Nick Holt and the defense - a long essay

I think I can speak for all of us here when I state this (obvious) point – our defense is not very good.  We can’t stop a good running attack (Nebraska, Stanford) and we can’t stop a good (or even decent) passing attack.  The only teams we’ve done well against are teams struggling on offense with significant injuries (Utah, Colorado).

Seeing Stanford absolutely manhandle our defense in a way not seen since the worst days of this program under Gilby & Ty was monumentally frustrating.  Naturally, Husky fans are fed up with seeing this kind of performance and are looking to vent.  Hence, Nick Holt.

Now, understand right off the bat that I get why he's a target:

-          He's the defensive coordinator

-          He's highly paid

-          He isn't well-spoken and often comes across as a meat-head

-          His sideline antics don't sit well with some

-          He's been rather blunt about calling out lack of talent or lack of physical development as an excuse

Let me address a few of these quickly:

-          I don't care how much he gets paid.  If he's doing a great job, I don't care if gets paid $1.2M.  If he sucks, I don't care if he only gets paid $90K.  His salary isn't paid by the public, and his salary doesn't affect my ticket prices.  The only way in which his salary matters to me is if the amount bothers other coaches on the staff, notably Doug Nussmeier.

-          I hesitate to read too much into how Holt comes across in public; I know he's not the best public speaker, and he's not nearly as articulate as Sark or others on the staff - I can't know for sure if that's actually an indication of his coaching acumen, so it's best if I don't make any assumptions on that either way based off how he speaks.

-          His sideline antics don't bug me that much and I don't think they'd be an issue to others if his defenses were performing at a high level.  It's not like he's at a Mike Stoops level.

One other thing we should note - Holt is a guy that's been in demand in his career.  So far as I can tell, he's only ever been fired once, when the UNLV coaching staff he was on early in his career was let go.  He then immediately latched on at Idaho under John L. Smith (a pretty well-regarded coach), and when Smith left for Utah State, Holt was retained by new Head Coach Chris Tormey.  And before you wonder about why Smith didn't take Holt with him (I'd guess Holt wasn't interested in relocating to Utah), Smith then grabbed Holt away from Tormey and Idaho when he was hired at Louisville.  And then Pete Carroll, another highly regarded coach (especially on the defensive side of the ball) hired Holt away from Smith to coach at USC.  Holt impressed enough that he was then given the head coaching job at Idaho.  He didn't do so well at that job, and resigned to take an offer from Scott Linehan (a colleague from the Louisville staff) and coach in the NFL.  But before he signed that contract, Carroll wanted him back at USC bad enough that he was able to persuade Holt to forego the NFL.  And then Steve Sarkisian wanted him bad enough at Washington that he didn't let Holt's initial rejection dissuade him - he came back with a bigger offer, determined to get the guy at the top of his list.

I mention this not to claim that Holt is doing a great job here, but I think it's instructive to realize that he's been well-regarded in the coaching industry.  This isn't a guy with a history of failure, of getting fired often and bouncing around the coaching fraternity like many guys out there.

Now, the point of this post isn't strictly about Holt - it's about the defense, and trying to figure out why it's still really bad, 2.5 years into Sark's coaching career at Washington.  A question has been asked, why has the defense not really improved from year to year to year under Holt's watch?  It's a good question.  I would submit there are a multitude of reasons:

Inherited (lack of) talent

There were a few good experienced players on defense left over from the Willingham Error:

-          Daniel Te'o Nesheim

-          Donald Butler

-          E.J. Savannah

-          Mason Foster

-          Alameda Ta'amu

-          Senio Kelemete

Unfortunately, that's it.  There were also a few young guys that didn't really have any experience but would be developed under Sark & Holt's watch - guys like Victor Aiyewa, Cort Dennison and Quinton Richardson.  There were also some OK guys with experience left over:  Nate Williams, Everrette Thompson, Cameron Elisara and Johri Fogerson.

So when key players graduated, like Te'o Nesheim, Butler & Savannah after the 2009 season and Foster after the 2010 season, what experienced, talented upperclassmen were there to take over?  Other than Cort Dennison, nobody.

Who was left to team with ‘tweener Everrette Thompson at DE?  The perpetually injured Kalani Aldrich and the never developed De'Shon Matthews.  And look who got the majority of the snaps opposite Thompson - a true Sophomore in Talia Crichton and a true Freshman in Hau'oli Jamora.

When Foster and Aiyewa graduated this past year, who was here to fill those spots alongside Dennison?  Almost strictly 1st & 2nd year players.

Look at the youth in the secondary ever since Sark got the job - it's been primarily guys in their 1st or 2nd year in the program starting,  guys like Desmond Trufant, Nate Fellner, Justin Glenn, Sean Parker, Greg Ducre.  We're finally developing some experienced depth back there, but it's been a struggle.

Who's been starting at the 3-technique alongside Ta'amu?  A collection of ‘tweeners like Thompson and Elisara, or 1st & 2nd year guys like Tokolahi and Potoa'e.

So every season under Sark & Holt we've been running out a significant amount of young guys with little to no experience who aren't close to fully developed, either physically or in terms of technique.  That revolving door should be slowing now as more and more of the roster is made up of guys recruited and developed under Sark - we should see less and less true freshmen and 2nd year guys earning starting jobs as the talent level keeps rising, and more of these players will get a chance to develop physically without being forced into the lineup prematurely, much like in the days under Don James & Jim Lambright.

Compare that with the offensive side of the ball - there, Sark inherited Jake Locker, Chris Polk, Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar.  That's a good group of skill guys.  And he moved one of his more promising young DL over to the OL in Kelemete.

Now granted, the OL situation was not good - the inherited group was mostly a mess, and Sark is now relying quite a bit on the "Cascade Front" group to grow up quickly.  But I don't think there's much question the inherited talent was better on the offensive side.

Recruited talent

While Sark has landed some touted players on the defensive side of the ball, I don't think he's done as well there as he has with the offense.  Here are the notable recruits on the offense recruited under Sark:

-          Keith Price

-          James Johnson

-          Nick Montana

-          Deontae Cooper

-          Kevin Smith

-          Michael Hartvigson

-          Erik Kohler

-          Colin Porter

-          Micah Hatchie

-          Jesse Callier

-          Bishop Sankey

-          Kasen Williams

-          Austin Sefarian-Jenkins

-          Dexter Charles

Here are the notable defensive recruits:

-          Desmond Trufant

-          Nate Fellner

-          Sione Potoa'e

-          Andrew Hudson

-          Josh Shirley

-          Sean Parker

-          Greg Ducre

-          Danny Shelton

-          Tani Tupou

-          Corey Waller

-          James Sample

-          Marcus Peters

A number of the better defensive recruits never made it in to school, or washed out for off-the-field reasons:

-          Chris Young

-          Darius Waters

-          Ma'atua Brown

-          Victor Burnett

Sark has gone after a lot of safety-sized guys with the intention of bulking them up to play linebacker.  Most of them really haven't fully developed physically and are still undersized.  He's also failed to land a big thumper at MLB other than JC transfer Thomas Tutogi.  He's landed mostly 3-star guys at CB and DE - guys with some potential to develop into good players (as we've seen with Jamora & Ducre), but not the sure-fire NFL studs he's targeted and lost.

Josh Shirley is one of the most-hyped guys Sark has gotten (and only because he got busted for theft at UCLA and was booted), and while he may yet develop into a pass-rushing terror, right now he's a severely under-sized DE that gets knocked around on running plays and is still learning how to rush the passer at the college level.


When I watch our defense, I still see a lot of technique problems.  On the defensive line, I see guys that don't show a lot of ability to shed blocks and lack much in the way of pass-rush techniques, from spin moves to counters to rip moves to clubs - these guys basically suck at rushing the passer.  Ta'amu and Tokolahi show some ability to clog the middle against the run, but Ta'amu especially doesn't seem to be coming close to maximizing his physical skills.

Our linebackers are young and need more experience, but their zone drops are poor.

Our safeties often take bad angles to the ball and are not great in coverage.  Nate Fellner at least is able to catch the ball when it's in his vicinity, but I've rarely seen a more fluke year in terms of interceptions than his 2010 season.  Our corners seem unable to play effective press coverage, play off the ball too much in zone and don't make many plays on the ball.

So where to point blame?

Well, first and foremost, point it at Sark.  He's the head coach, so the buck stops there.  He's the guy that desperately wanted Holt as his Defensive Coordinator.  He's the one that hired all of the assistants working under Holt.  He's the guy ultimately in charge of recruiting.  And as the head coach, it's ultimately his responsibility how the defense plays (as well as how the offense & special teams play).  I don't know how true it actually is that Sark lets Holt take ownership of the defense while Sark focuses on the offense.  The coaching situation has been characterized as such, but perhaps that's an exaggeration.

I know this - Sark isn't ignorant about defense.  He can't be - as an offensive play-caller, he has to understand what he's attacking.  With all the film he's watched of opposing defenses, trying to diagnose how to attack them, there's no way he doesn't have a pretty good eye about what constitutes good performance on defense.

However, that doesn't mean he spends much time thinking about how to attack offenses from a defensive perspective.  It doesn't mean he thinks about coming up with new schemes and plays on defense.  And it doesn't mean he knows how to coach defensive techniques.  Should he?  In my opinion, the head coach needs to be involved on both sides of the ball in terms of game-planning - otherwise, how can he really know how his defensive staff is performing?

It's up to Sark to assess his staff and make the hard decisions about who he employs.  He has to determine whether great recruiting ability overcomes questionable position coaching.  He has to figure out whether his coaches are employing the right schemes and whether they are coaching those schemes effectively.

And it's up to the head coach to set the tone for the whole team.  If our team isn't as physical as they need to be, as tough as they need to be, that reflects on Sark.

Obviously Holt bears quite a bit of responsibility - he's the defensive coordinator.  It's up to him to utilize the best schemes, to make the right play calls, to put the talent he has on hand in the best position to succeed, to oversee his defensive staff and make sure they are doing their jobs (though ultimately that responsibility belongs to Sark), and to be a positive asset in recruiting and evaluation.

I'm not fully qualified to evaluate his X's and O's - I'll leave that to others that are.  His schemes worked pretty well at USC - was that due to much superior talent?  Can he adapt to lesser talent?  Was he just a rah-rah attitude guy while Carroll handled the play-calling and a top-notch staff did the position coaching?  Could be.

Ivan Lewis bears some responsibility too.  That may sound like sacrilege I know, but we can't let him completely off the hook.  The strength & conditioning under the previous staff was horrible - we all know that at this point.  Lewis has obviously been an improvement in that regard.  But is he good enough to produce championship athletes?  I still give him the benefit of the doubt and would like to see more of the kids Sark has recruited have more time under Ivan, but it was clear Saturday that our team is a long ways off from matching the physicality & toughness of Stanford, so Lewis has to be considered as potentially part of the problem.

On the coaching staff, I cast a particularly questioning eye at Johnny Nansen & Demetrice Martin.  Those guys happen to be considered the top recruiters on the staff.  Watching their players, I come to the conclusion that it's their recruiting prowess that has them employed, not their position coaching.  I feel slightly better about Jeff Mills, but I'm not blown away by our safety play.  I tend to think Mike Cox is the best of the bunch, but he's got his work cut out with the young stable of OLB's and figuring out a replacement for Dennison next year.

To close out this admittedly very long post, I'll summarize my view:

-          Our defense is not very good and needs to improve greatly if we're to return to being a Pac-12 championship caliber program

-          I think the depth of talent on the defensive side of the ball was tremendously lacking when Sark took over, resulting in major drop-offs at key positions the last two years when our best defensive players graduated - this goes a long way towards explaining the seeming lack of progress on defense from year to year

-          I think the recruiting has been better on the offensive side than the defensive side

-          I think we don't have great position coaches on the defensive side, particularly at DL and CB

-          I think Sark needs to be more involved in defensive game-planning and can't completely hand that off to Holt

-          I think Holt may be a part of the problem, but I need to see more expert analysis of his schemes and the execution of those schemes, and am somewhat swayed by his prior employment history to give him the benefit of the doubt

-          As bad as yesterday was, I'm still inclined to stick by my idea that Holt is best judged by waiting until the end of next season - that will reduce the excuses of youth, experience and physical development from the equation (though the defense will still be a bit young)

-          I'm not claiming that Holt may not deserve to be fired, and perhaps as soon as this off-season; my intent is that we all take a bigger picture view of the problem and realize that there's more to the mess than just who the defensive coordinator is