When Tyrone Willingham was at both Stanford and Notre Dame the strengths of both teams was their defenses. Having competed against defensive coordinator, Kent Baer, when he was at Stanford, Cal and ASU, and then watching the game in South Bend, I know that he has a great defensive feel for the game. He has always mixed his coverages well and has just enough of a pressure package to keep an offense honest in their protection schemes.
If you don't protect your quarterback, he is going to get hit.
It is not as though Baer has invented something new, but rather that he understands this conference and how its sophisticated offenses have tended to dominate. With this year's model, if Baer can get everyone healthy and eligible, then the Huskies have the potential to be special on the defensive side of the ball.
Good enough perhaps to carry this team to a winning record.
If this spring is any indication, then their recruiting also has to be acknowledged.
What many people fail to remember is that except for these last two years, the team in the Pac-10 that has turned out the most NFL draft picks has not been the USC Trojans, or the Cal Bears, or the UCLA Bruins, but the Stanford Cardinal. Every single one of those draft picks was recruited by the staff of Tyrone Willingham and many of them have been on the defensive side of the ball.
Bear, who has been with Coach Willingham the past 11 years, combines his 30 years of coaching experience with Randy Hart, who has been at Washington for 19 years now, and Chris Tormey, who like the other two, is now in his fifties and has been a defensive coordinator himself, as well as a head coach. The addition of JD Williams has made the defensive side of the ball even more potent as he brings with him the secrets that have made Cal so damn good the past five years. This is a seasoned and veteran group of coaches who will get the right players in the right positions to make the right plays.
What is apparent to me though, is I think they now have enough good cover corners to effectively lock down on receivers thereby allowing them to bring anywhere from five to eight players toward the quarterback in pressure situations.
With eight starters back on defense, I will be surprised if they are not one of the better defenses in the conference. The only "if" factor will be the return of some key and currently injured players, and the addition of safety Ashlee Palmer signed from the JC ranks and still not yet admitted to school.
Brandon Ala is finally up to about 265, Jordan White-Frisbee is down to 325, Eric Lobos is down to 300, and CJ Wallace is a solid 205. Unfortunately, all these ex-starters, have missed a lot of football due to injuries and rehabilitation. If all four return to form this fall it will really help the depth. There is no doubt that Wallace is one of the best Husky defenders returning. He is a great hitter and was one of their very best tacklers last season. The other three are all experienced defensive linemen and you can never have enough of those. An influx of five more seasoned players to the defensive depth along with maybe 2-3 incoming high school players would give them enough depth to really make a strong showing.
It appears as though the careers of a few other defenders is probably over due to injury but you always have to figure on at least one or two freshmen being able to help in the depth as well, so it could be a push. Defensive tackle, Dan Milsten, has never really come back from the vicious and illegal leg shot he took blindside against Oregon State a few years ago. In what was obviously an intentional clip, a player's career and dreams were essentially ended. I know the Beaver player regretted it and felt terrible but don't expect to see Dan ever play again for the Huskies. Same is probably the case with corner, Josh Okoebor, whose injury likewise will probably end his career. Defensive tackle, Jasper Henry has never really played since he's been at Washington (in neither practices nor games). Seeing him on the field anywhere would be unexpected at this point.
Milsten, Okoebor, and Henry all count against the 85 total scholarship limit unless they are declared "permanently injured". If doctors determine that a student-athlete can not participate on a permanent basis then schools are allowed to keep them on scholarship, declare them permanently ineligible to compete, and open up another sport in their scholarship count. It is and always has been an important roster consideration. Sometimes you simply have to bite the bullet and admit the kid can't play and just find another healthy body. It is sad but always best for the team an ultimately good for the kid because he gets to finish his degree.
Grayson Gunheim should be a force. With White-Frisbee, Lobos, and Ala all back from injury to go with Walt Winter, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Jordan Reffett, Jovon O'Connor, JC transfer Anthony Atkins, Wilson Afoa, the recently moved Darrion Jones, and an improving Donny Mateaki, coach Hart has plenty of bodies to compete with and against.
That is probably the best depth up front the Huskies have had in years. Don't be surprised to also see linebacker Chris Stevens used in speed pass rush situations at the defensive end position. He can mix in the speed because the linebacker position is also getting faster.
Going into to spring the defensive position area with the most concern due to graduation was linebacker. Only Scott White was returning as a starter and many of the younger players had experienced mixed results in their play. Coach Tormey has responded with a much quicker and faster group with White being joined by Tahj Bomar, Dan Howell, Trenton Tuiasosopo, Stevens, the potentially explosive E. J. Savannah, Kyle Trew, and walk-on Joshua Gage (originally from Orcas Island). In-coming signees Matt Houston and Donald Butler are expected to join the three deep once they arrive in the fall.
The thing that is most noticeable from this group is that there is a lot more flying around and hustling to the ball. They really run to the football and there are lots of ways to use their over all speed. With the exception of Tuiasosopo, they are not particularly big but they swarm and that is what you really want out of linebackers. Get to the ball, get to the quarterback, get to and get out the football. I really like the way all of them run.
The secondary has improved under coach Williams because there are enough new faces to make it really competitive. The move of Dashon Goldson to corner has really bolstered the depth there but also really opened it up for competition at the inside or safety spots. With Wallace out and Goldson outside, Chris Hemphill has finally made his move and has become a force that his body would indicate. He is looking more and more comfortable roaming the outfield and will be right in the hunt with Wallace and much improving Mesphin Forrester, Darin Harris, and JC transfer Jason Wells. Palmer will give Coach Williams six players to compete for the safety positions while Goldson, Roy Lewis, and Matt Fountaine will be joined on the corner by JC transfer, Jordan Murchison who has shown he will be a contributor as well. All four have looked good this spring.
Three JC transfers joined the defense this spring and all appear to be good enough to be in the two-deep come fall. Palmer should make it four and that is one of the first times I have seen Washington add 4 JC's to their depth in years. It was a great case of addressing critical needs with recruiting.
Injury always plays a role on just about every football team in America. The Huskies addressed this concern by adding significantly to their depth - at least on the defensive side of the ball. This has the potential to be a very solid defensive team. There are still four months to go before things start counting. At this point, the defense appears to be strength of the team.
Remember when the fans yelled louder for a sack or an interception than they did for a touchdown? Let's hope that those times return when this version of the Husky defense takes the field come fall.
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