Secondary Still Young, But Getting Deeper

SEATTLE - Last year was really hard for J.D. Williams, the Washington Huskies' defensive backfield coach. He only had six total players in spring and lost one before the season even started when surprising walk-on Cory Nicol suddenly quit the team. Then when his best player, free safety Jason Wells, went down to a knee injury against USC, things really turned for the worse.

As a consequence, the Husky secondary struggled throughout the 2007 campaign and Williams was forced to play youngsters with little or no game experience. It made it difficult to match up many times and some teams, like Ohio State, went right at the younger players. To say the UW secondary was undermanned puts it nicely, but there was no denying that the defensive backfield was clearly a point of weakness.

You are who you are, and Williams never once made excuses or complained. The answer was obviously in recruiting and the development of his true freshmen. Redshirting guys like Quinton Richardson and Marquis Persley proved to be a wise decision considering that Richardson, after switching from safety to corner, came out of spring as a starter. Other true freshmen, like Vonzell McDowell, Nate Williams, and Victor Aiyewa were forced to play early and it is always difficult for an 18-year old rookie to pick up all the coverages, reads, techniques, and adjustments necessary to be able to perform at the college level.

In short, Youth limits what you can do. You are forced to simplify and as a result your calls often result in your kids becoming sitting ducks for the high-powered offenses in the Pac-10. Williams and Aiyewa played sparingly but that experience really helped both, as they ended the spring as starters at safety; at least until Wells returns in the fall. McDowell was probably forced to play before he was ready but you can't fault the kid because he was just trying to help the team. In those situations you're often damned if you do and damned if you don't. It's a big gamble but in Coach Williams' defense, he really didn't have any choice.

One year later, there are now over three times as many players on the back end, counting the new ones coming in July. When the true freshmen report, there will be three more corners and three more safeties. Of that group, the three corners will probably have the best chance of challenging for playing time. I would imagine that the best one will get the opportunity to play early but hopefully most of the freshmen will red-shirt. That's the way it is suppose to be.

When you don't recruit with balance this is what happens to a program. Unfortunately for Washington many of the defensive backs they did sign never got into school. Consequently, the secondary will still be young in 2008 but I believe much better. Besides the six true freshmen there will also be 3-4 red-shirt freshmen and four sophomores back there, so youth will still dominate the numbers.

The returning seniors include the versatile Mesphin Forrester, who has already played every position in the secondary and ended the spring starting on the corner. He is joined by Wells, who I personally believe was one of the best players on last year's team before he got hurt, along with Byron Davenport, Darin Harris and Jordan Murchison. Harris played a lot last year and proved to be a good hitter, even though he had missed the whole season the year before that with injury. Murchison, a junior college transfer, missed the entire spring and is still unproven.

Davenport was a starter once he got back into playing after sitting out the previous year. He is finally healthy and will battle Richardson and Forrester for a starting job. Considering he was at one time a starter at UCLA, Davenport adds experience and depth to the corner position.

Matt Mosley is one of a few juniors returning and he too has played sparingly, but adds competition to the corner spot and that only makes you better.

Of the incoming new kids, Justin Glenn was probably the best corner prospect in the state of Washington, and the two California kids can absolutely fly. Speed is always one of the most important requirements to play on the outside, and right now Adam Long - out of St. Bernards in LA - is one of the top sprinters in the Golden State. Anthony Gobern has matching speed to burn. Long has been regularly clocked in the 10.5-10.7 range and recently won the southern sectionals of the CIF, so any of these kids could help with speed alone.

I saw freshman safety Vince Taylor, out of Eastside Catholic, play in high school and felt he was one of the most impressive athletes I have seen in years. He and Greg Walker - also out of St Bernards in LA - are both over 200 pounds and will become really good safeties down the road.

The most noticeable, yet unexpected addition to me in the spring was Tripper Johnson. Although a newcomer at 25, Johnson is probably the oldest player on the team. I saw Tripper play in high school at Newport in Bellevue before he signed a pro baseball contract and he was the best player on the field as both a running back and safety. This spring he showed a great feel for center field at free safety and was an aggressive tackler as well. His presence in the depth may allow the Huskies to redshirt a couple of the incoming safeties as well as allowing incombing O'Dea star Johri Fogerson to try running back instead of playing defense.

One of the most noticeable changes on the back-end has been the addition of size to the secondary. Of the safeties, Wells is 6-2 and over 215 pounds; Aiyewa is 6-1 and almost 220; Williams is 6-1 and close to 210; Harris is now at least 205. The corners, Richardson and Forrester, are both really big for corners at 6-feet and 6-2 respectively, and at least 205 pounds each. The size of the secondary reminds me of the Tommy Smith, Shane Pahukoa and Dana Hall days, and the hitting this spring reflected that physical approach.

As a group they are now deeper, bigger, faster, and even though they struggled at times last year more experienced than the Huskies have been on the back-end in years. All of these factor in and give reason to believe that the secondary will be the most improved area on the team.

Coach Williams likewise was helped significantly with addition of defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who brings in over 18 years of NFL experience as both a coordinator and secondary coach. Between the two of them you could literally see the daily improvement of the secondary throughout the spring. Considering they still have plenty to add this fall, the secondary package will offer much more in the way of disguises and not allow opposing offenses to come to the line of scrimmage and know where they're going with the ball.

The who is doing it has changed, the what they are doing it with has changed, the how they are doing it has also changed; and especially their attitude with an emphasis on hitting which was infectious this spring, has really changed. Essentially, much has changed and I think it's for the better. Husky fans won't be holding their breath each time the defense takes the field. Hopefully the fans will be energized every time the defense lines up, much like they did in the decades of the 1980's and 1990's.

I think the secondary will be greatly improved this year and the one area where I believe they will make an impact is in creating turnovers. There were a number of interceptions this spring because kids were in the right position and reading their keys properly. The defense as a whole is likewise working hard on creating fumbles and winning the all important turnover battle.

Regardless, the UW secondary improved tremendously over the short 15 days of spring, and with further development in fall camp should be ready to stop or at least slow down Oregon in their season opener. The Duck offense has given the Huskies fits over the past four years, scoring 31,45,34, and 55 points. I realize many think that the way to beat the spread is to outscore it, and putting up points will be important; but for me if the Huskies are to improve as a team, they are going to have to be better on defense.

And that has to start by upgrading the back-end. Top Stories