Huskies Transform, Now Led By Attacking Defense
Nov. 19, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - The Huskies are bringing an asset to this 105th Apple Cup that their coach - and most everyone else -- didn't expect Washington to have in 2012.
Steve Sarkisian was assessing his team while talking to a coaching friend from another school this summer. Washington's fourth-year coach told his pal he thought UW would be "really good" on offense and "good" on defense.
Seven wins in 11 games later - including allowing just 17, 13, 15 and three points each week in an ongoing, four-game winning streak - Sarkisian's assessment has changed.
"I think we are really good on defense," the coach said after Monday morning's practice as preparations intensified for the annual grudge match Friday afternoon between Washington (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) and Washington State (2-9, 0-8) in chilly Pullman.
"I was off a bit," Sarkisian said. "I think our defense has probably exceeded what I thought it could be a little bit."
A little bit?
Using far more aggressive, in-your-face coverage with more plays on the ball plus a fast, active set of new linebackers, the Huskies have transformed. Their defense has at times carried their offense through inconsistency to the cusp of UW's first eight-win season since 2001.
Last season the Huskies were 116th in the nation in pass defense (285 yards allowed per game, 106th in total defense (453 yards allowed) and 108th in scoring defense (surrendering 36 points per game).
This season UW is ninth in pass defense (174.3 yards allowed per game), 29th in total defense (352 yards per game) and 36th in scoring defense (23.2 points per game).
New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has cornerbacks Desmond Trufant, Marcus Peters and Greg Ducre challenging receivers at the line of scrimmage and down the field rather than dropping into deep cushions to guard against big plays deep.
Trufant, a possible high-round selection in April's NFL draft, is hopeful to play Friday after sitting out last week to preserve his sore hamstring. He has been so good in his senior season he at times has single-handedly shut down top receivers, particularly against Stanford, USC, and Oregon State. Peters, a redshirt freshman, and senior safety Justin Glenn have continually made plays at passes in flight. Junior Sean Parker has been a hard-hitting cover man and blitzer at strong safety.
Sarkisian credits his first-year defensive backs coach, hired in January from Oregon State.
"Keith Heyward has had a great effect on our secondary," Sarkisian said. "He has reduced our anxiety that we used to play with back there ... and, ultimately, we are making plays on the ball."
The secondary's play has freed new linebacker Travis Feeney, another redshirt freshman into becoming a menace all over the field, particularly in the opposing backfield.
"Travis has had tremendous second half of the season," Sarkisian said of Feeney, a converted safety with 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash. "That transition is not easy.
"The same could be said about Shaq Thompson."
Thompson was rated as the nation's top high-school safety last winter out of Grant High School in Sacramento, Calif. Wilcox created a position for him in August, converting him into a hybrid linebacker who is listed as a nickel back on the depth chart but is more often just off the line of scrimmage as an edge rusher and inside pass-coverage force.
The physicality and speed of Thompson, along with the fleet Feeney and sophomore John Timu, another former safety and a high-school quarterback, give Washington as fast and athletic a set of starting linebackers as its had in years.
It's almost as if last December's 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl didn't happen.
Wilcox and his three new assistants arrived days later to remake a unit that this season is the identity of Husky football.
"I mean, obviously you want to be optimistic and think positively that we could improve from last year," Glenn said. "But once we kind of got going a little bit and I realized what the schemes were and what he was doing and how our personnel fit it, I thought we'd definitely be a lot better than we were last year.
"Now, we are really starting to play our best football, at the end of the season. I mean, this is how you want to be playing in November, late November."
In last weekend's 38-3 win at Colorado the Huskies - without Trufant -- allowed their fewest points on the road in a dozen years, since a 51-3 win over WSU in the 2000 Apple Cup.
This year's Cougars will provide the latest to test UW's improved pass defense.
Washington State has thrown the ball 571 times in 11 games, the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision. WSU is 10th in the nation in pass offense under spread-`em-out, first-year coach Mike Leach. The Cougars have thrown for 3,615 yards in the air, an average of 329 yards per game, with 23 touchdown passes.
But the Huskies could find opportunities to make more plays on the ball Friday inside Martin Stadium. WSU's quarterbacks Connor Holiday and Jeff Tuel have thrown 19 interceptions. Only Western Michigan, with 21, has thrown more in the FBS this season.
"I know we had some tough ball games early in the year against spread teams," Sarkisian said, referring to UW's losses to Oregon and Arizona in October. "But I would like to think that with our athleticism that won't be as big a problem in the future."
Sarkisian smiled when asked immediately after Saturday's win outside the visitors' locker room at Folsom Field in Boulder if he could have envisioned such a dramatic turnaround so soon from his defense.
"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "I thought we had some pretty talented guys. I thought we could recruit some guys who could step in right away.
"One thing I have appreciated about Justin is, he's evolved as a defensive coordinator from Boise (State) to Tennessee to even early on with us to fit the personnel that we have and to put the players that we have in the best positions to be successful. And we're seeing some of those younger players get better as the season's gone on.
"It's a credit to our defensive staff for adjusting to what our guys can do well."
INSIDE THE DAWGS: Austin Seferian-Jenkins was named Monday one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award given annually to the nation's top tight end, one week after he was the only sophomore on the semifinalist list of eight. Last weekend Seferian-Jenkins caught his 11th career touchdown pass to set a new UW record for tight ends. His 99 receptions and 1,289 yards receiving are also all-time school records for the position. His 58 catches this season are yet another UW record for tight ends, and ASJ needs 45 yards receiving to pass Dave Williams' Huskies single-season, tight-end record of 795 yards receiving. "If there are three better tight ends in the country, I'd like to see them," Sarkisian said. ... The Huskies will have a team Thanksgiving meal early Thursday afternoon on campus after practice and before that afternoon's team flight to Pullman. ... The early forecast for Friday's game on the Palouse: Cloudy with temperatures in the upper 30s to low 40s.