Hungry Dawgs Getting After Each Other This Spring
April 18, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - Defensive backs and receivers are slamming each other to the turf.
Defensive and offensive linemen are ramming into one another as if they were bitter Pac-12 rivals. Josh Shirley is being a constant headache for the blockers.
Linebackers and safeties are whacking into ball carriers, and vice versa, whether they are in full pads or not.
Is this really only April?
Steve Sarkisian not only revamped his staff of assistants this offseason. He revamped the Huskies' spring practices.
"One thing we have really tried to emphasize this spring is tackling, to become a better tackling team," Sarkisian said Wednesday after Washington finished its ninth of 15 spring practices. "And, two, (to be) really a better fundamentally sound blocking football team. And then third, becoming more accountable individually to your teammates."
And to their coaches.
New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, a former defensive back at Oregon, is working with new Huskies defensive backs coach Keith Heyward in pitting their DBs in individual tackling drills against the receivers during position drills early in practices. Then later each day, during scrimmages, cornerbacks and safeties are using more press coverage at the line in scrimmage than the Dawgs have used in recent seasons.
The remodeling defense is getting the better of many of those matchups so far. Wednesday, usual safety Nate Fellner, perhaps 10 pounds heavier than he was last season, was up making plays as more of a linebacker. Safety Sean Parker has been all over the field making stops this month.
About the only receiver consistently winning his physical matchups has been Kasen Williams. The ruggedly built, 6-foot-2, 216-pound wide out has rarely hit the ground, even during drills in which he is supposed to be tackled.
He is answering Sarkisian's challenge and committing himself to being more physical coming off the line and more dominant with his big body downfield.
"I just want to be on a more national level than I was my freshman year," Williams said of his 2012.
So, yes, the players are keeping score in all these mini-competitions each day, even though it's 4½ months before the opener against San Diego State.
"We are putting kind of a spotlight in a lot of one-on-one opportunities as a team, really seeing who is battling and competing and who is winning and losing. Who is doing things the right way -- and who's not," Sarkisian said.
"We are getting a lot out of these opportunities. It's a little different format than we've used in the past. It's been new, but the effects of it so far have been really positive. And the outcome's been really good."
Especially for Shirley.
The sophomore defensive end and speed rusher has been extraordinary - for the last five months, really. He had 2½ tackles for losses and forced a fumble in November's Apple Cup win over Washington State, then chased Baylor's Robert Griffin III all over the Alamodome while sacking the Heisman Trophy winner three times in December's Alamo Bowl.
This month, new defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi is teaching Washington's sack leader with 8½ as a freshman new stand-up techniques and moves. He's at times been unblockable - not a bad trait for a rush end.
"I think he's really taken to Coach Lupoi and learning some new moves, the array of pass rushes that he has, so that when he is getting those different looks he has some different alternatives to what he wants to do," Sarkisian said of the 6-3, 235-pound Shirley. "But also, he's using his power. Josh is a strong guy. Sometimes you don't know it because he's not the biggest guy, but he's one of the strongest guys on our football team right now. And he's using that strength in his pass rushing, as well."
"He's been really disruptive, especially in days like (Wednesday) where the second half of practice was a real pass emphasis -- second-and-long, third-down situations. That's where Josh can really pin his ears back and go," Sarkisian said. "And he's got such a great get-off, that's when he's at his best.
"He's tough on all the guys, whether it's been (Ben) Riva or whether it's Micah (Hatchie) or whoever else has been out there. He's caused problems."
A consistent pass rush featuring premier menace to quarterbacks would cause new problems for the rest of the Pac-12 this season, and would be huge for the resurgence of Washington's defense this season.
The Huskies are planting the seeds for that growth this spring with this new emphasis on one-one-one competitions in full-go tackling and blocking.
"It's a way to keep score. It's a way to keep guys accountable," Sarkisian said. "But also really focus in on the fundamentals and techniques that are needed to win."
QUICK HITS: Junior Erik Kohler, a starter at guard and at tackle in his first two Huskies seasons, continued to work his way back from leftover 2011 aches, this day by playing some at center. Starting C Drew Schaefer has been out with a minor knee sprain and Mike Criste has been taking his place snapping to QB Keith Price. "You never know. The worst-case scenario is we get into a ball game and two centers go down. And we have to have a contingency plan if that did occur," Sarkisian said. The coach said he thinks the best position for the 6-5, 296-pound Kohler is guard. ... The Huskies practice Friday morning on campus then have their first public practice of the spring Saturday at 11 a.m. inside Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center. Sarkisian said the plan that day is for some live scrimmaging and some that is more "thud tempo," exactly one week before the Spring Game.