Mid-way Progress Report - Defensive Skill

SEATTLE - Regardless how you interpret his words, Washington Head Coach Tyrone Willingham made one thing very clear on Monday; 2007 leading tackler E.J. Savannah won't be around with the Huskies travel to Eugene August 30th to tangle with Oregon. So expect the man to step up and assume Savannah's role to be an LB with the initials DB.

Donald Butler, now 100 percent healthy, knows his time is now. He's been pointed to by his position coach Chris Tormey, as well as new Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell as a leader. "Donald is an excellent football player," Tormey said this fall. "He is excellent in coverage. He knows schemes. He has a nose for the football."

With depth being built up in the linebacking corps, no one has to be thrown into the fire and play as a true frosh like Butler did two years ago and Mason Foster last year. The rotation that the Husky coaching staff will likely be comprised with players that have seen substantial game time - 112 games worth, to be exact. By that measure, there's no question the linebackers should be the heart and soul of the Huskies' defensive attack.

MIK - Donald Butler, Trenton Tuiasosopo, Kurt Mangum, Riley Gervais
Out - T.J. Poe

When you talk about the main inside linebacker position, you can't just talk about Butler. Trenton Tuiasosopo has been a stalwart at MIK, with the second-most games of any of the returning linebackers to his credit (27). Expect Tuiasosopo to have a solid final year with the Huskies, as Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell showed during Spring Game that he's not afraid to mix it up and bring different linebackers to the line of scrimmage to disrupt things.

The fact that both Butler and Tuiasosopo have not missed a single practice this fall means they came to camp in phenomenal condition and are backing up their standing as the men in the middle with their consistent play.

The X-factor here? Don't sleep on Kurt Mangum putting his name in the hat, although ideally the Huskies would love to redshirt him so he can watch Butler and Tuiasosopo and learn. The true frosh from Arizona has a pigskin pedigree (his great uncle is Gale Sayers) and he graduated from high school early so that he'd be ready to go this fall if needed.
WIL - Mason Foster, Chris Stevens, Cort Dennison, Bradly Roussel, Brandon Huppert
Out - Savannah

This position is loaded with skill, talent and experience, with more waiting in the wings. The Huskies couldn't keep Foster, a true freshman in 2007, off the field. He played everywhere, including middle linebacker. Tormey couldn't say enough good things about what he's seen from Foster this fall.

"The first thing you notice is his athletic ability," said Tormey of Foster. "And then you notice his size. He was able to pick things up. He picked schemes up very well as a freshman. So now he's learning the intricacies with each defense against each formation, understand where he fits and where his help is in each situation. And he's getting a lot better at that. I'm pleased with his progress this fall. He could probably play any of the three positions. We're trying to keep him at WIL now so that he can understand formation theory and what his job is and how that fits in with everyone else. When he has a complete understanding of that, he'll be able to play very fast and have a productive year for us."

After Foster you have the ultimate role player, senior Chris Stevens. Stevens earned his considerable reputation after playing some rush end his freshman year - when he weighed less than 200 pounds. He's very gifted, very versatile and very experienced. You could argue that he's even more valuable as a special teams leader than at linebacker, but that would be deceiving.

The X factor here could very well be Cort Dennison, who - like Stevens - has a gift for getting up near the line of scrimmage and causing all sorts of commotion. At Judge Memorial High School in Salt Lake City, Dennison made a habit out of busting opposing backfields into bits. He had 23.5 sacks his senior year, according to JMHS Head Coach James Cordova.
SAM - Joshua Gage, Matt Houston, Fred Wiggs

Here's the dilemma; go with the guy that you can trust to make the play? Or go with the guy that may or may not be there, but is the best athlete you have and can come up with the big play? Well, coaches will always play the trust card first, and that's why Joshua Gage is the starting SAM this fall. They also love the underdog story who pushes through and impresses by simply outworking everyone else on the field and in the classroom, and that's what Gage has done ever since stepping foot on campus as a walk-on from Huntington Beach, Calif. three years ago.

"I just try to go out there and do what I can. Knowing the playbook is crucial. Coming in I tried to think of things I could do to separate myself from the rest, and that was one thing I could do."

And don't be misled; just because Gage started his UW career as a walk-on doesn't mean he can't play with the big boys. He played in all 13 games in 2007.

Houston is the player in this linebacking corps that is just waiting to bust out of his shell and come up huge. Problem is, he hasn't picked up the consistency thing yet to the point where the coaches know he's going to be in the places he needs to be to get the job done. That's a problem, and he knows it.

"The coaches want to be able to trust me out there knowing the whole scheme, and I know I'm doing that a lot better this year," he said. "I'm right there. Physically I know I'm ready and mentally I'm ready too. So when coach wants to call on me I know I can get the job done."

The X-Factor here just might come from a linebacker currently playing another position, simply because the Huskies require all their 'backers to know all three roles, as well as all the other roles on the field so they know what their reads and keys are.

CB - Mesphin Forrester, Quinton Richardson, Vonzell McDowell, Matt Mosley, Marquis Persley, Justin Glenn, Adam Long
Out - Byron Davenport, Anthony Gobern, Desmond Davis

It's been a long, long time since the Washington Huskies have had seven legitimate cornerbacks, or at the very least cornerbacks with either experience, talent or both. It's something that J.D. Williams isn't exactly giddy about, though; relieved would probably be a better term for it.

"It's good to have some depth," Williams said recently. "It's always good to approach the season with some kind of experience."

In that sense, he got his wish. While one of the corners - Quinton Richardson - will get his first taste of college football on August 30th, the Huskies will have a player with 29 games of experience on the other side - Mesphin Forrester. Behind those two will be Vonzell McDowell, Jr. and Matt Mosley, who have a combined 19 games played from 2007. This is a 180-degree turn from the beginning of last year, where the Huskies only had one corner with any playing experience - Roy Lewis - against Syracuse.

While Williams can always go to McDowell and Mosley for support when he needs it, the obvious X-factor this fall is Richardson. At 6-foot and 200 pounds, the former O'Dea star plays big, and that's exactly what Donatell envisioned when he moved Richardson and Forrester into the positions they currently find themselves. In practice Richardson clearly shows that he wants to play the role of enforcer, a guy that can re-route even the biggest of receivers the Pac-10 can throw at him (pun intended). And for Washington fans that have seen a lot of green between receivers and cornerbacks recently, bigger corners just might spell better corner play.

"We've always said that, all things being equal - bigger is better," Willingham said.
Safety - Nate Williams, Jason Wells, Darin Harris, Tripper Johnson, Greg Walker, Taylor Lappano
Out - Victor Aiyewa

Having Aiyewa out with a groin injury has hurt his chances of starting against Oregon, but expect the redshirt freshman from Texas to still make his presence felt, either in the rotation or on special teams. He has a nose for the ball and a penchant for knocking it loose from ballcarriers. His swagger and big sticks are sorely needed for a Washington defense that gave up more yards and points last year than at any time in the history of the program.

But the positive here is that there's a ton of experience returning, and the competition this fall has been fierce. The foursome of Williams, Wells, Harris and Aiyewa have a combined 72 games playing experience, and that wisdom will come in handy as they pick up Donatell's philosophy.

The X-factor has to be Tripper Johnson. The former Newport High two-sport star signed to play baseball with Washington out of high school, and toyed with the idea of also trying football before getting drafted and going to the MLB. But after eight years in the minors, Johnson knew his best baseball was behind him and wanted a fresh start. He got it with the Huskies as a safety that brings professional athletic credentials, as well as an ethic and focus that has been rubbing off on the younger DB's. At 26, he wants to let it be known that this old dawg still has some new tricks up his sleeve.


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