Rick Neuheisel Spring Outlook - Defense

With rumors swirling in January about the future of Washington defensive coordinator Tim Hundley, Husky Head Coach Rick Neuheisel was forced to make a choice. Should he go in a different direction or retain Hundley? Well, Tim's coming back, but the question marks remain.

Only ten years ago, the Dawgs were known for an aggressive, no-holds-barred, attacking style of D that really punished opposing offenses. For the 2001 Huskies, the fierce growls that signified defenses of old had been replaced with hardly a whimper.

Youth and inexperience were the trademarks of the 2001 defensive team, yet this core group of players didn't necessarily get better as they acquired more games under their belts. For example, the average yards given up in the first four games of the season was 320 yards/game. The last four? A whopping 453 yards/game.

It's those last four games that really exposed the Huskies defensively and forced Neuheisel to seriously consider how Washington will play defense this coming season. He sat down with us to give a brief idea of how things are going to change this spring and coming fall.

"As is the case in every off-season, we do an evaluation of scheme and personnel," Neuheisel told Dawgman.com. "We've studied our scheme and we've talked to other coaches around the country about things that are going on defensively and we've evaluated our personnel."

The result of these 'evaluations' hasn't led Neuheisel and Hundley to scrap the scheme in a wholesale way. If anything, they feel that the answer to regaining the form that was the hallmark of championship teams past is more basic than scheme or personnel.

"The bottom line is that we had some breakdown in both places," he said. "We had some breakdowns where scheme let us down and we had some breakdowns where we just didn't have the right players in to do the things that the scheme was requiring. But the most important thing is that we need to fix is the identity and aggressiveness of our defense. We need to get our swagger back and we need great leadership on the field. I believe that is as important as anything we do. Once we line them up, do we have the guys that can fly to the ball? I think we will be better at that this year."

'Flying to the ball' just might be the operative phrase for the spring, as Neuheisel has his guys running their butts off, and it's showing. "I think things are going well," he said. "We had a great pro timing day. Our team ran well."

The first group he mentioned defensively was the linebackers. "Marquis Cooper impressed everybody," said Neuheisel. "He ran a 4.4 as a 220-pound linebacker. Tyler Krambrink and Joseph Lobendahn ran sub-4.6 times, as well as Jafar Williams. You've got a chance there now to be pretty fast. Ben Mahdavi was right in the 4.6 range, so that's a good group of guys that can run and play good defense."

The other issue defensively that will need to be addressed is at safety. There's no question that jobs are there for the taking, especially with the two apparent starters out for the spring. "Right now you'd like to say (Jimmy) Newell and (Greg) Carothers are the guys but neither one is going to get a full spring," Neuheisel said. "It's going to give a great opportunity to watch guys like James Sims and Evan Benjamin play. Rayshon Dukes and Ty Eriks too. We moved Ty to safety to get a look and see if he's capable. He's certainly athletic enough. BJ Newberry will also get a look."

Neuheisel seems especially excited to see the two redshirt freshmen get in there and get their noses dirty. "I'm excited about Sims," he said. "He ran a 4.4 and Benjamin ran a 4.55. Those two guys are really eager, bright-eyed kids that want to play and will be good-looking players for the future."

Any thoughts of possibly moving Cooper back to safety to fill a hole are not in Neuheisel's plans. "Marquis is such a natural at linebacker, I hesitate to move him," he said. "What you want to do is move guys forward as they gain speed, not move them back."

The loss of Larry Tripplett will be felt, but Jerome Stevens, Josh Miller and Tui Alailefaleula will help pull the slack on the defensive line. The loss of Omare Lowe might be a little tougher to pick up, but having redshirt frosh Derrick Johnson back will undoubtedly help.

"Derrick Johnson ran a 4.5 and a 4.48 the other day," Neuheisel said of the defensive back from Riverside, California. "That's not where he was last year, but he's healthy. That's exciting that he's close to returning to that level. He will be an outstanding guy to have back playing DB. Remember that Roc Alexander is coming back at corner too. Those are going to be great players."

Neuheisel was also quick to add a comment or two about the other players he expects to bolster the secondary. "You look to Sam Cunningham and Eric Shyne to do well and hopefully Chris Massey can fight back from that disappointing last game, because there were times when he played really well."

The groundwork has been layed in this offseason with a successful mat drill program and now it's time to put on the pads and see what happens. Expect the defense to be faster and more aggressive. Will they make more plays?

The identity of the defense will tell all.

Rick Neuheisel Spring Outlook - Offense

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