Finally, Game Back On for UW Sack Man Josh Shirley
Oct. 18, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - The Huskies want Josh Shirley to become an every-down, all-around defensive end.
But for now - as in, this weekend and next - being what he already is suits Washington just fine.
After consecutive weeks defending run-first Stanford, Oregon and USC, the Huskies (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) play a pivotal conference game at airborne Arizona (3-3, 0-3) Saturday night in Tucson.
Arizona is number one in the conference and fifth nationally at 368 yards passing per game. Quarterback Matt Scott, whom former coach Mike Stoops redshirted last season in what became a favor to new coach Rich Rodriguez this year, is fourth in the country with 2,099 yards passing. Scott averages 31 completions per game.
The fifth-year senior was 45 of 69 for 491 yards and three touchdowns in Arizona's previous game, a wild, 54-48 loss in overtime at Stanford after the Wildcats blew a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter.
But what's scary to some is an open invitation to Shirley.
"Josh has got to continue to work on some of those things in the run game. But Josh has done some really good things in the pass game," Huskies first-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said.
The last time Washington faced an offense this wide open and pass-happy, Shirley sacked 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III three times in December's Alamo Bowl. Those were the last of Shirley's team-leading 8½ sacks as a redshirt freshman.
Last week at CenturyLink Field Matt Barkley, the preseason favorite to succeed Griffin as this year's Heisman winner, dropped to throw for USC on fourth and long in the fourth quarter. Shirley zoomed in off the end and plowed through Barkley for a sack that gave Price and UW's offense another chance for a rally that ultimately did not happen.
"I just had to go. And I went," Shirley said. "When you know, you go. And I knew, with how I prepared and how the coaches prepared during the week. And I was confident in my coaches. It all pays off.
"It all comes from within. You've just got to let it out.
Asked if these two next weeks - including next Saturday at home versus Oregon State, second in the league in passing -- would lend themselves to more Shirley time, Wilcox shook his head affirmatively. The defense's designer said we are likely to see more of No. 22 on first and second downs than we did, say, against Stanford or Oregon or USC.
Speed is his game. The redshirt sophomore is still working on becoming a more stout run defender so he can be an every-down end against any opponent. He continues to learn new techniques as well as UW's new defense.
Last season, Shirley, from Fontana, Calif., was mainly in a three-point stance as a more pure defensive end. Now Wilcox has the 6-foot-3, 235-pound dynamo standing up and getting off the edge more quickly, like a end normally does in a 3-4 scheme. Wilcox has also had Shirley as more of a roving linebacker dropping into pass coverage on occasion this season, as he did last month against Stanford.
And new defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi continues to show him new tricks with his hands and feet to utilize his speed against pass and run blockers alike.
"The system is good. I like it. It lets us play more aggressively," Shirley said.
The Huskies enter Saturday's big test first in the Pac-12 and 12th in the nation in pass defense at 173 yards allowed per game. But, again, the last three weeks - plus the Sept. 8 game at LSU - came against teams that rely more on the run game.
These next two weeks are different. The games against the Wildcats and Beavers could be loaded with opportunities for Shirley, beginning Saturday night in the desert.
"We are going to continue and work and develop him," Wilcox said. "It's getting him in situations that really play to his strengths. That's really what we are doing with him. We expect Josh to continue to get better. He just needs to be more consistent in certain areas, like a lot of guys.
"He's just got to continue to develop to become an all-around player. He's a rush end/rush `backer for us, and in some games he's going to probably have a bigger role than others. That's just because of the nature of some of the offenses we are going to face."
Yet please don't call him a pass-rush specialist. Not to his face, anyway.
"No, not necessarily," he said, with a tone and straight face that said more than the words did. "When you know, you go. You have to executive when your number is called."
It's not as if Shirley slept through the Stanford, Oregon and USC games just because those foes ran first. He had two tackles and forced a fumble on Sept. 27 when the Huskies beat eighth-ranked Stanford.
"I'm looking forward to every game - every pass opportunity, every run opportunity - to show I can stop the run," he said.
Yet Shirley's primary role for now is to rush the passer. It is relatively simple in its clarity, but not always in its execution. Not with 300-plus pound tackles, plus tight ends and running backs chipping in with help blocks, trying to keep the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Shirley from doing his job. Especially after opponents saw the film of him dumping Griffin all over the Alamodome turf last December.
But Shirley doesn't try to make his task any more difficult than see quarterback, dump quarterback.
"There's not much to change in the scheme of pass rushers," he said, simply. "You have to beat the man in front of you.
"It's all about how hard you work, and how you execute. You have to out-compete the man in front of you. As long as you out-compete the man in front of you, it will all go in your favor."
INSIDE THE DAWGS: Coach Steve Sarkisian said following Thursday morning's practice he is "hopeful" starting OL Ben Riva will play Saturday. The coach expects Riva's status to be a game-time decision. The 6-6, 302-pound redshirt sophomore from O'Dea High School in Seattle started the opener Sept. 1 against San Diego State then broke his forearm early in that game. He hasn't played since. ... Sarkisian isn't too concerned that heat will be a factor for his Huskies in Tucson. Though the high Saturday is predicted to be 90, the evening, game-time temperature should be in the 70s. ... Washington has won 11 of the past 17 in the series with Arizona, but U of A won the last meeting in Tucson 44-14 two Octobers ago.