April 3, 2010
Spring Football is three practices in, but under the roof at the Dempsey Indoor the coaches let the defense off the leash. The student-athletes were certainly excited for today, but it also allowed the coaches to take a deeper look into how the defense is taking shape - particularly the safeties.
First impressions are that the group has absorbed the system.
"It's everybody's second year in the program," said safeties coach Jeff Mills. "We're no longer learning where to go and how to do things. We're trying to get to the next step now. We're getting better at our techniques and mastering our position."
Last season, the Huskies had a revolving turnstile with their defensive backfield. Continuity gave way to youthful inexperience. But this also gave the program valuable game reps to newbies such as Nate Fellner, who has grabbed the first-team reps here in spring practice. It helps that the sophomore is paired with a senior in Nate Williams, who Mills said has reached the point where he's now fluent in the program's verbiage, able to make defensive calls on the field.
This spring, Williams said he's focused more on the minutia of the position, such as route recognition and filling the run gaps faster.
"We're working on the little things," Williams said. "But it's no longer us just running around like last year. We're starting to get a sense of everything."
Once the group can master the position, then they'll start to play faster. This is especially important in the Pac-10 Conference, where precise spread offenses are commonplace.
"We want them to understand the concept of the whole defense," Mills said. "Not just their area, but why we're doing things. When you start to understand why you do things, if you understand what everyone else is doing, it allows you to play better.
Behind Williams and Fellner are Justin Glenn, who sat out this practice to rest a sore ankle, and Greg Walker. Added to the mix is Marquis Persley and Will Shamburger, a redshirt freshman. Victor Aiyewa is being moved to linebacker this spring, so there isn't a ton of depth at the position. Lurking down in California is top-recruit Sean Parker, a highly touted safety that should compete immediately for time on the two-deep.
The Husky tradition at safety is rooted deep in the football program's history on Montlake. While the defense would like to hold onto the legacy of feared, human-seeking missiles roaming the field, they would also like the safeties to play more opportunistically. The big hits are important, but interceptions and forced fumbles - as well as being assignment-savvy - are at the forefront of the position's development now. Yet, there were a fair share of hits doled out at practice on Saturday, mostly because the defensive players were anxious to take advantage of being able to make contact for the first time since the end of last season.
Both Williams and Fellner, and Walker for that matter, are capable of delivering some jaw-dropping hits. And the group understands its role as caretakers of the position at Washington.
"We're always pointing to the connection of the past defenses of the past, and it's always been about toughness," Mills said. "And especially at the safety position, there's a tough reputation."