Kevin King graduates. Budda Baker and Sidney Jones have declared for the 2017 NFL Draft. Darren Gardenhire made the surprise decision to immediately transfer out the week of the Apple Cup.
That leaves Jojo McIntosh and Taylor Rapp as the only returning defensive backs with more than one start in 2016. But they have 23 combined starts.
The problem lies with replacing King and Jones, who started 36 and 39 games in their UW careers. Replacing 75 total starts won’t be easy, but this is where Jimmy Lake’s prowess as a stockpiler of talent will start to show itself.
So what does this mean for the Washington defense in 2017?
Well, back in 2015 I would have had the same response when the Huskies lost six of their seven players from the previous season’s defensive front - I would have professed cautious optimism because of the return of Travis Feeney and the experience of a players like Tupou and Mathis. But it was the youngsters like Qualls that really shored things up.
The same will be said for the 2017 secondary. With only one loss from the front seven in Qualls, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to replicate 2016’s production. Washington DC Pete Kwiatkowski has shown an ability to get more out of players stepping in to replace incumbents, so we've seen this storyline before.
McIntosh and Rapp will stabilize the spine of Washington’s defense, the trick will be having the ‘next men up’ at cornerback step in and not miss a beat. The obvious hurdle is having those players grow up in a hurry.
In 2016, Budda Baker ran the secondary room and led by example, but it was the cornerbacks that made a significant impact to opposition game plans. Jones was not targeted much at all, such was his reputation as a shutdown corner. And King with his sizable height and wingspan created mismatches against smaller receivers, garnering attention as a player that could develop into the next Richard Sherman.
The clear marker for how the defense as a whole will progress this year will be how quickly the remaining cornerbacks ramp up their learning curve and pick up where Jones and King left off.
So what does it mean for the Washington defensive backs group going forward?
Just like when Joe Mathis and Azeem Victor went out with injuries this past fall, it’ll be ‘next man up’ for Washington’s cornerbacks group.
The safeties appear pretty set. McIntosh and Rapp have shown that they should be penciled in as starters when spring ball comes around, ably backed by seniors Turner and Walker. That’s the kind of two-deeps Washington needs to have in order to keep production ticking along at a high level.
The cornerbacks are a different story, for obvious reasons. With King, Jones and Gardenhire basically taking the rest of the cornerback starts out of play the last two years, the only opportunities players like Jordan Miller, Austin Joyner and Brandon Lewis have had came during mop-up time.
As much as this coaching staff has rightly earned the reputation as willing to put young players in high-leverage situations without hesitation, cornerbacks is the one place where they really didn’t do it all that much. Luckily, Washington’s offense played so well in 2016 that the defensive coaches were able to get their backups lots of turns.
Miller is the one player that should be a shoe-in for one of the corner spots. He has shown the ability to fit in and make one of those positions his own. Austin Joyner has the physicality and athleticism to certainly take the other cornerback spot, but it’s the redshirting freshmen that Washington fans should be really focused on this spring.
Byron Murphy has been like the belated big Christmas gift that the UW coaches have been waiting to open. He was the arguably the highest-rated defensive back in Washington’s 2016 recruiting class, picking UW over Arizona State and many others. A former U.S. Army All-American, Murphy has shown he can play corner or nickel.
In fact, both Isaiah Gilchrist and Kentrell Love could start out getting their feet wet as an additional defensive back, much like what Rapp did, and then develop from there. With so many spread offenses pushing UW to play five defensive backs, Pete Kwiatkowski and Jimmy Lake will have ample opportunities to get the young guys in the mix from the start.
There’s no doubt that the future is very bright for Washington’s defensive backs, despite the loss of so many talented players. It’s next man up, and the Huskies have a lot of men to choose from.
And the beauty of having been able to redshirt three defensive backs last year is that they can redshirt the three expected incoming DBs - Brandon McKinney, Elijah Molden and Keith Taylor. That's the formula that will keep the Huskies filling departures with quality athletes with time growing up in the program.
Isaiah Gilchrist (5-10, 188, RFr.)
Projected 2017 Defensive Backs Depth Chart (by position)
Jordan Miller (6-1, 176, Jr.)
Brandon Lewis (5-11, 187, Jr.) OR
Kentrell Love (6-1, 165, RFr.)
Keith Taylor (6-2.5, 180, Fr.)
Ian Biddle (6-0, 180, Jr.)*
Austin Joyner (5-10, 190, So) OR
Byron Murphy (5-11, 172, RFr.) OR
Isaiah Gilchrist (5-10, 188, RFr.)
Myles Bryant (5-9, 175, So)*
Elijah Molden (5-10, 175, Fr.)
Taylor Rapp (6-0, 206, So.)
Ezekiel Turner (6-2, 210, Sr.)
Mason Stone (6-0, 180, Jr.)*
Jojo McIntosh (6-1, 208, Jr.)
Trevor Walker (5-11, 190, Sr.)
Brandon McKinney (6-1, 195, Fr.)
Sean Vergara (6-2, 182, Jr.)*