The Strategy Behind Composing Washington's Defense

Stephen Brashear

There are many ways a coach can construct a defense. How did Justin Wilcox construct his, what is Pete Kwiatkowski being handed, and is he following the same path?

Yesterday Ian Boyd -- of SB Nation and InsideTexas.com -- put together a post about how teams construct their defenses. The gist of the post is that there are five general attributes a team can focus on to put its defensive roster together: speed, size, intelligence, talent, or versatility.

While we haven't seen enough recruiting or on-field execution from Pete Kwiatkowski to know what method he'll prefer at UW, we did see enough of Justin Wilcox's product to look at what he was trying to build at Washington.

Boyd summarized the speed strategy as:

Trying to get the fastest team possible on the field and relying on team speed to attack opponents, rally to the ball, and essentially shrink the field so no offensive player finds a match-up advantage or leverage to operate in for more than a small window of time before the defense converges on him.

While UW's defenses the past couple of seasons have had good speed, they haven't exactly been full of burners, and can probably be described more as "skilled" than "fast."

For size:

Have big people up front who can carry the load for the rest of the team and allow different types of athlete to have success behind them.

Certainly Danny Shelton fits into this scheme, but he's really the only defensive lineman who does, as the guys who have played beside him the past couple of seasons have been mostly undersized. Onward...

Intelligence:

[Players that] understand what the offense is doing and how they will respond to it within their own diversity of calls... They don't need to constantly stare at the sideline for calls or guidance, they know what they're doing and they're read for what you're doing.

Some teams try to achieve a similar result by having as simple a defensive scheme as possible.

I'm certainly not going to call UW's defenses of late dumb, but there has been nothing of late that has struck me about them as being intelligent in an exceptional way. Moreover, I think that this is generally a strategy that teams gravitate toward when they don't necessarily have access to elite talent like UW does.

Talent:

Rather than attempting to have a unified vision for their defensive personnel, these teams just worry about having good players who might be effective due to any number of physical or mental attributes.

This is close. UW's defenses have been getting more and more talented over the past few seasons, and have been doing a good job of putting the best guys on the field, but to think that Wilcox didn't have a vision for his defensive guys... I don't buy that. Plus we've got some bad memories here, as this is the closest thing you could call a Nick Holt defense: no identity or vision, all about the players (and then complain that you "don't have the bullets." Ugh).

Versatility:

Given the modern spread coach's love of playing versatile personnel and finding mismatches to attack with RB/WR or TE/WR hybrids, some teams prefer to choose defensive personnel around the principle of having match-up proof players across the defensive front and back end.

Now I think we've hit it. When you look at the way that UW's defensive players had been used under Wilcox, this is what you saw. Shaq Thompson came in and played a nickle/linebacker hybrid. Tre Watson was a utility player all around the secondary at safety corner and nickle. Travis Feeney started as a safety, played linebacker primarily, and moved back to a rover in heavy packages. Many of the defensive ends to play under Wilcox were linebacker/end hybrids. The entire rush-end position is and was something of a hybrid by definition.

It seemed like Wilcox coveted players who were multi-talented and could play a number of different responsibilities throughout their career, a season, a game, and even through the course of a single play.

If I had to guess, I'd say that we see a similar strategy from Kwiatkowski. We know the two coordinators share some coaching roots, but we may also have already seen a bit of it from Coach K. Changing Hau'oli Kikaha's title from DE to OLB looks like one that will afford the Huskies a bit more versatility -- though you could also point out that that could slant toward the "talent" structure.

In no other conference in the country will you see the versatility and variation of offenses that you'll encounter in the Pac-12, and the Pac-12 North is the absolute worst, with two Air-Raid teams, a spread-to-run offense, Stanford's smash mouth style, and Oregon State's multiple/spread/screen/pro thing. You can win with any of these styles -- successfully executed -- but I think that the apparent style that UW has been going with of late has been the correct choice.

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