Aug. 11, 2009
By Michael Jeremiah
SEATTLE -- The overall goal of Coach Steve Sarkisian's staff as they start fall camp is clear. Start putting in the work to get the program back to the levels of success it enjoyed during the Don James Era. It's a monumental task, but safeties coach Jeff Mills has seen the end product of that work at Washington.
Mills' hiring in January, 2009 marked a return to the program for the former graduate assistant under James. On the staff in 1990 and 1991, Mills was a part of two Pac-10 championships, two Rose Bowl championships and the 1991 National Champion Huskies.
"My experience with Coach James was a very similar approach to the way we practice now," said Mills. "I think that the guys who were on that national championship squad will tell you that they were looking forward to game days because they were getting after it in practice. It was a highly competitive atmosphere. That's what Coach Sark is trying to put into our philosophy of practice."
Mills brings experience and intensity to the safety position as a coach. He left Washington after the 1991 season to coach the secondary at Montana State. After two seasons leading that unit to the top of 1-AA statistically, Mills moved on to Idaho. Over the next four years, Mills spent time coaching the secondary and defensive line, and had a stint as defensive coordinator.
Three years at Nevada separated his time at Idaho, as he returned to Moscow in 2004 as assistant head coach and safeties coach for current Husky defensive coordinator Nick Holt. Mills left Idaho in 2006, and spent three years as defensive coordinator at Youngstown State before joining the Husky staff.
After almost two decades at the college ranks spent improving defenses at every stop, Mills expects big things out of his new safeties heading into fall camp.
"I expect them to be the quarterbacks of the defense," said Mills. "I expect them to understand what all 11 guys are doing on the field, what all our adjustments and checks are and all of the things we need to do, to be able to play fast."
Playing fast will be important for this unit. The safeties will be a crucial part of turning around a Husky defense that gave up 450 yards and 38 points a game in 2008. With only three weeks of practice left before the Huskies face LSU, Washington has to use the intensity from practicing against each other to get ready for an imposing opponent.
The need to improve makes competition even more important as a central theme of fall camp, and the safety position may be one of the best examples of that philosophy in practice. Junior Nate Williams is a two-year returning starter that is expected to be among the leaders of the position. Williams was second on the team with 76 tackles last year.
Redshirt freshman Greg Walker has impressed and is slotted at free safety with Williams on the other side. Walker is young, but Mills has noticed that the strides that he has made match his ability and intelligence on the field.
Converted wide receiver Alvin Logan and Victor Aiweya provide plenty of size and speed to the position and Tripper Johnson, JC transfer David Batts and a healthy Jason Wells will put pressure on the starters in fall camp. New freshmen Nate Fellner, Will Shamburger and Jordan Wallace start to create a crowd at safety, but it is the situation that Mills wants.
"We have depth and competition," said Mills. "That's what we are looking for and it will raise the bar."
For now, this group may not have the notoriety of the team's in the early `90s that helped to solidify Washington on the national stage of college football, but it does have the mindset of a group that is striving to put their program back to that level. Mills has seen the importance of that mindset throughout a successful coaching career, and his safeties will undoubtedly carry that with them in 2009.
"We expected to win [in `91] because we put in the time on a highly competitive daily basis in the weight room and on the practice field," said Mills. "It mirrors what we are doing right now. That's what excites me because it's a proven blueprint for success and it's very similar to what I've seen this spring and offseason."
POST-PRACTICE UPDATE: The Dawgs held their second practice of the fall on a bright, sunny afternoon at Husky Stadium. A couple hundred fans, including a group of 10-or-so little kids who enjoyed running around the track, took in a typically boisterous workout.
The team was in helmets for the second day, as prescribed by NCAA rules. Wednesday and Thursday, they'll wear helmets and shoulder pads before putting on full pads for Friday.
Afterwards, in his meeting with the press, Coach Steve Sarkisian told the sports writers that the day was won by the defense, noting that the competition came down to the final play, when redshirt freshman Justin Glenn broke up a pass.
"Justin made a play on the ball and that's exciting," Sarkisian explained. "That's how it should be as we keep rolling and getting better as a football team. The offense won yesterday. The defense battled and came back and won today."
On the news front, two players were unable to participate today as freshman DE Talia Crichton sat out with injury and JC cornerback Dominique Gaisie was held out with an NCAA Clearinghouse issue that Sarkisian said he hopes will be cleared up very quickly.