Sept. 5, 2008
By Benton Strong
Finding a secondary in college football with a more sporadic history than the group of seniors in the Husky defensive backfield might be an exercise in futility. Nevertheless, it does not matter so much where these well-traveled safeties and corners came from, they are here now and ready to win.
The Washington back row features four seniors who have braved through roller-coaster careers in a program that's been on a pretty wild ride itself. Only two of the four actually started their careers at UW. Mesphin Forrester and Darin Harris came in as part of the 2004 class signed by then-head coach Keith Gilbertson. A year later the coach was gone, the team had finished 1-10, Forrester had redshirted and Harris had seen time in every game on special teams.
Not exactly the beginning they expected when they signed up.
In 2005, Tyrone Willingham took over and Harris' spot appeared to solidify when he started the first two games of the year, notching an interception to open the game against Pac-10 rival California.
"After that I didn't start again until Arizona State," Harris said. "But we lost that one too so it wasn't a good feeling."
The following season, Harris found out he had a cracked vertebra and his football career was in jeopardy.
"I didn't know if I would play football again," he said. "I wanted to play, but I didn't know if I could."
During that same 2005 season Forrester played in just four games for the 2-9 Huskies. Help, however, was on the way.
Also a freshman in 2005, albeit at UCLA, was a cornerback named Byron Velega. The Long Beach Polytechnic graduate played in all 12 games for the Bruins in 2005, notching significant time in a 21-17 win over the Huskies.
Velega transferred from UCLA, spent a year out of football, changed his last name to Davenport and found himself in Seattle trying to make the rotation of a secondary that had just lost two players to the NFL. Unfortunately he injured a hamstring and was severely limited during the season, including missing all of the first two games.
"My hamstring was the first injury I had ever had in my life," Davenport said. "When I popped my left one I didn't know what was wrong. I freaked out because I had never been hurt. Then, in the first week of camp, it happened again and it really messes with you." Davenport started seven games in 2007, making 50 tackles and grabbing one interception.
Davenport joined the team at the same time as another transfer, safety Jason Wells. From Mt. San Antonio College, Wells came in and started half of the Huskies games in 2006. The following year was not nearly as successful, however, as he went down with a season-ending knee injury after five games. Wells would not compete with the team again until fall camp in 2008.
Between the four players they have missed nearly three full years due to injury. Only Forrester has avoided a serious ailment. They have attended five different schools and played in 97 games.
Needless to say, they've been up and down the field a few times. As the 2008 season gets underway, these four highly-seasoned veterans have one more chance to do what only one of them has done: Have a winning season and go to a bowl game. Only Davenport has achieved that.
"I did talk to him about that when he first came [to Washington]," Forrester said. "He was at UCLA when we played them and he talked to me about how they had gone to a bowl and how much fun they had. He just told me about all of the fun activities they do that week and the experience of the game, and that's something I'm hoping that I will get to experience this year."
Part of the team's strategy to get to that point has been to move Forrester to cornerback, where he will provide veteran leadership in front of a couple of younger players and alongside Davenport. Sophomore Vonzell McDowell got three starts as a true freshman, but will still look to that leadership, as well as classmate Quinton Richardson, who redshirted the 2007 season.
"That experience is key," Forrester said. "I remember my first game against San Jose State. I was so nervous. You know you're out there to make plays, but you have so many distractions because you've never played with so many people in the stands. You're used to 3,000 people in a high school stadium."
Wells, however, is quick to say that these players have come into the program as elite athletes that want to play and will work for it.
"The young guys have come in believing they can play," Wells said. "We have a program that allows that. If these guys learn the defense better than someone older than them does, then they will play. You're not getting recruited to redshirt. You're here to play and we have that attitude from day one."
That attitude has been part of the change in attitude in the UW program that the players feel will help them get to a bowl game and rebound from a rough 2007 season.
"We're going to hold our end of the bargain up," Harris said. "It starts with the defensive linemen and we have guys there that can make things happen. But [the secondary] have to be good as a unit and I think we can be this year. I believe in our guys and our coaching staff."
For Harris a successful year would be the fulfillment of a dream he has had since a young age and one he thought he had lost.
"In the third grade, I said that I wanted to play football at the University of Washington and play in the NFL," he said. "Now I play here and it's my dream. It's no one else's dream and no one else is going to make it happen for me. I'm not going to let my dream die easily. I'm a football player -- it's what I like to do. If I like doing something then I should do it."
He and Forrester have been here for the long-haul, with some bumps along the way. They understand the desire to take the program to the next level.
"It has been a tough ride these five years," Forrester said. "I came in with coach Gilbertson and coach (Phil) Snow was my defensive coordinator and I thought they'd be here for my whole time. Now it's my senior year and I feel we'll get this bowl game. It's hard being here five years and not getting that bowl game. We've had rough years and haven't even been over .500 since I've been here. There has been a lot of adversity that I've fought through since I've been here and I just want to win so badly. I would do anything to play in a bowl game.
"We have good football players and a good team, but we just haven't been winning the games. We always talk about that and that's our only goal."
And as far as leadership goes, this unit has the only player who can say he knows what it takes to get there.
"I know what it is like to win," Davenport said. "I've been to a bowl game. I see it in everybody. Everybody wants to be in a bowl game, especially the seniors. It's the time to do it. I'm the only one on the roster that knows. Everyone's attitude is really good. Our experience goes a long way throughout the course of the season."
That experience is in the unit with the brightest spotlight on it. With the questions swirling around as to whether the team can stop anyone, confidence emanates from these four tried and tested competitors.
When you get to where they've gotten, and been through what they've been through, the old clichés start to really resonate. Especially the one Wells gave about winning.
"I'm out here to win football games. I love winning and there really is nothing else."