If you follow this blog with regularity, you know that the relative youth of the defensive secondary is the one issue (along with the kicking game) that most worries Husky fans. The Huskies graduated four of the top five rotation players from a season ago and are reloading with a depth chart that is sure to feature at least a few true freshmen at one or more levels. While the Cornerbacking unit at least has experience to draw upon in the form of junior Marcus Peters and senior Travell Dixon, the safety positions are occupied by an uncomfortable array of youth and inexperience.
In this article, we preview that young Safety depth chart and break down the competitions at both the Strong and Free positions. WARNING: this preview is not for the feint of heart and is best read with a stiff bloody Mary at the ready.
A key ingredient to UW's strong defense from a season ago, a defense that surrendered less than 23 points per game in a conference that featured six of the nation's top 25 offenses as measured by Offensive F/+, was the play of the Huskies' secondary. The starting safeties for the Huskies were seniors Sean Parker and Will Shamburger. Depth was provided by senior Tre Watson and true freshman Kevin King.
In all, the Huskies Safety play was steady if not stellar for most of the season, even when Shamburger went out and King was inserted in the starting lineup. There aren't any stats that specifically separate Safety play from that of the Corners, particularly in a defense like Justin Wilcox's where there was tremendous interchangeability. However, I like to focus on long plays from scrimmage given that both Safety positions play a key role in containing ball carriers once they break the plane of the front seven. In 2013, the Huskies surrendered only 8 plays exceeding 40 yards. Only UCLA gave up fewer such plays (6) in the Pac. Preventing those kinds of explosive plays was critical to UW's success on D a year ago.
This season, the Huskies will have to endure the graduation of Parker, Shamburger and Watson and come up with a whole new depth chart for their Safeties. That's the bad news. The good news? There is some significant talent for new DBs Coach Jimmy Lake to work with.
Given that both Parker and Shamburger have graduated, we are actually talking about two position battles for starting spots: free and strong safeties. It is hard to specifically tease both of these out given that there is often a high degree of interchangeability between the two roles (not to mention Cornerback). But, for the sake of including everybody in the analysis, we'll slot them all into one specific role and discuss them in that manner. I freely admit that I don't have much insight into how DC Pete Kwiatkowski or Lake are actually planning on using their Safeties.
Strong Safety: Soph Kevin King vs RS Fr Trevor Walker vs Fr JoJo McIntosh
The three noted above are my best guesses as to who is competing for the Strong Safety role - a position that tends to focus more on run support and nickel coverage.
King is the known commodity in this particular competition. He has the frame to be just as effective in the Free Safety position, and cut his teeth in this position when he relieved an injured Shamburger in 2013. His ascension into the starting lineup a season ago was a bit of a surprise to Husky fans given the presence of some more highly touted prospects on the roster. King quickly showed that he has a true "student of the game" capability and that he could more than hold his own when thrown into the fire. His physical durability is a concern coming off of off-season shoulder surgery.
Walker has established himself since he arrived on campus a year and a half ago as a tactician-style of player. Hailing from the football mecca of Texas, it is apparent that he has had good coaching. While not necessarily the most athletic guy who is going to make those plays that take your breath away, he appears to be a heady player who makes few mistakes and is reliable in getting ball carriers on the ground - a must for a Strong Safety.
I presume that JoJo McIntosh is also in the mix for this position. I don't have a good feel for him yet. However, he appears to have a ruggedness about him that serves a Strong Safety pretty well. At 6'2", he has the length that the Huskies are looking for in that strong side role.
Free Safety: Jr Brian Clay vs Soph Brandon Beaver vs Fr Budda Baker
Generally speaking, the Free Safety is the "ball hawk" for your secondary. He's the roamer who serves as the last line of defense against a big play and he needs to have the athleticism to both erase broken coverages and to out leap receivers for long passes. He also needs to be able to make tackles in space. When he fails, offenses score back-breaking TDs.
Yeah, no big deal.
The contenders for this role are all relative newcomers to the Huskies. Brian Clay, a transfer from Hawaii, is a good looking walk-on who has already demonstrated an ability to play in every role on the secondary. He has a good frame and is presumably the most physically developed of all the candidates for the Free Safety role. He has FBS playing experience and has already earned the confidence of the coaching staff through his stellar showing last spring.
Brandon Beaver probably has the best balance between athleticism and experience among the contenders here. Beaver also enjoyed a strong spring where he opened the eyes of several observers who were somewhat underwhelmed by his play a year ago as a RS frosh. Many Husky fans aren't aware that Beaver actually got some good playing time towards the end of last season and, in fact, got a start in the Fight Hunger Bowl against BYU. According to beat reports, Beaver has really showed up so far in fall camp.
The final candidate is one of the most touted recruits that the Huskies have landed over the past decade: Bellevue High's Bishard "Budda" Baker. Budda is a two-way capable player who also is dynamic on special teams. In the competition for Free Safety, Budda shows elite speed and athleticism in closing coverage gaps as well as surprising leaping ability in high-pointing thrown passes. Early reports are that Budda still has "swimming head" syndrome but that he has impressed the coaching staff with how aggressively and fast he practices.
Forecasting the Depth Chart
Strong Safety: Trevor Walker, Kevin King, JoJo McIntosh / (Brian Clay)
Free Safety: Brandon Beaver, Kevin King / Budda Baker / (Brian Clay)
Ok, I cheated a little here. The bottom line is that I think your two starters will be Trevor Walker and Brandon Beaver. This is the depth chart that has been most commonly seen in practices as of late and one that, I believe, the coaches are gaining confidence in. It's hard to know for certain, but I'm guessing that Kevin King isn't yet back to 100%. However, when gets there, I think that he'll pressure both starters and could end up taking either position. I put Brian Clay in parentheses because I'm guessing that he'll primarily focus on the Cornerback role where it would seem he'd make more of an overall impact as a depth player.
As far as the true freshmen are concerned, I expect that both Budda and McIntosh will play this season. I predict that Budda will make a strong run for the Free Safety role and may well have jumped everybody by the time the season ends. However, given how well the more experienced guys seem to be playing in camp, I expect the staff will allow Budda the opportunity to learn through rotation before loading him up too much. As for McIntosh, I think that his physical dimensions will almost certainly dictate that he gets playing time in 2014, even if that is primarily limited to special teams play.