Defense Rules: Huskies' D Ends Dominant Month
April 28, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - Now that's progress.
Greg Ducre, Desmond Trufant, Justin Glenn, Nate Fellner, and Will Shamburger broke up passes while in coverage that would have made an insurance company proud. Josh Shirley was as he'd been all month - unblockable. So was fellow defensive end Andrew Hudson.
The tackling was sure. The results were, too.
It was exactly what the Huskies wanted to see coming out of spring practice: A defense transformed.
Washington's overhauled, newly aggressive D overwhelmed its more heralded though watered-down offense Saturday afternoon. It stopped Keith Price and friends 12 times in 15 drives to win 36-10 in coach Steve Sarkisian's fourth spring game in front of 11,802 fans at sun-splashed CenturyLink Field.
Sure, the formations and play-calling were far more vanilla than Sarkisian will use when the season gets real Sept. 1 against San Diego State. So was the defensive play-calling, for that matter, as the Huskies guarded against snooping from opposing scouts at this open, early peek at what may be coming this fall.
Yet the rousing performance - not just Saturday but in all 15 spring practices - from a defense that has to improve in 2012 showed that UW is better overall now than it was while finishing its first winning regular season since in nine years last winter and then playing in December's Alamo Bowl.
"The first thing was, we really wanted to develop our brand. Who we are, not only schematically installing our defense - but what we are about," new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said on the field Saturday, listing the goals the first spring practice for him and three other new assistant coaches on defense. "When people turn on the TV what do they say about that team on the field? What do they say about the Husky defense?
"We wanted to improve our tackling. ... You can cover people, you can fit the run, but if you don't get them on the ground it doesn't matter.
"And the third thing was to play mentally quick. ... Be able to line up, play fast and let your ability take over."
It took over in this spring game, played at UW's temporary home for the 2012 season while Husky Stadium gets renovated.
The defense, wearing all black under gold helmets, got three points for each drive stop - part of Sarkisian's devised scoring system that was forced by injuries to the offensive line. The concern over depth made dividing into two full teams with normal scoring as the coach usually does in spring games impractical.
And there were plenty of stops.
Hudson and Shirley had Price and Brown harried, running around the pocket and throwing passes away.
Fellner knocked a potential touchdown throw off the body of tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the end zone in the first half. On one of the few sustained drives by the first-team offense, in the second half, Ducre's close coverage on Kasen Williams at the sideline resulted in a third-down incompletion. On the next play Shamburger, a safety, came over from the middle of the field to make yet another aggressive play on the ball for three more points for the defense.
It took a trick play -- running back Jesse Callier throwing back to Price for 25 yards -- to set up the offense's only points over the first 44:20 of the game. That was a 37-yard field goal by walk-on kicker Eric Nothstein.
"The score indicated what happened on the field. The defense really dominated," Sarkisian said. "They were flying around. They were making plays. That was extremely encouraging."
Asked if changing the psyche of the defense following 2011 was half the battle, Sarkisian's eyes got wide.
"That's maybe more than the battle, the belief," the coach said. "Believing in calls. Believing in coaches. Believing in the guy lining up next to you. And ultimately believing in yourself that you are going to make plays.
"I think our guys are at the point where they expect to make plays. ... That showed today."
The next step? Creating turnovers. Sarkisian called that his one "knock" on the defense Saturday. It had a couple dropped interceptions and a free fumble it did not recover.
Price, leading the offense that wore white helmets, purple jerseys and white pants, was 14 of 28 passing for 168 yards. He had a 23-yard catch-and-run touchdown pass to fullback Jonathan Amosa down the sidelines in the final minute of the third quarter. UW's record setter with 33 touchdowns in his debut season last fall as a redshirt sophomore was sacked two times.
Price said he thought he could have brought more energy. But it would have been hard to match the juice the defense had.
Wilcox's swarming D dumped backup quarterback Derrick Brown five more times - though quarterbacks were off-limits from contact and were merely touched down. By that measure, officials could have called about a half-dozen more sacks, as an in-flux and recently injured offensive line had trouble slowing rampaging defenders.
"I can tell the difference. And they still have room to improve," Price said of the defense now compared to 2011. "They are lights-out right now."
Hudson got credit for two of the seven sacks.
"I felt like the bad guy out there," redshirt sophomore said, smiling.
Shirley led the Huskies with 8½ sacks as a freshman last season. He dumped Heisman Trophy-winner Robert Griffin III of Baylor, the second pick in this week's NFL draft, three times in the Alamo Bowl.
He may be even better now. Wilcox has the 6-foot-3, 235-pound dynamo standing up and getting off the edge more quickly like a 3-4 end, and new defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi continues to show him new tricks to utilize his speed
"The system is good. I like it. It lets us play more aggressively," Shirley said.
As for the entire defense?
"We had to progress," he said. "Last year obviously wasn't good enough."
The clear priorities on offense heading into preseason practice that begins August 9: developing the line and settling on a rushing attack.
Center Drew Schaefer played just one series Saturday, three days after Washington's only senior blocker returned from a sprained knee. Colin Tanigawa was in his jersey but not in pads. Sarkisian expects to have the rugged redshirt sophomore back starting at guard in August. He had season-ending knee surgery in November.
Micah Hatchie is still learning as a first-time starter at left tackle. He is replacing Senio Kelemete, who got drafted in the fifth round by the NFL's Arizona Cardinals on Saturday. Dexter Charles is a redshirt freshman at left guard subbing for Tanigawa. Starting right guard Colin Porter had to quit football this spring because of degenerative shoulders. James Atoe, a redshirt sophomore, is still growing in the role behind him. And Ben Riva shows promise but lacks consistency as of yet at right tackle. That's where Erik Kohler was last season before nagging injuries slowed him this spring.
Kohler joined the first-team line in the first half Saturday. His return in August will greatly help solidify the line.
The question of who will replace the production of departed Chris Polk remains a multiple-choice one. Bishop Sankey's strong spring ended in traffic, with 34 yards on 11 carries and 51 more yards on four receptions. Jesse Callier, slowed by injury this month, had four yards on two carries. Willis Wilson gained 11 yards on five carries, and Antavius Sims rushed three times for 11 yards.
In all, the running game gained just 79 yards on 35 carries against UW's renewed defense.
To the driven Dawgs on that side of the ball, it's as if 2011 never happened.
"It's erased. It's like a lost memory," said sophomore Sean Parker, a returning starter at safety who drew Sarkisian's praise all spring. "We are here now.
"We can't wait for this season to come."
QUICK HITS: The Pittsburgh Steelers made Alameda Ta'amu, the Huskies' mainstay DT through last season, the first UW player taken in this year's draft by selecting him in the fourth round Saturday. ... Former Husky offensive lineman Senio Kelemete was selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the fifth round. ... Sarkisian said reports that Polk's draft stock dived because of a degenerative condition in his hip was "news to me. I've never heard that stuff." Polk, whom many saw as a second-round pick, reportedly signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent Saturday night. ... Along with Polk signing with the Eagles, two other former Dawgs have inked deals with NFL teams Saturday: WR Jermaine Kearse with the Seahawks and WR Devin Aguilar with the Titans. ... The first of two lucky, randomly chosen fans at CenturyLink Field Saturday was Josh Brewer. He caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Price in the south end zone during the break between the first and second quarters - while wearing what looked like fluffy purple pajamas. He spiked the ball then playfully shared a leaping hip bump with Price. Sarkisian signed the ball for Brewer to keep. ... The second lucky fan got to call the first play of the second half, an end-around run by wide receiver Marvin Hall. Shirley dumped Hall for a 10-yard loss, proving again why fans are fans and coaches are coaches.