State of the Defense - Kent Baer

Washington Defensive Coordinator Kent Baer must've walked out of the tunnel and out into Husky Stadium last April saying to himself, 'Is this all I've got?' With injuries to no less than 16 players, Washington's team bore a close resemblence to a MASH unit. Baer spoke with Thursday and talked about getting familiarized with his players coming off the disabled list, as well as some of the keys his defense will have to focus on as they prepare to take on Air Force.

"There are so many player that missed practice," Baer said, with just a touch of frustration coloring his words. "I think on the defensive line alone we had 6 or something close to that. Joe (Lobendahn) missed most of practice, Scott White missed most of practice, Dashon (Goldson) was out the whole spring, (Josh) Okoebor was out the whole spring - so it's just hard to know what we've got."

Much like his counterpart on offense - Tim Lappano - Baer inherits a situation most wouldn't pass onto their worst enemy. The Huskies were a league-worst in scoring defense, allowing over 30 points a game in 2004. Looking at the statistics, it's easy to see the two areas where Baer has taken great exception to - turnover margin and rush defense. "I think we need to create turnovers, defend the run better and eliminate big plays," he said, matter-of-factly. "If we can do those things, we've done a good job."

Coming into this fall, Baer and his staff identified seven goals for the defense based on the spring. He wouldn't talk in detail about those seven goals, but did talk to us about what fans may see on the field that may or may not be different from the defense that Phil Snow put together last season. "In some ways there are going to be a lot of similarities because I have worked a lot with Coach Snow in the past," Baer said, adding that he previously worked with Snow at California for five seasons and at Arizona State for three. "But if there was one thing people could say about our defenses is that we play pretty hard. If you had to put a stamp on what we do, I think that would describe us pretty well.

"Football is a game of matchups, so we'll play personnel groups, but we won't necessarily package by personnel either. We want to best utilize the talent that's on this football team. For instance, we had a guy at Stanford - Riall Johnson. Riall was an outside linebacker, but he led the league in sacks for two years. We put him down in a three-point stance and let him go because he had such a good knack for pass rush and getting to the quarterback.

"We'll have our base defense, our nickel defense, goal-line defense, etc... and we're looking for starters in all those groups. We want our guys to take pride in the fact that they are a starter."

While Snow taught a position as well as coordinated the defense, Baer has taken a different tact. He takes a 'Jack of All-Trades'-approach, roaming the field and addressing issues with whatever group he sees as the need arises. "I love practice and love to be involved," he said. "Sometimes I'll take the safeties during the individual period and sometimes I'll go to other groups. Having coached just about everywhere on the defense helps and having done it this way for the past four years helps too."

The team has basically half of their total number of fall practices during this three-week stretch of camp, so Baer wants to get as much out of their workouts as possible. He's also hoping that the summer conditioning and workout regimen the players took upon themselves to participate in will pay immediate dividends. While you would expect coaches to not be happy about 'volunteer' turnouts during the summer, Baer sees it as a time where initiative can turn into team-building and leadership.

"I think it's actually a good thing, because coming out of spring we wanted them to stay for the summer and all work together," he said. "We gave them some things to work on and having that time in the summer just on their own tends to develop leadership. That's one of the things we talked to them about coming out of spring ball. And each coach sat them down after the spring and showed them the fundamentals that they needed to work on during the summer."

It's just a couple of practices into fall, but Baer is noticing dividends. "I can tell that some work has been done, but we haven't put on pads yet," he notes, cautiously. "Things like their pad level being too high - these are things you kind of come to expect early on in the fall."

So what about the specific defensive groupings? "I think they have a chance to be a very solid group if they can stay healthy," Baer said when asked about the defensive line. "The number of players that have played games is great, so the key for them is to stay healthy. We have some guys that can run. (Greyson) Gunheim - he can really run. And Brandon Ala and Manase Hopoi. And a guy like Mike Mapu(olesega) - he just loves to play the game. A guy like Donny Mateaki has seen playing time and looks pretty decent running around. And with Caesar (Rayford), he's someone that could really give us something in time. He's a tall kid that can really run. And the other guys - like (Dan) Milsten and Wilson Afoa - I really liked what Wilson did in the spring ... I'm excited about this group, but skeptical too. Staying healthy is the key."

And linebackers? "With Joe (Lobendahn) and Scott (White) out, having others practice in their place this spring created some depth, and that's never a bad thing," said Baer. He also talked about the emergence of Daniel Howell as an outside linebacker. "I think he's going to be good because it's important to him. He works really hard and he now understands what he's doing. We love his attitude."

If injuries necessitate, will Baer look to one of his three true freshman linebackers - E.J. Savannah, Darrion Jones or Chris Stevens? Baer definitely has an opinion on playing guys early in their careers. "Players are so much more physically ready to go play right out of high school nowadays," he said. "They all have their own workout gurus, but they don't really have an idea as to the speed of the game. Some of them come in way too big to play. And they also have to catch up to the mental part. The faster they can pick the game up mentally, the quicker we can use them."

Losing Derrick Johnson and Sam Cunningham to graduation makes the secondary the most inexperienced group Baer has to work with. "I saw some things that I liked, but really it's a matter of consistency for them," he said when asked about the secondary. "We need to put plays together back-to-back-to-back. There's just too much inconsistency. But getting to work with them this spring, it helps to build up trust. From what I've heard, it looks like the secondary guys had an excellent summer."

He also talked about what he will be focusing on when teaching the guys in the back-third. "I think it's harder for them then most because everyone sees their mistakes," Baer said. "To really be good back there, you have to be able to forget things in a hurry. You have to have a tough mental attitude. Football is also a game of communication, especially in the secondary, so that's also going to be very important."

And all the preparations on defense right now will be carried over into the season, but Baer shakes his head when asked about Air Force. Head Coach Tyrone Willingham already talked about how little carryover there is between preparing for AFA's specific option-oriented offense and what the Huskies will see the rest of the season. Baer breaks it down into even simpler terms.

"Anytime you play a team like Air Force, Navy, etc ... it's like learning a whole new language, but you only have a week to learn it," he said with a little chuckle. "I keep telling our guys, when we played Air Force the last time, who won? Air Force did. And when we played them the time before that, who won? Air Force did. When you play them you are playing one of - if not the most - disciplined teams in the country."

Baer broke down the key points to beating Air Force's option attack. "You have to be great reading your keys and be very disciplined in what you're doing," he said. "A team like that can really embarass you to no end. I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. You also have to be very good at staying on your feet, shedding blockers and making tackles."

Since they can be so effective, why don't you see more option-based offenses in college football? "Simply put, when you get behind, it's very difficult to come back," Baer said, but with a caveat. "The scary thing about this Air Force team is that they pass the ball better than any Air Force team I have ever seen before." Top Stories