"Turnover Wednesday" For Turned-Over Huskies' D
April 4, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - "Turnover Wednesday" for Washington's turned-over defense produced ... turnovers.
And more teaching.
Safety Will Shamburger intercepted a pass and returned it for a score. Converted safety Taz Stevenson was all over the field from his new linebacking spot, ripping the ball away from runners and receivers.
Coaches ran intricately detailed drills on recovering fumbles. Those focused on securing the ball first more than picking them up and returning them for scores.
New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox loved the action. After one of his pass breakups, Wilcox ran over to excitedly pat Stevenson on the back. But first, Stevenson dropped to do push-ups as self-punishment for not catching the ball.
Wilcox loved that even more.
"We were out there flying around," redshirt senior safety Justin Glenn said after Day 2 of spring practice for Washington's remade defense that has four new assistant coaches.
Throughout two hours in the morning drizzle, Wilcox and his staff taught and praised and encouraged -- then taught some more. The coaches are laying the groundwork for their remodeling defense to make nearly as many plays as Keith Price and Washington's zooming offense expects to in 2012.
"I like the energy that they are bringing, but I really like their ability to teach. That's been the biggest thing that has stuck out to me," Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said of his hires that arrived in January.
Wilcox, new defensive backs coach Keith Heyward, linebackers coach Peter Sirmon and line coach Tosh Lupoi have plenty to teach in 15 practices this month and until the season opens Sept. 1 against San Diego State. They are installing new fundamentals, new terminology and new schemes. They are using more press coverage even on zone calls, plus 3-4 looks with stand-up, rush ends along the front.
And they are doing it in a clear, systematic way. It's noticeable to the players how the coaches have been refreshingly forgiving and upbeat so far.
It's not that the new teachers are easy. It's that they are displaying a tolerance for some mistakes amid all that is new, when wins and losses aren't yet at stake on the field.
It's what spring practice is for, to create the foundation from which a growing unit can build in the summer and fall.
"I like them a lot," said senior cornerback Desmond Trufant, who will be one of the defense's leaders this fall. "They are teaching us. Even if we make a mistake they are just teaching us what we did wrong and then moving on to the next play."
Yet no job is secure, as the Huskies create competition and thus more improvement.
"They told us the first day, `Every position's open. Doesn't matter if you started three years,'" said Glenn, who started five games last season. He was part of former coach Tyrone Willingham's last recruiting class at Washington four years ago.
"Everyone has a clean slate, and everyone is competing," Glenn said. "That's just going to make us better going into fall camp."
After three years of remarkable continuity on his staff, Sarkisian overhauled his defensive staff in January to bring that unit back and on par with its high-flying offense, to take the UW's program revival from consecutive bowl games to contending for championships.
It's only two spring practices without pads into the new defensive regime, with still five months before the games get real. But the early returns are more like raves.
"I love it," Glenn said. "The energy they are bringing and the positivity, just encouraging guys. If you mess up, that's OK. Just keep going, keep going.
"I really like the direction the coaches are bringing us."
As Stevenson said, "nobody's complaining."
Neither is Sarkisian.
The coach and his staff know that since they arrived in 2009, his Huskies are 13-3 when they win the turnover battle.
"It's huge. It's huge. It's the number one stat in football," Sarkisian said. "If you look at it that way and you really understand the value of the ball in, one, taking care of it and two, creating turnovers and the effect it can have on you winning and losing, it has to be a huge emphasis for us."
That's why the new defensive coaches are teaching making plays on the ball as much as any other skill this spring.
"For two practices in, we've got quite a bit of defense in. It's not like we are running one or two calls," Sarkisian said. "And for our guys to be playing at a high level and not having a major amount of busts -- we have a few here or there, and that's going to happen -- but we are playing at a high level and our guys are playing fast.
"That means our guys are teaching really well, so that our kids can perform when they get an opportunity to perform."
Stevenson is getting early opportunities at linebacker, after spending his first two college seasons at safety. He has added 12 pounds, "and I'm trying to put on 12 more, to be honest," he says, so he can better play a position that is the thinnest on the defense. The Huskies lost playmakers Mason Foster and Victor Aiyewa in 2010, then middle linebacker and captain Cort Dennison to graduation following December's Alamo Bowl.
This spring Stevenson is inside stuffing run plays. He's outside covering slant routes on pass plays. He's on the line at end rushing into the backfield.
"Yeah, I'm enjoying it," 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior from Mililani, Hawai'i, said. "I can cover, obviously, I played safety last year. I have some cover skills... And it's good when I am in `the box' and I can make plays.
"We all have to step our games up."
Shirley, Washington's sack leader with 8½ last season as a situational redshirt freshman, is standing up more to maximize his rush skills - and time on the field.
"It enables me to see what is going on, to keep my head on a swivel and see what's going on out on the field," he said.
The standup ends are part of Washington's shift from four down linemen to more 3-4 principles with a nose tackle and two mobile ends, to better defend the Pac-12's wide-open offenses. New coaches in the conference such as Rich Rodriguez at Arizona and Mike Leach at Washington State use the pass-first spread, and are joining the supersonic offenses already in place at Oregon and elsewhere in the league.
Sarkisian believes having standup ends that can attack more quickly and from multiple places adds pressure on a passing offense.
"You look at the coaches that have been hired, I think there is an emphasis on throwing the ball. There's an emphasis on spread-out teams, on shotgun-running teams," Sarkisian said of the Pac-12. "If you want to defend those guys you have to defend your edges and you can't let the ball get on the perimeter. I think it can create some confusion in pass protection, creating some more rush lanes for our guys.
"But ultimately we have to make sure we can hold up against the two-back, power-running teams (such as Stanford and USC), as well. There's a lot of give and take. And I think for our defense going against our offense, that's a little bit of the beauty of facing us, because they get both. They can get a lot of stuff on film. There is a lot of stuff to teach."
There's that word again. Teaching is what the Huskies' new assistants are doing most this spring.
And the players seem tuned in to learning.
"It gives us the desire to be better," Shirley said, "because last year wasn't good enough. So we have to step up and make changes, for the better."
NOTES: Former Huskies head coach and longtime defense coordinator Jim Lambright talked with athletic director Scott Woodward on the sidelines of the East Field during practice. Jermaine Kearse, the leading WR on last season's Huskies who is weeks removed from working out at the NFL's scouting combine, was also watching his former team. ... LB John Timu sat out with a hamstring "tweak," to use Sarkisian's word. WR Cody Bruns missed practice with a sprained ankle. ... Through the first two practices Sarkisian said, "I think the energy's been awesome. This is what I thought would happen." ... The team practices Friday morning in half pads then has its first full-pads practice of the spring on Monday morning. ... The two practices open to the public this month are April 21 at 11 a.m. in Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center downtown, and April 28 at 1 p.m. for the spring game at CenturyLink Field.