Spring Preview - Defensive Backs

With Washington’s Spring Football campaign nearly upon us, it’s time to look at each position group to see what they’ve done in the off-season. Spring Football is less than 24 hours away, so here’s our final position group - the defensive backs. What will we see from this young, yet experienced group of players?

This group, at least heading into spring, is almost the polar opposite of the defensive linemen. While the returning DL room had no starters in it, the secondary has a bunch. In fact, UW lost two DB starters last year - Marcus Peters and Travell Dixon - and Dixon’s departure due to graduation shouldn’t really be felt at all. That means Jimmy Lake’s group took their lumps last year, most as true frosh, but should come back a lot stronger starting this spring.

That means 45 total returning starts out of a possible 56, and four of those missed starts will be lost to the offensive side of the ball, as John Ross returns to receiver. True frosh safety Budda Baker started all 14 games, while true sophomore Kevin King started 12 games and another true freshman, Sidney Jones, started the final 12 games of the year at cornerback. And then you have true frosh Naijiel Hale, true sophomore Trevor Walker, and redshirt sophomore Jermaine Kelly also with starts under their belt (Walker and Kelly are expected to be back from injury). If you go back to 2013, Brandon Beaver got his first career start at the Fight Hunger Bowl.

In other words, the underclassmen are all grown up. But how will it play out this spring?

Here’s the position group heading into spring:
Brian Clay (6-1, 202, RS Sr.)
Brandon Beaver (6-0, 191, RS Jr.)
Kevin King (6-3, 183, Jr.)
Trevor Walker (5-11, 182, Jr.)
Jermaine Kelly (6-1, 196, RS So.)
Budda Baker (5-10, 176, So.)
Darren Gardenhire (5-11, 181, So.)
Naijiel Hale (5-10, 182, So.)
Sidney Jones (6-0, 177, So.)
Ezekiel Turner (6-3, 210 So.)
Jojo McIntosh (6-0, 204, RS Fr.)
Brandon Lewis (5-10, 192, RS Fr.)
Aaron Chapman (5-11, 180, RS Fr.)*
* denotes walk-on
The Incumbents: Plenty to choose from when talking about incumbents. Heck, you’ve got almost a two-deep to work with; Baker and King at safety, backed up by Walker and Clay, while Jones and Hale nail down the ones at corner, backed up by Gardenhire and Kelly. And where Will Kelly fit in? Obviously tons of room for all sorts of things to happen this spring, but one thing the defensive back group doesn’t lack for is leaders.

It should all start with Baker, the do-it-all safety who started his Husky career from day one. Except for two games in the middle of the season where Walker took his place, Kevin King has been the other stalwart at safety. No reason to think those two won’t at least start out spring as the number ones.

At corner, Sidney Jones should have one of the spots locked down. As a true frosh, Jones earned his stripes - coming up with 61 total tackles and, of course, his two memorable interceptions at Arizona. Hale, who had two starts in 2014, would seemingly have the inside track over Gardenhire to start spring out. Hale also gained 11 pounds in the off-season, so he’s certainly put in his work to make that other starting corner spot his own.

Making a Play: Guys like Walker and Kelly will obviously have something to prove to get back in the mix at their respective positions. Just coming back from injury, the trainers will usually err on the side of caution with those players, or give them occasional rest to make sure they aren’t rushed back unnecessarily. But there’s no doubt those two will be chomping at the bit to get back in the mix, especially considering both were pencilled in as starters heading into 2014.

Brian Clay and Brandon Beaver have little room to regress at this point in their UW careers, so this spring is vital to show they’re up for a position battle. Clay earned his looks last year based a lot on his special teams work; he’s also gained six pounds in the off-season to get over 200. Beaver’s UW career has been a bit of an enigma so far. He finished off 2013 right with a bowl start, but was never able to capitalize despite playing in 12 games as a sophomore.

The last player that needs to make a play this spring is also a new guy - Ezekiel Turner. I put him in this category based on the old cliche - you don’t sign juco players to have them ride pine. Turner was brought in as a mid-year transfer safety to immediately push Baker, King, Walker, Clay, and Beaver - so this spring is incredibly important for him. Turner does have a redshirt year available, and based on how he adjusts to school, D1 ball, and the rest of the college experience will ultimately tell whether or not he uses that redshirt right away. If he comes out of the blocks flying, that could really shake things up.

The New Guys: Washington redshirted three defensive backs last year - McIntosh, Lewis, and Chapman - and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two scholarship players were among the biggest weight gainers during the off-season. McIntosh put on 13 pounds, while Lewis put on 11 after recovering from injury.

To be honest, the way the numbers are crunching for the DB’s, this spring could be a bit of a free-roll for the new guys. They can show their off-season work has paid dividends and also go full-tilt to make sure Coach Lake knows they are around. But if, for some reason, the guys in front of them don’t slip up, they have another year getting bigger, faster, and stronger before they will be expected to make a serious play for the two-deeps.

What does spring mean for this group?: Coach Lake was pretty adamant last year that once John Ross moved from full-time receiver to full-time defensive back, he’d stay there. Move ahead a few months and it’s definitely clear by looking at the defensive back numbers heading into spring compared to the receivers that Ross needed to be back on offense. Not only does the offense frankly need him more than the defense, but that’s probably where he wants to be anyway.

I haven’t mentioned this yet in any of the previews - maybe just out of dumb superstition - but it’s clear the defensive backs group returns enough bodies and experience that the main thing they get out of spring is staying healthy. Kelly and Walker return, and as I mentioned above, they won’t be rushed back in. They have starts, so they know what it takes to get back. For the DB’s, the spring could be as much about mental reps and honing in on the fundamentals of the positions involved than actual scrimmaging or seeing who moves up and down the depth chart.

Right now Coach Lake has four safeties and four cornerbacks with significant experience. Comparatively-speaking, the DB room is loaded. Any challenges to starting spots, any two-deep battles, will most likely be joined in the fall. I doubt you’ll see much movement this spring, but what you will see is a lot of experienced, talented players getting their work in and pushing each other to improve. If they can do that without tripping over themselves and risking injury, so much the better.

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