By Gregg Bell – UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – Evan Hudson is handling his position switch as casually and freely as his long, brownish-blonde hair flows out of his black headband.
Coach Steve Sarkisian, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, his defensive line mates and everyone else who has watched even part of one preseason practice this month are marveling over the converted tight end seizing a starting defensive-end role as if he’s a natural at the new position.
Yet Hudson just shrugs.
“Really, it’s instinctive for me,” he said of his first, smashing weeks at defensive end. “I played D-line in high school (Bothell High in the Seattle suburbs). I just need to knock all the rust off.”
He’s actually pounding that rust – and almost everything else in his way – into submission.
Hudson has been a revelation through the 19th of 24 preseason practices that ended Tuesday afternoon at Husky Stadium. He’s been an immovable end on running downs against UW’s first-string offensive line. On passing downs, he’s sometime gone inside over the starting guards and ended up in the Keith Price’s face for what would be a sack if the quarterbacks were free to be hit in practices.
They will be free to be hit on Aug. 31 when Boise State’s come to town. And No. 80 in the home purple is going to be a key determinant of whether the Broncos – and 11 other UW opponents after them this regular season -- move the ball or not against the Huskies’ defense.
“Evan’s doing awesome. Shoot, he’s starting for us,” Sarkisian said, almost surprising himself that the former third-string tight end has shot to the top of the defense’s depth chart in just two weeks.
Not to say the transition has been as easy as he’s made it look, but Hudson seems liberated just by how many fewer tasks he has to do prior to each play.
As a tight end, he needed to make and receive protection calls. He had to decide which blocking assignment he had based on where the defensive end, tackle, inside linebacker or outside linebacker was playing. He had to adjust his pass route depending on the defense’s alignment. And he had to remember the snap count. Hudson had to process all of that in about 10 seconds before each snap.
Now? It’s just get the defensive play call, get in a stance – and go!
“Going from this offense, it’s been super easy,” Hudson says.
It shows. Senior defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha (formerly Jamora, Hudson’s main tutor at his new position, said of his new pupil: “He picked up all the alignments and assignments really quickly.
“He was like, ‘This is all we’ve got to remember for defense?’” Kikaha said of Hudson. “He’s doing great.”
Hudson fills a huge need for UW’s defensive line because he is, well, huge. At 6-foot-5 and 277 pounds he is the Huskies’ biggest defensive end. Among regulars on the defensive line only interior tackles Danny Shelton (327 pounds) and Lawrence Lagafuaina (334) weigh more. Hudson’s size allows him to move inside on passing downs, to form a pass-rush line with rush ends Andrew Hudson and Josh Shirley, as Wilcox seeks to improve upon the Huskies’ 27 sacks in 13 games last season, and Evan Hudson’s speed allows him to zip past bulky interior linemen.
Andrew Hudson and Shirley were Washington’s co-leaders in sacks in 2012 with 6½ each, but they weigh 252 and 232, respectively. That makes them vulnerable to double teams or bigger blockers on running plays when they try to play the so-called “stud” end on the offense’s strong side.
Well, UW now has another Hudson for that.
“He’s exactly what we were looking for. And to Evan’s credit he’s gotten better and better and better every practice since we’ve been going,” Sarkisian said. “For us, because of what we are doing, to have a strong-side defensive end be that physical and take on double teams – whether it’s guards and tackles or tackles and tight ends – is really essential. And he’s doing a good job.”
Hudson wryly calls the change “a little change of pace.” He says where offense is largely mental, “going to the D-line has been more physical.”
Beat the man over you and you win. He likes the simple challenge in that.
“Yeah, I think I’m liking this,” he said with a small grin.
Hudson credits Kikaha and relentlessly driven defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi with showing him the nuances of first-step footwork and trick of shedding and directing blockers with his hands and arms – the tricks of the defensive end’s trade. Hudson is also benefitting from knowing the first steps of offensive linemen and what they indicate about the play that is coming.
Kikaha and Lupoi’s teachings have already resulted in a mega boost to the Huskies’ defense – and maybe to their season.
They have unearthed a potential gem at defensive end. And the former tight end has already learned a handy lesson for the opposite side of the line.
“Be violent,” Hudson said. “There’s no use trying to finesse them anymore.”
INSIDE THE DAWGS: Travis Coons improved to, by Sarkisian’s count, 10-for-10 on field goals over the last two days. He drilled a 53-yarder in Tuesday’s full-pads practice. Then, for a final try, the defense called timeout to “ice” the senior. The entire team then closed around him to ramp up the pressure. Yet Coons made it again -- and thus gained the inside track in the competition with freshman Cameron Van Winkle for that potentially game- and season-changing job. The big-legged Van Winkle appears set as the new kickoff man. Coons had only 11 touchbacks in 13 games last season, among the lowest such numbers in the Pac-12. ... Coons and Korey Durkee, who punted some in early games last season before Coons won the job outright in 2012, are still battling for the punting role. … Sarkisian gathered the team in the middle of the field immediately after practice ended and praised the players for a second consecutive session full of energy. “We had a great practice last night. An immature team could say, ‘OK, that was good. We can relax.’ We came out and might have had a better one today,” Sarkisian said. “There’s still things to clean up. There are still things we have to get better at. But all in all these guys are working. I couldn’t be more proud of them — I just got done telling them that in the huddle — of what they’ve brought the last two days.” … Former Huskies QB Brock Huard, now an ESPN college football commentator, visited with his successor as UW’s passer in 1999 Marques Tuiasosopo Tuesday on the sidelines, before Tuiasosopo began another practice as Washington’s quarterbacks coach. …From the UW Ticket Office: The Huskies have sold more than 46,000 public season tickets. That is almost 4,900 more than from all of the 2012 season. UW opened some obstructed-view seats for sale to the opener -- and they are almost gone. That just about assures a sellout of about 70,000 on Aug. 31.