All of the questions and concerns around this team seem to surround the offense and how well Isaiah Stanback plays. But don't lose sight of the fact that this could be the best overall defensive team the Huskies have fielded in years.
The defense has depth on the line and in the linebacking corps, and even at corner (albeit unproven). It also features a number of real good running athletes. Many of the fastest kids on the team are on the defensive side of the ball now, and that is a big reason I feel the way that I do.
As most defensive coaches are prone to do, I have always believed in a conservative philosophy for the game of football. There are three basic things to consider when building a team - play good defense, be solid in the kicking game, and run the football.
You play for field position. You run it at your opponent, throwing when you want to rather than when you have to. You punt the ball well because of solid protection and proper coverage.
And of course, you play good tough attacking defense. If they don't score, they can't beat you.
You further need to have a full package on defense and be able to mix your coverages and have a full complement of blitzes or pressures. By this I mean you have to have "man" pressures and "zone" pressures with which to go after quarterbacks in passing situations. You definitely don't want to give the offenses the same look every play. If you are predictable on defense, then the offenses in this conference will pick you apart. You also want to be able to attack the offense's protection schemes. Washington has now developed this kind of package.
Coach Kent Baer, the Huskies defensive coordinator and defensive play caller, now has the personnel that will enable him to go after quarterbacks. He also has a wide variety of zone and man coverages with which he can keep offenses guessing. He did not have that last year, trust me.
I believe that defense starts outside-in personnel wise and inside out strategically. Your most important players are your corner backs and defensive ends but in order to stop the run you need to be solid up front. The interior defensive front has the potential to be a pretty good unit. If Jordan White-Frisbee and Jordan Reffett can rotate with Donny Mateaki, Erick Lobos and my favorite junkyard Dawg, Wilson Afoa, then the Huskies have plenty of fresh bodies to throw at other teams' lines.
There is no reason why any of these guys don't go all out every play because they have this kind of depth. All five of these kids are veterans and all have gotten bigger, faster, and leaner over the past two years. I think they give the Huskies a real anchor to stop the run, and that is always the first consideration. Afoa just has a knack for getting to the play and the rest have all played well at times.
The injury to Greyson Gunheim really set back the edge players because he is such a force. He is big enough, fast enough, and talented enough to develop into a great defensive end. Defensive ends are the edge pass rushers and the off-tackle run stoppers, and represent your primary "force" players. Like the corners, they turn everything back in to their teammates. Gunheim is the most experienced and probably the best edge player on the team. He is healing quickly and hopefully he'll be at full speed shortly.
Senior Brandon Ala is the best I have ever seen him. He must be 25 pounds heavier than he has ever been and appears to finally be listening to Coach Hart. He gives added depth and experience off the edge. Along with Caesar Rayford, Darrion Jones and Walt Winter, the Huskies also have three underclassmen that are pretty talented. True freshman, De'shon Matthews at least looks the part and will develop nicely as a redshirt.
The real sleeper though, of all the defensive ends, is Daniel Te'o Nesheim. When he and Gunheim are out there together, the speed of the defense really picks up. Both are very fast and Daniel has great body leverage and is relentless. This kid is going to be one of the best players on this team because he has an incredible motor. He goes non-stop and is such a force that they even use him on the nose when they go with a three-man rush. Mark my word on this, number 66, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, will be a real good player in the Pac-10.
The linebackers are also faster than the Huskies have been in years. They are not big but they are the same size that Hoffman, Fraley and Clifford were. They really run to the ball well but are largely inexperienced. The one real veteran of the group got off to a rocky start this fall but has really changed his attitude and is willing to do whatever it takes to make his team better. Scott White has noticeably been humbled by the whole experience of being beaten out but he put it behind him and has really been a leader in practices. Dan Howell simply has more speed and explosion at the position. Howell used to be a high school sprinter, and is in as good as shape as anyone on the team. Based upon the whole spring, he won the position with effort and deserves to be the starter. White moved to another linebacker position but still can back up Howell. They represent solid depth and competition at the outside linebacker position.
Inside the battle continues for the "Mike" or middle linebacker spot. There are three in the competition and that is good. Tahj Bomar has the most experience but Trenton Tuiasosopo is bigger and appears to me to be pushing to become the starter. Freshman Donald Butler is really ready to play right now and probably has the best chance of playing time of any freshman on the team. He looks like the best linebacker to come into the program since Lester Towns. He is almost the exact same size and dimensions that Lester was as a freshman. He is a really good looking first year player. Again, it is a position of depth and competition and I would imagine they will go with the more experienced players first.
The other linebacker spot was manned the past few years by speedy Evan Benjamin and is now filled by Scott White, Chris Stevens and EJ Savannah, who are even faster. Both of the younger backers really run well to the ball and have the speed for coverage. In fact, Stevens is one of the fastest 2-3 players on the team. They are both young but really fast and again we have a position of depth, especially with White moving over.
The secondary also really looked deep until Dashon Goldson sprained his ankle before camp even began. Then the academic hang up with Ashlee Palmer further stressed the depth. He was the one incoming JC transfer that they were really counting on besides Jason Wells. Wells was here in the spring and has the looks of a really good safety. He will play a lot until CJ Wallace's head clears up from a practice collision. Chris Hemphill, the world's biggest safety, is also really improved under coach JD Williams. Hemphill, Durell Moss, and Mesphin Forrester are all kids who also seem to have responded well to the new position coach.
With these players, and with Palmer coming at some point and Goldson at 100%, Coach Baer will be able to man-up receivers and go after the quarterbacks. Two more experienced corners are Matt Fountaine and Roy Lewis. JC transfer Jordan Murchison also seems to get better with reps and they moved freshman, Matt Mosley over to the corner to provide future depth. Goldson will battle with Fountaine when he is 100% but I think Lewis, just like Te'o-Nesheim, will be one of the best players on this team. Right now I think he is every bit as good as Roc Alexander and Derek Johnson and both of those kids are playing in the NFL.
Lewis is a special sort of player because he is extremely competitive and also because he is very combative. He is an excellent hitter and really has a solid break on the ball. I really think he has the potential to be a big-play maker.
This defense represents an emphasis by Coach Willingham to increase the speed of the team.
That priority in recruiting has become obvious. They are a much faster and a more aggressive bunch of defensive players. Defense wins championships, offense sells tickets. I'm not saying this defense can win a championship by itself but as an overall unit they impress me as being as good as we have seen in a while. There were times last year when I thought the defense really played well, but they are much better now and most of them are returning.
I also think they have the best punter they have had in the history of the program in Sean Douglas. Shorter fields means better offense. Good punting and defensive turnovers really give you a much better chance to win.
This year's Huskies just might have both. And it's just about time to find out.
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