Fall Preview: Defensive Backs

As a Washington fan this decade, you could count the minutes of bliss heading into football season with an egg timer. The buildup and anticipation that the Huskies were going to improve over the season before became shorter and shorter - to the point where it basically became a running joke.

As the Dawgs head into the 2010 season, there might actually be something to the woofing being heard around Montlake.

If you look specifically at the defense - and we've already covered the defensive line and linebackers - that woofing might actually be mixed in with some huffing and wheezing. But when we take a balanced look at the defensive backs, there's only one conclusion that can be drawn; this group will be the defensive anchor, no question about it. How well the defense plays as a whole will depend in large part on how well the secondary does their job.

This is the season Nate Williams and Vonzell McDowell envisioned when they bit the bullet and played as true freshmen in 2007. McDowell even started the first three games of that season, while Nate played in every game that season.

Looking back at who was available in 2007 to play opposite future NFL player Roy Lewis, the list is downright frightening - there were the frosh (McDowell, Quinton Richardson and Marquis Persley) and there were the transfers (Byron Davenport, Jordan Murchison), but they were either mired in legal issues or injury.

That left one player - Matt Mosley. That's it.

At safety, the same reasons applied for why Williams' redshirt was burned; there were the seniors - Mesphin Forrester and Darin Harris, and there was one transfer - Jason Wells. Forrester - like Lewis - was a rock at one of the safety spots, playing all 13 games. Harris was hurt at the beginning of the season and Wells picked up the slack in those games, but missed the last eight games due to injury.

When Washington needed a backup at safety, as well as players that could fill in during nickel, penny and dime situations, all they had were freshmen. And that also spilled over into special teams, as many of those same players were also asked to play big roles in return and cover teams. In retrospect it's pretty scary, as well as a testament to players like Williams, McDowell and Victor Aiyewa that they were able to jump in and hold down the fort as well as they did.

Fast forward three years and the situation couldn't be more different.

Defensive Backs: Nate Williams (Sr.); Vonzell McDowell (Sr.); Quinton Richardson (Jr.); Marquis Persley (Jr.); Desmond Trufant (So.); Adam Long (So.); Justin Glenn (So.); Nathan Fellner (So.); Greg Walker (So.); Anthony Gobern (So.); Anthony Boyles (So.); Laroy Chase (So.)#; Will Shamburger (Fr.); Sean Parker (Fr.); Taz Stevenson (Fr.); John Timu (Fr.); Gregory Ducre (Fr.)

# = walk-on

At safety, Williams holds down one of the spots. He has 24 career starts and will be counted on as the quarterback of the secondary. No one knows the defense, where to be and what to do better than former Kennedy standout. And other than Victor Aiyewa, who has moved up to linebacker, all the other 2009 safety starts opposite Williams, and outgoing senior Wells, the other starts were taken by returners; Glenn, Fellner and Walker.

The cornerback spot is even better: All the 2009 starts were handled by returning starters - McDowell, Richardson, Desmond Trufant and Adam Long. Trufant and Long were both freshmen, and proved their mettle by starting the last six games of the season together.

Typically you'd love to be in a situation where starters are replaced by more players with experience, and that's the case with Washington's secondary. If we go by the top four starting defensive backs on the team (Williams, Glenn, Trufant and Long), there are still four more players behind them with starts under their belt (McDowell, Richardson, Fellner and Walker). It's doubtful there is another team in the Pac-10 that can say that.

Add to that the fact that there are TWELVE sophomores and freshmen defensive backs on scholarship, and it's easy to see that the Huskies are not only talented up top, but are building some serious quality and depth for the near future. For instance, redshirt frosh Will Shamburger may have had the best spring of all the defensive backs and is poised to have an impact for UW this fall. And true frosh Sean Parker is the type of impact player that the coaches may have a hard time keeping off the field if he is able to live up to the substantial hype surrounding his recruitment.

In short, what is happening right now with Washington's secondary is how programs that benefit from stability and top recruiting efforts are built. UW fans can only hope to believe that all the other position groups on the team will eventually catch up in quality and depth. But for right now (with the possible exception of the WR corps), the secondary rules the roost.

The benefits from having a strong and deep secondary are many. With cornerbacks able to cover 'on an island', it allows a defensive coordinator to be very aggressive calling blitzes. And if the corners are able to lock down receivers, that gives a defensive line that many more opportunities to rush in numbers, as well as pick up 'coverage sacks'. At the very least, if an offense knows they don't want to tempt fate by throwing at a particularly good corner - like Trufant, for instance - it can narrow the field considerably. And any time you can make an offense more predictable in what they run, that's a win for the defense.

One of the ways you know a secondary is doing their job is by the number of turnovers they are able to create. In 2009, they didn't do that very well; they only had eight interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries. The number of fumble recoveries is magnified even more when you stop and consider those 15 recoveries were based off of 31 fumbles by the opposition. That's totally unacceptable if you are UW Defensive Coordinator Nick Holt. Normally if you forced 31 fumbles, you'd rather have 25 recoveries.

Clearly, 31 forced fumbles means the emphasis on 'Turnover Tuesday' is paying dividends in the initial phase, but if they can't clean up what they started the effort to strip the ball becomes moot. And an experienced secondary - at least on paper - means more recoveries and hopefully more thefts through the air as well. We already saw in 2009 that the Huskies' secondary plays smart; they returned two laterals simply by being fundamentally sound and playing the game through the whistle. If they can double the number of recovered turnovers in 2010, that means a number of 'sudden change' plays that could spell the difference between Washington winning and losing close games. And as we saw in 2009 in games against the Arizona schools, how the secondary plays can create the tipping point that ultimately determines whether or not the Huskies win or lose.

And just as we saw in 2007, having true freshmen play significant roles in special teams can also have an affect on the outcome of games. Three years ago Washington gave up kicks at nearly 25 yards a return; last year they were four yards better. Having experienced gunners in the return game can not only pin opposing offenses deep in their own territory, but their play can also be a springboard for the defense to build on. And we haven't even really touched on the advantage a rocking Husky Stadium can have on a game, and typically the only way Husky Stadium lights up is through great defensive play. A strong defensive back corps can catalyze a home crowd as well as anyone - especially with an interception, blitz off a sack, or a big hit (as we saw with Nate Fellner decapitating a Cougar on a kickoff return during the Apple Cup).

If the Washington defense is better statistically in 2010, it will be because the secondary took away the big play - allowing the defensive line and linebackers the time they needed to get their jobs done - and made their presence felt in a big way in the turnover game and on special teams. That's a lot to ask of the Huskies' back end, but for the first time in a long time, this group appears poised to handle that challenge, and have the ability to even exceed expectations if they can stay healthy.


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