the swing of things. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Kelly finished 2014 with 5 tackles in two games before missing the rest of the season with a broken ankle. His size is ideal when looking for the prototypical college cornerback capable of going head-to-head with the bigger pro-style receivers, so getting Kelly back in the two-deeps is crucial to the Huskies’ CB success in 2015.

Budda Baker - A lot was expected from Budda in 2014, and the true frosh from Bellevue didn’t disappoint. He amassed 84 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, and got his first interception of the season during the Cactus Bowl. By almost any measure, Baker did exactly what fans thought he would do; start from Day One. It wasn’t an easy learning curve for the U.S. Army All-American, as he took his lumps giving up big plays, but by the end of the season he was - along with Jones - the most consistent secondary performers. Baker will come to spring ball as the leader of the secondary, ready to take that big jump most would expect a talent like Budda to make. He’s a special player, and 2015 could be his breakout season.

Darren Gardenhire - Gardenhire had 6 tackles in 12 games his true freshman season, all in mop-up action. The 5-foot-11, 173-pounder from Long Beach, Calif. became a consistent performer on special teams for Washington, and was able to get in for some spot duty when one of the starting corners needed a breather. Gardenhire has the game and swagger to definitely compete for a starting cornerback spot in 2015, but he will need to get bigger, stronger and faster to claim any reasonable amount of playing time next season.

Naijiel Hale - Hale is nearly a physical clone of Gardenhire - 5-foot-10 and 171 pounds - so the Lakewood, Calif. native will also need to make big physical jumps in order to make it through what is always a physical Pac-12 campaign. The true frosh had 14 tackles in 14 games for Washington, a season where he also had two spot starts. Right now, based on Jimmy Lake used the backups, Hale was the first corner in when either Jones or Ross needed a blow, but there’s not much separating Hale and Gardenhire at this point. Both were entrenched in the two-deeps by the end of the year, meaning next year is the year they’ll have an opportunity for substantial playing time. We’ll see who takes advantage of their chances.

Sidney Jones - At 6-feet tall, Jones was the true frosh that seemed physically the most ready to play right away, and so it was. He made his college debut versus Eastern Washington, and forced a fumble versus the Eagles. Overall, Jones had 67 tackles, and 3.5 tackles for loss in 12 starts, including two interceptions at Arizona. Originally committed to Utah before signing with the Huskies, Jones was an absolute steal for the 2014 recruiting class and should continue to lock down one of the two corner spots heading into 2015. Just like any of the true freshmen, Jones stands to make big jumps from year one to year two of his collegiate development, so it’ll be exciting to see just how much improvement Jones makes next season.

Jojo McIntosh - Another safety at 6-feet tall and 191 pounds, McIntosh was the one DB held out from the 2014 secondary class that wasn’t already injured (see: Brandon Lewis), and it makes sense to help keep the classes somewhat in balance. It’s never an easy juggling act, making sure you try and preserve eligibility as much as possible while also playing guys when they give you the best chance to win. McIntosh may start out spring in the two deeps because of Walker’s rehab, but a lot of that will also depend on how quickly Zeke Turner assimilates into his role.

Brandon Lewis - Coming back from injury, the 5-foot-10, 181-pound Lewis was a shoe-in to redshirt this year. It helps balance the numbers a bit, but it also gave Lewis a chance to fully recover. He should be ready to go this spring, and from all accounts Lewis was signed as a player that, if he comes back 100 percent and plays the way he did prior to being hurt, he could add immediate depth. A lot of colleges backed off Lewis when he got injured, but Petersen stuck by him when he initially committed to Boise State, and then when he switched to UW. We’ll see if that faith in Lewis is paid off this year.
2015 Preview - There’s no question that Washington’s secondary should go from weakness to strength in 2015. The only reason they were a weakness in 2014 is because it seemed like every player out there was learning on the job - never an easy way to go. We’ve always heard that the biggest jump players make in college is from year one to year two, and Washington’s secondary will be a fantastic test case in that regard. Players like Baker, Jones, Hale, and Gardenhire should take big steps forward in their development. They may all be true sophomores, but in reality they are veterans. The talent is most definitely there to create solid two-deeps at every position, and Turner at safety is a player that can come in and add a real physical element to the position. Not saying he’ll create a Kam Chancellor-type effect, but we’ve all seen how that kind of physicality can impact the game, and one of Turner’s biggest attributes - literally - is his size. At corner, the X factor will be Kelly, coming off a broken bone in his ankle. He was nearly ready to play by the bowl game, so he’ll be chomping at the bit in spring to make his mark and show the youngsters that he’s not an afterthought. Depending on injuries (knock on wood), I could see one of the incoming freshmen playing, but ideally there should be enough depth - especially if guys like Lewis and Chapman come back 100 percent - for them to be able to redshirt.

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