The defense never rests

SEATTLE - When Kent Baer says the freshmen at the University of Washington are 'swimming', he doesn't mean they just decided to take a dip off the dock at Conibear for a refreshing afternoon of floating aimlessly on Lake Washington. But Saturday's open practice is going to allow them - as well as the rest of the team - a chance to get back to what they know best - just playing the game.

"They've hit it," Baer told Friday, when asked about that 'information overload wall' that acts as a mental barrier the team must overcome in order to assimilate all the defenses and techniques the coaches are teaching them. "I noticed some mistakes today that guys haven't made. It's hard to judge, but some learn faster than others. But I saw it today. Some guys are just better learners than others, and GPA has nothing to do with it. A lot of it is how they were taught in hight school."

"We're going to back off of some things for the next couple of days - to get ready for the scrimmage. We certainly aren't going to show a lot of what we're doing. And that's OK. I want to see guys line up, get off the ball and go make some tackles. They need to still play the game."

But backing off hardly means taking the gas off the pedal. In fact, the players' learning is going to become even more accelerated as it gets closer to game week.

"We have a lot of defense in, and more to put in," Baer said. "There's a lot of teaching involved. We'll continue to put things in and we expect mistakes. We're playing a lot of young kids, especially the backups. We have to keep pushing, but we'll start to narrow things down for our gameplan for Syracuse in about four days. I like our progress. We're just trying to develop as much depth as possible, and some of that depth will be freshmen."

Baer, in his third season as Washington's Defensive Coordinator, sees continued improvement along his side of the ball. In the past, Baer has had the luxury of bringing in at least one or two coaches along from a previous coaching gig that had knowledge of the defense. Steven Wilks was the one holdover to come to Montlake from South Bend, Indiana - Baer's last stop - but he only stayed one season before taking a job in the NFL.

"It takes a while, there are so many things to cover. It took a year or a year and a half for our staff to really understand what we wanted (here)."

And that might give the average fan some insight as to the hurdles a Defensive Coordinator has when trying impliment philosophies, systems, and all the rest. If the coaches need time, the players definitely need time - as well as the patience and understanding of those coaching them.

"They are swimming," Baer said, matter-of-factly when asked about the new players and their ability to grasp what they are being taught. "You tell them when you are recruiting them that the biggest problem will be learning the defense. They will learn more about defense in one day than they ever did in their whole career in high school. Ask any of them - they'll tell you.

"Years ago, they weren't physically ready to play. They just weren't. But now, with the weight training programs high schools have, and how a lot of these guys have their own workout gurus - they tend to be more physically ready to play, but it's the mental part that gets them. And when you don't know what you are doing mentally - it slows you down. You have to continue to bring them along and spend a lot of time doing it."

In talking with Baer, two words kept coming up time and time again - consistency and attitude. The defenses of the early 90's had it under Jim Lambright, and Baer got to know those defenses all too well. "They (Washington) were a physical, tough football team," he said. "They played hard. I coached against them in '91. 24-17 (at California). They were the most physical team in the league. And we were pretty physical too. But when you know that someone is going to go fast and physical, then you know you are going to have your hands full.

"We need to play at a level where teams respect us. I don't know if you want to call that fear, but when a team is watching film on us, I want them to think that they are going to have their hands full."

That hasn't happened of late, but Baer doesn't believe that this team is that far away in terms of potential. And the defensive line is perhaps the finest example of the Huskies' defense in microcosm. In short, the coaches want the ones that have been producing to finally produce to their talent level, and they want those that are moving up to do so with consistent play.

"The good news is that there are four guys that have been starting for us," Baer said, referring to Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Wilson Afoa, Jordan Reffett and Greyson Gunheim. "I think they are better, but the bad news is that none of them were all-conference players. Or second-team all-conference. I don't know if any of them were third-team, so there's a whole lot of room for improvement."

And what about those other defensive linemen that are expected to contribute? Guys like Erick Lobos, Caesar Rayford, Darrion Jones, Jovon O'Connor, Cameron Elisara, Derek Kosub and De'Shon Matthews? "If those guys are going to make their push, they have to do it by being more consistent," said Baer. "Consistency is the truest measure of performance, when you think about it. When you are more consistent, the coaches trust you. Everybody has weaknesses. They need to make their weaknesses strengths."

"There are so many ups and downs. You can't get too high or too low. There has to be a consistent level."

That 'C' word again. It's a theme, and one that played itself out last year. The 2006 defense gave up a ton of yards, yet were in the middle of the league when it came to giving up first downs. They were 10th in the league in passing efficiency defense, but were fourth in the league in third down conversion defense.

Baer believes that if the guys up front handle their business to their capabilities, two things are going to happen. One, the defense will establish a mindset of toughness, and two - they will be able to take a lot of the heat off a relatively young secondary.

"Attitude is 90 percent of it," he said, bringing up the 'A' word again. "If you truly believe on the inside - it's probably going to happen."

It's the same when the talk turns to that of the turnover game, and what the Huskies can do to create more miscues. They gained a league-low four turnovers via fumble, and only 10 via interception - second only to Stanford's seven. Baer brings up the name Fritz Shurmur - Mike Holmgren's Defensive Coordinator for many years - when talking about turnovers.

"He was always amazed at how teams could be creative in trying to practice turnovers," Baer said of Shurmur. "But as he told me, you've got to get the job done on Saturdays or Sundays. You have to be a consistent team and you have to have an attitude about it. It's like a wildfire - Once it's starts burning, it's burning. And it keeps spreading. It's darn close to 100 percent attitude."

Washington Head Coach Tyrone Willingham senses that this 'attitude' is one that's being passed along. "I think there's an attitude from our leadership," he said on Friday. "I think those guys in the front-four, front-seven, they are doing a good job of providing the right attitude, and the younger guys are coming along and learning that and trying to apply it. But the toughest thing about trying to learn anything is trying to execute it full-speed. And that's what you're seeing with our younger guys. They want to, but it's tough sometimes to be physical, and hopefully we as coaches can work through it and their teammates can help them understand how to get through it."

One thing Baer has seen in his linebacking corps is speed - lots of it. In fact, he thinks that's the biggest upgrade in what that group brings to the table for this year, as opposed to just a year ago. "We're much faster," he said. "I think we have a chance to be a more physical group. But when you want to talk about a position that's very difficult to play - that's linebacker."

"But we're still young. Dan Howell is our most veteran guy, and he really didn't play (start) until last year."

Mason Foster is a name that has come up this week in conjunction with that idea that some freshmen might be included in the depth this fall. "We brought him as an inside linebacker," Baer said of the 6-foot-1, 217-pounder from Seaside, Calif. "That's what I pictured him as, and that's what Chris (Tormey) pictured him as. He's a very good athlete and I think in the future he's going to be a very big inside 'backer that can run. On tape, you could tell he was physical and made a lot of plays."

Baer makes no bones about his need for numbers back in the deep third. The closer you line up to the line of scrimmage, the tougher it is to get acclimated to the constant abuse in the trenches," he said. "The further you are away from the ball, the better chance you have to play right away physically. You just aren't taking a pounding on every snap."

But then the caveat. "That's one position (defensive back) where the speed of the game changes from the high school level to this level. And once you realize that, as well as all the adjustments you have to make - it's a big jump."

The Huskies have been riddled by injury, poor numbers and just plain bad luck back there - but at least the numbers thing is something they have some control over. "There has been a lack of depth and experience, and injuries have been a problem in the past, but we have a lot of numbers there now - scholarship players - and I think they could be really, really good someday," Baer said. "We need to play better up front to help that group along - and that's my thinking. I think that group could be a very good group with experience, but they are awful young right now."

So of the newcomers, who is stepping up to the challenge? "We're real thin at corner, so Vonzell (McDowell) is going to be used," said Baer. "He's done a great job so far, but he has so much to learn. He doesn't know how to play hard all the time, but he has great burst and I think he's physical. But he has a lot to learn. And Nate Williams seems to be a little further along than some of those other safeties. So as far as freshmen go, those guys would probably be the two (to count on)." Top Stories