School's In For New Huskies' Assistants, Defense
April 6, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - The Huskies' new assistant coaches aren't just putting their players in the right positions during the first week of spring practice.
They are making plays with them in those spots.
New defensive backs coach Keith Heyward, a cornerback at Oregon State a dozen years ago and then professionally in Canada and Europe, ran stride for stride with wide receiver Kasen Williams and safety Ken Egu on a deep post route during a seven-on-seven drill Friday. As Keith Price's pass soared toward them, Heyward kept running amid the two players before all three spilled to the turf. The ball fell incomplete, one of Price's few misses all day.
Desmond Trufant loved the accidental pass breakup by his new position coach. The senior cornerback ran over from the sideline roaring, then leaped and shared a shoulder bump with Heyward.
"I'm not too proud of that one. I have to get out of the way," Heyward said sheepishly after the 2½-hour workout ended Day 3 of Washington's spring practice. "My elbow is pretty sore right now, from his elbow, I think.
"That's not the end of it. I'm probably going to hear about that for a long time."
Heyward's enthusiastic, though accidental, play while trying to show Egu proper positioning on a ball in flight epitomizes how far UW's five new assistants went to teach during the first week of spring ball.
No-nonsense Tosh Lupoi enthusiastically demonstrated hand and footwork to his defensive linemen -- while in a T-shirt, shorts and black socks and shoes as he ignored 40-degree chills, rain and breezes off neighboring Lake Washington. Peter Sirmon calmly explained fundamentals to his young linebackers. Coordinator Justin Wilcox offered even-keeled pointers to linemen, linebackers and DBs alike.
These new assistants are as much professors as they are coaches this month.
"It's new words. It's new expectations. It's a new technique," Wilcox said. "It's learning a different language."
Wilcox arrived in January after turning the defense at unranked Tennessee into the 28th-rated one in the country during his two seasons in Knoxville. He is a former academic All-Pac-10 defensive back at Oregon and the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Dave Wilcox. The 35-year-old wears a Steve Sarkisian-like black visor with a red pen sticking out of the back during practice. He uses words such as "consternation" to describe the growing pains possible with this new Huskies' unit in the preseason.
Wilcox is leading Washington away from its previous, 4-3 base philosophy into a more multiple one that will use more mobile, standup ends, like 3-4 teams do. In the backfield, the former safety and cornerback is helping Heyward put the Huskies in more aggressive, press coverage at the line, even in zone schemes.
"It's what we think is best chance for us personnel-wise, and also schematically for the teams we are going to play against," Wilcox said of his fast, smallish defenders on the outside playing in the wide-open Pac-12.
This is the third rebuild and install of his defense in seven seasons for Wilcox. He became Boise State's coordinator in 2006, then Tennessee's in 2010. Asked what the key has been for him, as a teacher, to efficiently overhaul a defensive system, the 35-year-old smiled.
"'As a teacher' ... that's a great question," he said on the edge of the East Field Friday morning.
"Say the same thing 500 times, so they understand it and they have a little sound bite in their head when they hear a certain defense - as opposed to saying the same thing 500 different ways."
Not only are the coaches teaching so much already, their players are impressing with their learning and their desire to improve upon 2011.
"The thing that really stands out is these guys' thirst for knowledge and getting better, their attention in meetings and at practice," said Lupoi, a lifelong Cal Golden Bear until Sarkisian hired him in January. "The thing that stood out, first day I come out here and the whole group was already out here early, doing extra work on their own, starting with the stuff we've talked about and putting it in motion.
"I love the overall culture so far of how hungry they are, trying to get better on a daily basis. ... It's a clean slate for the whole defense, whether you've started or not."
New offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau doesn't have nearly the overhaul going on with that side of the ball. Not with record-setting quarterback Keith Price returning for his redshirt junior season, and with Sarkisian calling the same plays as the head coach for the fourth consecutive year at UW.
The calm, studious Kiesau offers a pat on the back here and a teaching point there, while Price zings more darts to Washington's deep stable of receivers. After Price rolled right on Friday and threw a perfectly placed ball back from the opposite hash mark into the end zone on the left sideline to James Johnson for a touchdown, the quarterback went to one knee and celebrated the play with an emphatic fist pump.
Kiesau simply pointed to his prized passer and nodded approvingly.
"I love him. I absolutely love him," Kiesau said of Price, who set UW's single-season records in 2011 with 33 touchdown throws, a completion percentage of 66.9 and a pass efficiency rating of 161.09. "His accuracy is exceptional, just pinpoint accuracy.
"Sometimes on a throw it's a matter of four or five inches -- and then he puts the ball in there that four or five inches."
On defense, the Huskies are in thinking mode on the field, trying to employ the coaches' many new teachings. Wilcox understands that. His previous rebuilds into making Boise State and Tennessee top defenses showed him it takes months before guys can play his new schemes instinctively.
In each of these 15 spring practice days this month, and in each of the meetings between the workouts, these new teachers are attempting to sharpen that learning curve.
"There's going to be a fair amount of mistakes. We have to understand it takes more than two days, obviously," Wilcox said.
"But we don't have patience for repetitive mistakes. That's what we can't have."
QUICK HITS: Heyward wouldn't even let a bizarre, out-of-nowhere allergic reaction on the field Friday slow the teaching in the defensive backfield. He called over Wilcox to take over momentarily, then went to the sidelines "to take some Benadryl," he said. Minutes later, Heyward was back running with his DBs and the receivers they were covering. "It's great," said Heyward, still a bit watery-eyed following practice. "I can call on him anytime to help." ... TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who 10 days earlier was scoring inside for the basketball team inside Madison Square Garden in New York, soared toward the goal post as if it was a rim to pull down a touchdown pass from Price in traffic. That drew "Oooohs" from teammates. ... LB John Timu was still out with a sore hamstring. Thomas Tutogi was in for him and intercepted a pass by Price over the middle in seven-on-seven work. ... Price was otherwise outstanding - again. Only a few of his two-dozen or so throws hit the ground during the seven-on-seven passing drill and the 11-on-11 scrimmage that ended practice. ... The Huskies were in shoulder pads and shorts for the first time this spring, which meant it was essentially full-go for the linemen. Lupoi loved that. "It's dang near live up front in shells, anyway," the D-line coach said. ... The Dawgs' next practice on Monday morning will be the spring's first in full pads.