Game Finally On! Time To Unwrap UW's New Defense
Aug. 31, 2012
Full UW Game Notes (SDSU)
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - After one, record-setting year as a passer, Keith Price is very much a Huskies known. So are
But no one from coach Steve Sarkisian to new coordinator Justin Wilcox to Harry the Husky knows exactly what Washington's completely remade defense will do in the 2012 opener against San Diego State - or beyond.
That makes the D the biggest intrigue to Saturday night's 7:30 p.m. game at CenturyLink Field on Pac-12 Networks television (if you can get it), the Washington IMG College radio network -- and here on GoHuskies.com with the only Huskies real-time play-by-play, pictures, analysis and chat on the web.
"I'm excited to watch our guy plays," Sarkisian said following the final full practice of this season's first game week. "We've made great strides schematically. I like what we've done personnel-wise.
"(Now) we have to go play."
Is Wilcox curious on how his rebuilt defense will debut?
"Yeah. I think everyone is like that," said the new coordinator who arrived from Tennessee in early January. "It's, `OK, how are these guys going to react when it's not just (practice) but a game and a big stadium full of people watching them?'
"What important is how they react and that they do what we've taught for the last nine months."
Wilcox has addressed the loss of middle linebacker and leader Cort Dennison from last season by moving John Timu from outside to inside linebacker. Timu has been such a leader and director of the defense this summer teammates last week named him a team captain - as a sophomore.
Wilcox has added potential sizzle to the pass rush by freeing speedy Josh Shirley and Andrew Hudson as more stand-up, 3-4-style rush ends. Those two have given Huskies blockers fits since April. Now, will they do the same to the Aztecs?
The new coordinator has filled preseason injury losses at outside linebacker by making heralded freshman safety Shaq Thompson a hybrid backer. The Huskies are so intent on getting their new, fast, hard-hitting play maker on the field they are likely to begin Saturday's game in a base defense that includes five defensive backs, with Thompson the fifth, up closer like an outside linebacker.
And Wilcox, the former coordinator at Tennessee and Boise State, isn't just encouraging his defensive backs to aggressively hawk receivers and whack that at the line of scrimmage. He's demanding it.
"We are going to play hard," Wilcox said. "Everyone wants to be a thousand percent right on alignment and assignment. Is that what we want? Absolutely. Is there probably going to be a bust here or there? Probably.
"But ... we want to line up right and play fast. That's what we want to see this week."
The 2011 Huskies defense often stayed back, played somewhat conservatively - giving receivers 10 or more yards of cushion, for instance -- and sought to keep plays in front of them in hopes to force long drives and the opponent to eventually backfire on its own mistakes. Upperclassmen now say some on that defense played tentatively out of fear of making mistakes and being yanked from games.
These 2012 Dawgs are growling, primed for attack at the snap. If they are going to get beaten for big plays, it's going to be because opponents got behind them as they were charging forward.
"Everybody is aiming to play the perfect game. I'm not sure anybody's done that yet," said Wilcox, one of four new assistant coaches on defense. "Mistakes are a part of the game, are a part of life. ... We might not be 100 percent , but our effort and our toughness have to win in the end."
Indeed, as this new defense evolves early this season, missed tackles may be less egregious if they happen while attacking. As Sarkisian noted Thursday, the team is about to learn if those "tackles" coaches gave defenders in preseason practices by blowing the whistle on first contact in the name of teammate preservation become real, to-the-ground tackles in a game.
And pass interference, say, may not be as awful a foul early this season as it will be indicative of a new mindset and approach.
"It's a lot more man-to-man. A lot more aggressive. A lot more hands-on," senior cornerback and leader Desmond Trufant said. "Just the way I like it."
San Diego State will test this defense with a pro-style offense that features multiple shifting and changes in formations and personnel. Quarterback Ryan Katz is a transfer from Oregon State who has had success in the Pac-12 (then Pac-10). He came within a two-point conversion pass that fell away from beating UW in double overtime at Husky Stadium in 2010.
"He has ability to really throw the deep ball extremely well, which is they like to do in their offense," Sarkisian said. "He's got a quick release and he's athletic. Outside of that they have an offensive system that's conducive to that type of quarterback."
The Aztecs' defense under second-year coach Rocky Long is known to attack, as well. San Diego State features a 3-3-5 scheme with five defensive backs and three linemen up front. The Aztecs like to disguise coverages and blitzes in an attempt to confuse an offense's audible calls.
Sarkisian this week assured he would be more aggressive calling plays for Price in this opener than he was 12 months ago in a narrow opening win over Eastern Washington. Price was a redshirt sophomore then in his debut as Jake Locker's full-time replacement, and Sarkisian further reduced the playbook after Price sprained his knee in the second quarter of that game and kept playing.
Now, after a school-record 33 touchdown passes, a completion rate of 66.9 percent and a modern bowl record of seven touchdowns passing and running in his last game, December's Alamo Bowl, Price is primed to throw Sarkisian's entire offense at the Aztecs. That includes a full dose of both Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey. They are sharing the lead running-back role in UW's first game without the departed Chris Polk since Sarkisian arrived at UW for the 2009 season.
"I know that we won't be nearly as conservative the first game around as we were last year," Sarkisian said.
The coach began in the middle of last season giving Price "either-or" options on audibles, a run play and a pass play that the quarterback takes to the line. He decides upon one after seeing the defense's alignment. That added chip in Price's game alone makes UW's offense more adaptable and dangerous than it was in last season's opener - as proven by the 56 points Washington put up on Baylor in December's Alamo Bowl.
But as if often reminded, the Huskies allowed 67 that wild night. So, yes, this game, this early season, will be largely defined by Washington's new defense.
"The new coaches came in and we've been open-minded," senior safety Justin Glenn said. "As a unit, we've done a great job adapting. We'll see how great. Our first test is Saturday.
"We want to put on a display that shows off all this hard work that we've been doing."
INSIDE THE DAWGS: UW had distributed 50,800 tickets for Saturday's game as of late morning Friday. That total includes student and staff tickets and about 700 sold to San Diego State fans. ... The weather forecast for game time is clear and temperatures near 70. ... Sarkisian said he and his staff took a long recruiting look at San Diego State senior starting CB Leon McFadden when they first arrived at UW in January 2009. McFadden was a teammate of Price and Huskies S Will Shamburger at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, Calif., just south of Los Angeles. ... SDSU was 8-5 last season, 4-3 in the Mountain West Conference. The Aztecs are returning six starters on offense - two on the offensive line -- and five starters on defense from the team that lost on the final play to Louisiana-Lafayette in the 2011 New Orleans Bowl. ... For fans not used to getting to and from games at the downtown Seattle home of the NFL's Seahawks - and UW's home this season while Husky Stadium is renovated -- visit the HuskyStadium.com Transportation page.