Taking Advantage

For their upcoming game versus the Oklahoma Sooners, the Washington Huskies will have to count on some unfamiliar faces. Since the original fall two-deep was released for the opener at Oregon, there have been some big changes to the Washington secondary. Starting strong safety Darin Harris sustained a concussion while making a tackle versus BYU and will be out for a while.

Backup Victor Aiyewa has a groin injury and has not been practicing lately. Veteran Jason Wells has never been 100 percent since his knee surgery last year, and Willingham has strongly suggested the senior will redshirt to preserve one final season of eligibility.

At the other safety Nate Williams started the first two games, but after making 13 tackles against BYU his health is in question. Newcomer Tripper Johnson has already made the switch to strong safety, which leaves true freshman Johri Fogerson as either the starter or the backup at free safety.

"We're trying to ramp up his (Fogerson's) learning curve as much as possible with the injuries we have to the other guys in the secondary," said Washington head coach Tyrone Willingham Wednesday. "Victor Aiyewa is still sidelined. Nate is a little sidelined, so we have to ramp him up. He brings a strong presence as a centerfielder, he has excellent ball skills and he's shown himself to be physical. I would anticipate that he would play some."

When the Huskies were preparing for Oregon, Fogerson was competing for time as a running back. With their top four safeties either out or severely hampered by injury, the Washington coaches were forced to make a change. "The coaches just sat down and got to together and I got called in to the office," Fogerson told Dawgman.com. "Basically they switched me I didn't switch myself. They basically wanted their best athletes on the field and that's when I got switched."

Fogerson is confident in his ability as a safety and plans on making sure his impact is felt. "I'd say be able to hit people; a lot people don't expect safeties to hit, just to be back there as a pass defender, but I come up and hit," he said when asked about his strengths. Washington's defensive coordinator Ed Donatell is also very keen on Fogerson's play so far. "He's a positive thinker, so we'll give him credit for that. He could see some time. Ty (Willingham) will make that final determination, but you're on the right track saying that he'll play," he said when asked if Fogerson might start.

The other big surprise in the secondary has been the emergence of Johnson. The former two-sport star from Newport High spent the last eight years playing minor league baseball before deciding to return to the game of football as a walk-on for the Huskies. While his play hasn't been what he would have hoped, he did have a key fumble recovery for a touchback against BYU, allowing the UW offense one last chance to move the ball and get a tying score. The Huskies are hoping his football instincts will continue to come back to him as he continues to work through live situations.

Most never expected Johnson to be starting by the third game of his career, but Donatell is always looking to try and improve his defense as best he can, however he can. "My mind is pretty open," he said. "That's what the successful guys do. That's what I saw in pro football, they were so open-minded. Talking about guys like (Bill) Belichick and (Eric) Mangini and those guys. If they think something can help them win, they are going to do it. It's more enjoyable and stimulating to think that way. Use them all. Find a role. That's my intention."

Donatell's intent to spread the workload and involve as many players as possible is one reason why Husky fans won't see senior cornerback Mesphin Forrester move back to safety. He started all 13 games at safety for UW in 2007. "I don't like double, triple moves," he said. "That was part of it. On a lot of downs, they (Forrester and Quinton Richardson) were stabilizing, challenging guys. I'm talking about Q (Richardson) and Mesphin. I'd like to look like that at corner. I like 'em because they dress us up, they look nice and big out there. If people want to run the ball and they crack you have another big guy out there - that kind of thing."

While the Huskies are patching up their back end with bailing wire and duct tape, Oklahoma returns two seniors in Nic Harris and Lendy Holmes. Harris and Holmes both played considerably in 2006, the year the huskies traveled to Norman. Harris, at 6-foot-3 and 230-pounds, ended up starting the last three games and was selected to the Big-12 second team. Holmes ended up winning the starting corner job and was an honorable mention pick to the Big-12 second team. Between the two of them, they had nearly 150 total tackles last year. By contrast, if Johnson and Fogerson start for UW, they'll have no starts and only six total tackles in their combined careers.

Forecasting the future, it looks like Johnson, Fogerson and Williams will all play major roles this season. They are going to have to. Hopefully they will all take advantage of their opportunity to play and will continue to grow and develop as the caretakers of the Huskies' last line of defense. Willingham hopes the arduous early schedule will pay dividends for those that do run the gauntlet and come through it relatively unscathed.

"You won't be in any hotter situations than they are going to be in," he said. "And a week later they'll be like, 'Hey! I made it through this, I made some plays and did some great things. Now I'm ready to go.'"

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