Secondary a primary concern

SEATTLE - I doubt Washington senior cornerback Roy Lewis is into Botany. In fact, he might have to hit up Wikipedia to find out that a botanist is someone involved with the study of plant life. That's how I found out.

I doubt he knows a petal from a pistil - and pulling weeds definitely doesn't count - but he sure knows a good flower cliche when he sees one. And he sees one with a secondary that will be tested every week of the 2007 season.

"First day of practice, guys just looked sluggish," he told Friday. "They weren't up to game speed. Now we're getting polished, we're clicking on all cylinders. Everybody is in the right alignment, the right assignment, the right technique. I think the secondary is about to blossom."

That's where Lewis - who came to UW from San Jose State - comes in. "Wish I had two of him," Huskies Secondary Coach J.D. Williams said, with just a hint in his voice that suggested the second-year coach is still in the process of determining whether cloning Lewis is a viable option this year. Since we haven't seen two No. 28's on defense - and we also know that Tony Chidiac hasn't moved to defense - we feel comfortable that Washington will use the players they currently have at their disposal.

Incoming transfer Byron Davenport was supposed to provide an instant fix for Williams, providing depth and a chance to start right away opposite Lewis. "We had him penciled in there for a second," Williams said. But the former UCLA player has been hampered with a hamstring injury since basically the beginning of fall camp.

So what does that mean? It means that whoever does get that starting spot a week from today at Syracuse will be untested. Completely untested. Whether it be Matt Mosley, Cory Nicol, or Vonzell McDowell. And according to Williams, the true frosh from Rainier Beach has taken the opportunity to play and moved ahead of the competition.

"He'll be in the fire, but the kid plays with a lot of confidence," Williams said of McDowell. "You kind of watch it. Teams are going to pick on him. He'll make some plays. He may give up some. But when he gets it - and that should be in about two games - you've got a great cornerback for the next four years."

What is giving the McDowell an edge right now? Williams has to only say one word, and it's clear what he's talking about - speed. "Mentally, the cornerback position is one of the easiest to learn. And physically, you don't have the day-to-day pounding that the safeties might have, for example. But you have to be able to run. And playing against some of the fastest receivers in the country, you have to have the attitude that if they catch one, you have to shake it off and go and fight again.

He's young, but he's aggressive and he's a competitor."

"Young guys are stepping up, and we knew we were going to have force-feed them," Lewis said. "They haven't had a chance to really grow up yet, but they are coping with it well. Coach JD (Williams) has prepared us well, and whoever goes out there will be prepared to play. They really had to go the extra mile to great ready to go. I think Byron (Davenport) could have helped us out during camp, but I think he can still provide and play a role for us in 2007 because we need as many people as possible back there."

Lewis is doing everything he can to make sure McDowell - or anyone else, for that matter - can use him or any of the other veterans for advice or help at any time. "I took on the leadership role," he said, matter-of-factly. "I took them under my wing. I made sure they knew that if they had any questions, they could come to me or Jason or Mesphin or anyone else that's played before to get those tips when Coach JD isn't around."

The senior didn't just walk the walk. When he wasn't working out with the team, he was working out with the team. And when that just wasn't possible, he'd work out on his own - primarily doing the program initiated by Trent Greener - or with the help of guys like SPARQ Master Trainer Travelle Gaines, who now lives in Renton after moving up here from LSU, where he helped the Bayou Bengals with their speed training during their championship years.

"The summer went really well," Lewis said. "We had a great turnout. We had a lot of the younger guys that worked out, as well as doing that Bridge program. Guys were working hard, getting after it, and that is going to help in the long run building that team unity, that bond that great defenses and teams have and need to have victorious seasons."

One of the questions leaving fall camp is - where is Matt Mosley? The sophomore from Arizona was expected to probably have an edge over the incoming guys simply for his experience in the system, if nothing else. Williams said that there's nothing wrong with Matt right now, it's just that others have stepped up and competed at a little higher level. "He's still in the mix," Williams said of Mosley. "You have guys coming in and it's the spirit of competition. Guys are getting better and some are making a couple more plays, but he's still in the mix.

"But the cream has to rise to the top."

The other secondary performer Williams is leaning on heavily to make a difference is Jason Wells. The senior JC transfer from California had his ups and downs last year, taking his lumps as a first-year player in a tough Division-1 conference. Now he's back, looking bigger, playing faster, and all with that same 'go for broke' mentality he had as a junior.

"He's bigger and stronger and a little faster this year," Williams said of Wells. "When you play with a reckless abandon, that's more attitude than anything. Last year his body wasn't prepared, but this year he's put on about 10 pounds of muscle and is ready for the task at hand. His shoulders have gotten broader, and his neck has gotten bigger."

That safety spot opposite Wells has big shoes to fill, and even though Mesphin Forrester filled the shoes left by C.J. Wallace for two starts in 2006 (he played in all 12 games), he still has had to fight like mad to keep the role he probably felt he earned after last year.

"When you have a C.J. Wallace, you want to keep him on the field as much as possible," Williams said of the senior from Venice, Calif. "He was your better player, and Mesphin wasn't that far behind - but in this game you have to play your best players. And when we lost C.J.Wallace last year, Mesphin had to step in and play. He and Darin Harris were battling for that starting position in the spring, and coming into falll camp he just continued. We tried to put some more competition in it with Nate Williams and the young guys, but Mesphin is farther ahead than those guys."

Expect Harris and Williams to also get their share of time rolling over to either safety spot, as needed - based on the fact that Williams expects his safeties to understand both positions.

If everything comes together as Lewis and Williams are hoping, the Washington secondary could end up smelling like a rose.

Or maybe even Dionaea muscipula. The botanist in Lewis would understand.

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