Defense Improving without Significant Pieces

After three weeks of spring ball and 11 practices, the Husky defense is starting to exert itself in the weekly standoffs called scrimmages. Here's a little progress report on the Husky defenders as I see them in practice. Even though they lost their two best players from last year in Donald Butler and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, I think as a group they are making some great strides to fill those voids.

In short, there is great competition on the back end and the front will be much better once everyone returns.

Of the 11 players who did not participate in the last scrimmage, seven of them are on the defensive side of the football, including three defensive ends and probably their best corner. This depth situation should remedy itself by fall when 13-14 new kids show up including three new defensive ends.

But let's start with the linebackers, because that's the group I watch the most. From my viewpoint, Mason Foster might be the best player on the defense - or the team, for that matter. He is easily the most experienced players and, at 6-foot-2 and 246 pounds, is also one of the most physical. He is verbally making his presence known and is following it up by continuously making plays. It's almost as though he is playing on a different level than everyone else.

Simply put, Foster is the Huskies' top "War Daddy," and I think he may end up being the highest linebacker drafted out of Washington since Joe Kelly, who was selected in the first round of the 1986 NFL Draft. He is a beast, and he shows it every day in drills and especially in scrimmages. Moving back inside allows him to become more of a sideline-to-sideline player and he will probably lead the team in tackles and big plays. Mason has a knack for getting the ball out and causing fumbles. His hustle gives him the chance to make big plays, like the one he made to beat Arizona last season. He is almost unblockable in blitz rush drills and has a burst that allows him to close in a hurry.

Foster is joined on the inside by fellow veteran 'backer, Cort Dennison, who is nothing short of a "Junk Yard Dawg". All he does is run the show. He appears to be totally in charge and calls the defenses, sets the defenders, makes the adjustments and just has a knack of getting to the football. Dennison reminds me of James Clifford in both size and demeanor. He is hard-nosed and will throw his body around. Although not a blazer, he has really quick feet and even a quicker mind. He reads as well as any linebacker of late and is almost like a pentium chip in figuring out the mental part of linebacking.

The thing I like best is that both Foster and Dennison are absolutely having a ball. They are flying around and having fun and both feed off each other. Between the two of them they will make lots of plays this coming fall.

The other linebacker spot (outside) usually plays against the tight end or to the running strength of the offensive set, and this spot is up for grabs and will stay that way all the way through fall camp. Right now this position is being manned by junior Alvin Logan and senior Matt Houston, who are simply older than any of the others. Both are learning the position themselves, with Logan having only played there since being converted after the Oregon game last year, and Houston has seen limited action throughout his career.

Both Logan and Houston made some nice plays in the Saturday scrimmage, and I was impressed by how firm both were on run plays right at them. My thinking is Victor Aiyewa will press hard to be the starter when he comes back in the fall. You know he can hit and you know he can run, so getting him closer to the line of scrimmage makes sense. Logan and Houston have been developing steadily throughout the spring, and that competition has been good.

Missing from this competition is Bandon Huppert, who is coming off knee surgery. He just started to work his way back in during Tuesday's practice, and I think he may contend come fall, but right now they appear to be looking hard at Tim Tucker, a red-shirt freshman. They are anticipating the arrival of two true freshmen, Chris Young and Darius Waters, although they have yet to qualify academically. The additional signing of Cooper Pelluer may prove to be a great move, especially if Young or Waters don't make it in school. At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Pelluer certainly has the frame to easily end up 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds.

Another true freshman, Victor Burnett, is already enrolled and has made some great strides in the last scrimmage. He shows good quickness and balance but has been slowed by the inevitable freshman learning curve. In last Saturday's scrimmage he finally relaxed and just went out and made plays. He and Jordan Wallace are both short, but very quick and are currently playing second string, along with Tucker behind Foster and Dennison. I think both have made steady progress throughout spring and by the end of summer will be that much bigger and stronger than they are now. I see both doing special teams work at the very least.

There was a big hole to fill with the graduation of Donald Butler, but the linebacker group is coming together and have been in this system now for two years. At least they understand what linebacker coach Mike Cox, is looking for. Having plenty of bodies, with a couple of real veterans anchoring things, will make the linebackers a solid unit.

The secondary has the best competition of any position area on the team. They are no less than 3-deep across the board and will have the addition of a great high school safety in Sean Parker, and a pretty good corner, Gregory Ducre, joining the mix come fall. They also have two other freshmen, Jamaal Kearse and Taz Stevenson, who will join the mix and that will put them at 4-deep. That means the competition will only increase. Kearse is already over 220 pounds and could easily be tried as an outside linebacker too.

Leading the back end of the defense this spring is still senior strong safety Nate Williams, and he shows obvious maturity. His experience is too valuable to keep him off the field. He is joined by Nate Fellner at free safety who is showing some head-hunter tendencies this spring. Fellner is a big hitter and needs only to improve his coverage. He could be special.

We need to keep our eye on the development of Will Shamburger, who sat out all of last season due to a knee rehab and is obviously showing this spring why the Huskies held firm with their offer, even with a knee that needed surgery. He has some nice instincts for the game, and even though he still sports a lineman's knee brace, he has made some great plays this spring. I think he shows some obvious talent at safety and more time in the weight room will make him even better. He is going to be pretty good once he fills out and learns more.

Shamburger is not the only one coming off an injury as fellow safety, Justin Glenn, is also in the competition and is a proven hitter, just like Fellner. Glenn has also played corner in the past but I think he's still not 100 percent. Added to the safety mix is also Marquis Persley, who also has played both corner and safety since coming to Washington. He and Greg Walker, who got hurt in Saturday's scrimmage, are both battling to get into the playing depth and that means there are no less than 6-7 safeties available, with another 2-3 coming for fall.

If there is one area on Steve Sarkisian's team that best exemplifies his theme of competition it's in the secondary at both the corner and safety positions. Next fall they will be ready to play more man coverage and get after it just like they did in the last two games of their 2009 season.

The corner spot is missing Desmont Trufant who, like Huppert, started to put in some work for the first time this spring on Tuesday. Trufant is their best cover player, but the competition is really building with the resurgence of Quinton Richardson and Vonzell McDowell, who are both pushing hard to return to the lineup after losing their starting positions. Adam Long, who is smaller but quicker, finished the season as the starter opposite Trufant, but is feeling the heat this spring from Richardson and McDowell, and that is making him better. Anthony Boyles continues to impress as a corner with his long arms and ability to go up for the ball. At 6-foot-3, Boyles is the tallest corner since Dana Hall to play for the Huskies. I think his move to corner is not just a positive for the team but may prove to be a great move for him as well.

Anthony Gobern has also looked his best as a Husky this spring. That's competition and that's what this program is all about.

Up front, it is somewhat hard to figure who will be playing where due to missing bodies. This I do know; Alameda Ta'amu and Semisi Tokalahi are both big powerful interior players who should make the guys behind them even better. They are both stout and have made steady improvement since they came to Washington. Their play, along with the development of Chris Robinson - who also sat out last year due to injury rehab - and Tyrone Duncan have allowed the coaches to try Cameron Elisara at defensive end where he seems to have adjusted well.

With Sione Potoae coming in the fall, along with another wide body from in 335-pound Hawaiian Lawrence Lagafuaina, the inside positions will be restocked. I think the diversity of the front is the most obvious plus, because Elisara, Everrette Thompson, DeShon Matthews, and now Potoae are all inside or outside players.

Elisara's move to defensive end may be permanent but I think it depends on the return of both Thompson and Kalani Aldrich and how they show this fall camp. Right now the starting defensive ends are Elisara and Talia Crichton who looks considerably bigger and better than he was last season. Matthews, as long as he stays healthy, could also factor into the mix and allow Elisara to play inside, which is where the UW coaches would ideally like him to play.

Crichton started and played as a true freshman last year, even though at times he appeared to be concentrating so hard that he was late off the snap and was often lost on play action. He has settled into the position now and is set to start at one of the defensive end spots. There is obviously a spot in the rotation for either Andrew Hudson, Hauoli Jamora or Brent Williams when those three true freshmen arrive in the summer.

By the way, both Aldrich and Thompson look like they have really added some muscle over the off-season and both are considerably bigger. I think the coaches would like to play a Nine-man defensive front rotation to keep everyone fresh and attack in waves. The idea is to go as hard as you can go and use the depth, so that is why I think two or even three of the new kids will be given time to show what they can do.

Right now there are only 35 defenders on the spring roster, and with seven not participating that leaves them barely two-deep until next fall, when they expect at least a dozen freshmen to report on that side of the ball. There are currently only six walk-ons on the defense and if they could find four to five more it would immediately take the defensive roster from two-deep to four- or even five-deep.

Scheme-wise it is important to understand that this is a multiple defense, and not just a 4-3 or 3-4 or a 3-5 or a 4-2. They are all of the above. Because it is so complicated it takes a little longer for the new kids on the block to pick it all up, but when they do look out. It will allow them to play fast and loose.

If I am not mistaken, I have seen them add something new to every practice this spring and their secondary coverages have become even more sophisticated as the spring has evolved. Nick Holt does not want another year of calling a soft-reading defense. They want to attack more and should be harder to prepare for because they are now in their second year.

The Saturday practice was designed to take a look at many different situations for the benefit of the high school coaches that attended the coaches clinic. Lots of the younger kids got some quality reps and I thought the defense looked firm in their rushing defenses. They are going to be better than most people think but are missing too many bodies right now to guess how the two-deeps will shape up this fall. But the coaches are getting a good idea. Top Stories