It seems hard to imagine the Washington defense being able to play better than they did in 2015. They led the Pac-12 in total defense and scoring defense. They were the only school to give up less than 30 touchdowns and less than five yards per possession in the season.
So how can they improve? They were second in rush defense but fourth in pass defense. They gave up a conference-best 11 touchdowns in 13 games, so they held fast when the Huskies needed them most.
But can they get better? You bet they can. The secondary lost Brian Clay to graduation, and a couple of players were held out of spring (Brandon Beaver, Austin Joyner), but everyone else returned.
That means seven players come back with starts under their belt, and three of them - Budda Baker, Sidney Jones, and Kevin King - have at least 25 starts to their credit. Overall, the secondary heads into 2016 with 97 total starts.
And that’s not even including Jojo McIntosh, who played all of spring as the No. 1 safety opposite Baker.
Secondary (by year)
Kevin King (6-3, 190, Sr.) - King had a really, really good spring - one of UW’s top performers. He came up with picks and overall just made life miserable for receivers out on the edge. He was able to participate the whole spring, which puts him in a great position to start opposite Sidney Jones this fall.
Darren Gardenhire (5-11, 187, Jr.) - Gardenhire’s breakout spring was last year, but now UW Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake has turned Gardenhire into his Swiss Army Knife. The junior can play at either cornerback position, as well as the nickel or dime back, with ease.
Brandon Lewis (5-10, 186, So.) - Lewis got a ton of work with the twos and showed that he’s right there with Jordan Miller when it comes to getting considerable playing time in the fall. Considering his past injury history, it’s a great sign Lewis was able to play the whole spring without taking time off.
Ian Biddle (6-0, 180, So.)* - One of the walk-on defensive backs lost in the shuffle because of the numbers crunch.
Dustin Bush (5-9, 176, RFr.)* - Bush showed well in spring, definitely expect him to be a consistent scout contributor in the fall. He can make plays.
Sidney Jones (6-0, 180, Jr.) - All that Jones needed to do was get his work in, which is what the junior did. He didn’t participate in all of the spring work available to him, but in part that was so Lake could get more meaningful turns for players like Jordan Miller and Brandon Lewis. There’s nothing that happened this spring to indicate a drop in form for Jones, who has been one of UW’s constants on defense the last two seasons.
Jordan Miller (6-1, 176, So.) - Of all the defensive backs, Miller had arguably the best spring. Rarely did a practice go by where his name wasn’t called for making an interception or big play. His rangy frame certainly suggests Miller is capable of making an impact in the same way King and Jones have.
Austin Joyner (5-10, 190, RFr.) - Missed spring rehabbing a knee injury.
De'Andre' Watson (5-8, 173, RFr.)* - Watson, like Bush, participated in all of spring and showed that he relished the opportunity of working alongside such a talented cornerback group.
Brandon Beaver (6-0, 188, Sr.) - Missed spring rehabbing a knee injury.
Hayden Schuh (6-0, 205, Sr.)* - Schuh has made his name at UW as a special teams stalwart, so he has really earned his safety reps. He’s a good-sized safety who isn’t going to get caught out of position. He has a lot of experience and Lake is certainly going to count on him with the weekly scouts.
Budda Baker (5-10, 184, Jr.) - Baker having great practices has become redundant ever since Budda showed up at Montlake. He takes pride in being a great practice player, and that was clearly evident this spring. He leads the secondary by example, and at times seemed to be everywhere.
Trevor Walker (5-11, 190, Jr.) - I thought Walker was crushing it in his comeback from injury until he missed a couple practices. He came back to finish spring on an up note, and overall his play has to be seen as very, very encouraging for those wondering if he was going to get back to form.
Sean Vergara (6-2, 182, So.)* - Moved from cornerback to safety. Hard to tell how big of an impact he’ll have in the fall just because of the logjam at safety. Too much talent.
Ezekiel Turner (6-2, 210, Jr.) - Backed up Jojo McIntosh and had a very consistent spring. Turner is a no-nonsense player who is going to give you 100 percent and will hit like a mack truck. Consistency will be the key for Turner going forward if he plans on seriously challenging McIntosh for the safety spot opposite Baker.
Jojo McIntosh (6-1, 208, So.) - Came in opposite Budda to start spring ball, and nothing happened in April to change anyone’s mind. McIntosh is an instinctual safety who matches Baker’s energy. He can lay the lumber when he needs to, but has rounded out his game to be a much better overall safety prospect.
Mason Stone (6-0, 180, So.)* - Obviously struggled a bit initially while he got settled in this spring, but Stone’s energy is contagious and he’s clearly eager to be a Husky. As he gets more comfortable, Stone should work his way into being a strong special teamer as fellow safety Hayden Schuh has.
Taylor Rapp (6-0, 206, Fr.) - Rapp was the clear number three safety behind McIntosh and Turner, and even an injury that forced him to play the second half of spring with a big balled-up cast around his left hand didn’t stop the true frosh from getting his work in. His toughness is already apparent. With so much depth the Huskies should be able to redshirt Rapp, but he showed enough in spring to put just a hint of doubt into that plan.
Where does the Secondary group stand heading into the summer?
There’s only one negative to the secondary’s play this spring: they weren’t able to incorporate Beaver and Joyner into the mix. That’s it.
The return of Walker from his redshirt year may end up being a big plus. With Clay’s graduation Walker can slide right into the safety rotation behind Budda Baker. If his work this spring is any indication, Walker has the size, speed and instincts to step in and contribute.
If Beaver can make it back and add something too in 2016, that gives Washington six legitimate safeties they can use if you include true freshman Rapp. The same can be said for Joyner and the cornerbacks. I can’t remember a time
Because there is so much versatility and experience in the defensive backfield, Washington Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has a lot of flexibility to use more than four players at a time back there.
Kevin King started four games in 2015 as a nickel back: Darren Gardenhire could see at least that many starts in the same spot this fall. And frankly, the way Jordan Miller played this spring it seems hard to believe that he won’t find the field in some fashion.
Obviously it’s Kwiatkowski’s job to put the best 11 players on the field, and one could certainly argue that the Huskies’ secondary has enough depth and quality to see a lot of nickel and dime looks during the season.