Where does the secondary group find itself heading into fall camp?
Sometimes you have to take a step backward to eventually jump forward, and that’s what happened with Washington’s defensive back unit in 2014. Six members of the secondary played as true frosh the last two years, giving the group depth and talent where they need it. It’s not perfect by any means, but this defensive back group has the potential to be as good as the 2000 class that helped get Washington to their last Rose Bowl. That group had Anthony Vontoure and Omare Lowe at the corners, with Hakim Akbar and the late Curtis Williams at safety.
On paper, if the tight end group was the most complete offensive group from top to bottom heading into this coming fall camp, the secondary has to be the most complete when looking at the other side of the ball. With Kevin King, Trevor Walker, Budda Baker, Sidney Jones, Darren Gardenhire and Naijiel Hale all having to play as true freshmen, that shared experience of going from the frying pan right into the fire should serve them well in 2015.
What should add to UW fans’ optimism regarding the secondary is that a couple of key contributors - Kevin King and Trevor Walker - were out all of spring, but they’ll be back in full force this fall. Even Brandon Beaver and Brandon Lewis were in yellow a lot of the time, meaning no contact - but he’ll be back 100 percent too.
With those three extremely limited or out - as well as sophomore Naijiel Hale, who missed the first week of spring - Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake took that opportunity to get extended looks with other, healthy players - like Jojo McIntosh and Ezekiel Turner at safety, as well as Hale and Darren Gardenhire at cornerback.
Where the group still lacks is overall experience and veteran leadership - although many would counter by saying having a year like the true frosh had in 2014 put them in a position to lead this fall. That may be true; only time will tell on that score. But this much can be said; Washington has four genuine corners and four genuine safeties they can go to, with more on hand the build depth for the future. Both the defensive line and linebacking groups have that younger depth in spades but don’t necessarily have the wise heads in front of them to show them the way.
The secondary group is the one defensive group that bucks the trend. They have a combined 42 starts from last year scattered among five starters. And it’s true they won’t all be asked to handle the same roles and responsibilities as they did in 2014, the experience gained during that season should put them in good stead going forward.
Brian Clay (6-1, 202, Sr.) - Normally a special teams standout, the Hawaii transfer had a chance to impress Lake with Beaver and Walker limited. It’s hard to tell if Clay stood out because he didn’t show up with the highlight interceptions like Gardenhire, Beaver, et al… but Clay was rock solid. At the very worst, Clay will provide depth and experience to a group that should benefit from his veteran presence.
Brandon Beaver (6-0, 191, Jr.) - Beaver, despite playing in 18 games the past two years, has only one start under his belt - and that was at the end of the 2013 season. Does the former U.S. Army All-American have it in him to push for playing time opposite Budda Baker? Of course he does, but the largest impediment keeping Beaver from that coveted role is himself. He either keeps getting hurt or doesn’t play with the consistency required. But he showed in spring he could be a factor, picking off passes left and right despite wearing yellow.
Kevin King (6-3, 182, Jr.) - While King was out for spring football with an injury, Lake had a notion; with the Seattle Seahawks down the street and their ‘Legion of Boom’ in full force, is there anything he could take away from their attitude and play and pass it down to his guys? With King, you have a former high school corner that could be an excellent college corner in time, a rangy presence to handle the in vogue bigger receivers so prevalent nowadays. In short, King could become Washington’s version of Richard Sherman. At least that’s the plan; we’ll see how it develops once King gets back out on the field.
Trevor Walker (5-11, 182, Jr.) - Despite dealing with injuries the first two years of his UW career, the Texas native still has played in 14 combined games. But can he stay healthy? That’s the main concern. Walker, when right, has shown he can play effectively alongside Budda Baker. If the injury thing gets chronic, Walker - like King - has a redshirt year available. Will those two be given some extra time to heal up? We’ll see. It would be a shame to see that happen, as they have the experience to make a difference right now.
Budda Baker (5-10, 176, So.) - What became clear after spring football was that not only had the Bellevue superstar made himself the vital cog in Washington’s defensive backfield, but that he had also taken over the primary leadership role too. If you ever just focus on him during practice you’ll see why; he never takes a rep off and goes 100 percent the whole time. Coaches have certainly used him as their shining example to all when it comes to work ethic and commitment. What many undervalue in Budda is his football savvy and knack for being in the right place at the right time…every time.
Sidney Jones (6-0, 177, So.) - When Jermaine Kelly got hurt against Eastern Washington last fall, it was up to Sidney Jones to quickly acclimate himself to life as a starting cornerback in the Pac-12. Slowly, Jones found his footing and now is a stalwart heading into his sophomore season. Jones came back this spring hardened by the battles he survived and basically shut every UW receiver down on his side of the ball. Following in the footsteps of Desmond Trufant and Marcus Peters, Jones has taken one of the corner spots and has made it his own - and I don’t think he’s going to give it up any time soon.
Darren Gardenhire (5-11, 181, So.) - If there was one winner for spring, it was Darren Gardenhire. With Naijiel Hale gone early, Lake gave Gardenhire the chance he needed to show his evolution as a shut-down corner. The true sophomore stepped right in as if the spot opposite Sidney Jones was his all along. By Lake’s count, Gardenhire had created more turnovers than anyone else on defense. The way the competition at the cornerback spot opposite Jones is shaping up, I don’t see Gardenhire losing the spot unless Hale does something very special in the fall. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gardenhire take control of the position he made his own during the spring.
Naijiel Hale (5-10, 182, So.) - Despite missing some time early in spring, Hale wasn’t about to give up that cornerback battle without a fight. To his credit he could have shut up shop, gone about his business, and had a decent spring as a backup - but that’s not how Hale is wired. There’s no question this starting position battle has the potential of being the one to watch this fall. Either way, both sophomores have shown they can play and they can make plays when called upon.
Ezekiel Turner (6-2, 204 So.) - Turner turned heads when he signed mid-year with UW over offers from schools like Oklahoma, and UW fans were excited to see what he could do when he hit the ground running at Husky Stadium. Turner, who has the reputation of being a real thumper from the strong safety position, didn’t get a chance to really impose his physicality - so it was frankly hard to evaluate his spring performance. Once the pads get put on for real I suspect we’ll see Turner as he was meant to be seen - but with the covers still on we really won’t a true picture of what the juco standout is capable of until Boise State. If he is able to inflict the type of damage everyone at UW thinks he’s capable of, Zeke Turner will play. A lot. He didn’t sign with the Huskies to sit.
Jojo McIntosh (6-0, 204, RFr.) - With Walker out and Beaver limited, Brian Clay wasn’t the only safety to benefit from the extra turns in front of Lake’s watchful eye. The redshirt frosh McIntosh came out and definitely showed he’s a contender for serious playing time in 2015. Physically the 13 pounds McIntosh gained in the off-season (the most of any defensive back) have come in handy, as he now looks the part of a Pac-12 safety that can handle the rigors of a full season. McIntosh’s playing time this fall will most likely depend on how close to 100 percent Walker and Beaver are at the beginning of fall. But Jojo made big strides in April, and if he can continue to ramp up his development at the same pace he will absolutely be a player to reckon with. He was also one of the secondary members with the most turnovers gained, so that won’t hurt his chances with Lake when the time comes.
Brandon Lewis (5-10, 192, RFr.) - Lewis was in yellow during spring, a familiar sight considering the redshirt frosh was pretty banged up all of the 2014 season. But being in yellow meant he could participate in some of the drills during spring, and though Lewis was limited he still seemed to be effective in the turns he did get. Lewis also gained at least 10 good pounds in the off-season, transforming his body. As long as he comes back this fall 100 percent, Lewis should factor in the cornerback battles - but that 100 percent is a dicey situation considering he hasn’t been 100 percent healthy since his sophomore year in high school.
Austin Joyner (5-10, 192, Fr.) - Could Austin Joyner play? That’s the $64 question heading into fall camp. You would think with all the players and depth the Huskies have right now in the secondary they would be able to stick him in the weight room and hide the key. But Joyner, who played running back and safety in high school, has a Pac-12 ready-made body right now. On that score they don’t have to wait for him to develop. He’s got the size and speed. But is he cut out for cornerback? Joyner’s football IQ has always been one of his biggest assets, and his skill set just screams out free safety to the naked eye, but Lake appears set on giving Jordan a chance at cornerback first. We’ll see what develops with the talented Marysville native over the course of fall camp.
Jordan Miller (6-1, 164, Fr.) - Much like Kevin King coming out of high school, Jordan Miller was an exceptional athlete that played both sides of the ball for Oceanside High near San Diego. But he didn’t have a ton of high school experience before Washington gave him an opportunity to play in college. He’a a blank canvas - one with a 38-inch vertical jump - that Lake can mold any way he wants to. With his size, length, and long-term upside, expect Miller to redshirt this fall while the UW Strength and Conditioning staff get to work putting pounds on Miller’s frame.
Projected Fall DB Depth Chart
CB Sidney Jones (6-0, 177, So.)
CB Kevin King (6-3, 182, Jr.)
CB Austin Joyner (5-10, 192)
S Trevor Walker (5-11, 182, Jr.) OR
S Brandon Beaver (6-0, 191, Jr.) OR
S Jojo McIntosh (6-0, 204, RFr.)
S Budda Baker (5-10, 176, So.)
S Brian Clay (6-1, 202, Sr.) OR
S Ezekiel Turner (6-2, 204 So.)
CB Darren Gardenhire (5-11, 181, So.)
CB Naijiel Hale (5-10, 182, So.)
CB Brandon Lewis (5-10, 192, RFr.)
CB Jordan Miller (6-1, 164)