We continue our post-season review of the 2014 football position groups with the defensive secondary. The key takeaway from Brad's preseason preview of the position groups:
Even if the true freshmen aren't counted on all that much, make no mistake that youth is going to be served in the secondary this season. It's likely that 3 of the four starters will be underclassmen, and that most of the primary backups are as well. There will be growing pains, and even though the non-conference schedule isn't too formidable, it's likely that fans are going to see opposing receivers running free down the middle of the field more than they'd like.
2014 In Review
Well, as it turns out, the true freshmen were counted on plenty, and then some. Starting out the year with a potential All-American in Marcus Peters and a heralded redshirt freshman in Jermaine Kelly at cornerback, Washington soon found itself short a pair of starters. It began when Kelly broke his ankle in practice the week of the Illinois game, and continued when Peters clashed one too many times with the new coaching staff and became the highest-profile dismissal in Chris Petersen's first year at the team's helm.
At safety, the Huskies come into 2014 knowing they would have to dig deep into the roster to find replacements for departed safeties Sean Parker and Will Shamburger. Pete Kwiatkowski and Jimmy Lake experimented early and often to find the best rotation possible, trotting out Brandon Beaver, Trevor Walker and Kevin King at various times, but the one player who was a lynchpin for the team throughout the season was true freshman phenom Budda Baker. The pride of local powerhouse Bellevue High School, Baker ended up playing more than 1,000 snaps in his debut season, and figures to be a stalwart in the Husky defensive backfield for the next couple of years.
Standouts and Key Moments
Fr. Budda Baker—80 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 INT, 6 passes defended, 2 fumbles forced
RS Junior Marcus Peters—30 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 3 INT, 7 passes defended
RS Fr. Jermaine Kelly—5 tackles
Soph. Kevin King—65 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 passes defended, 1 fumble forced
Fr. Sidney Jones IV—61 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2 INT, 5 passes defended, 1 fumble forced
Fr. Naijiel Hale—12 tackles, 2 passes defended
Soph. Trevor Walker—14 tackles
Soph. Brandon Beaver—7 tackles, 2 passes defended
Fr. Darren Gardenhire—6 tackles, 1 pass defended
Jr. Brian Clay—12 tackles
The fact that I had to list 10 players above to accurately describe the production Washington saw from its four cornerback and safety positions in 2014 tells you everything you need to know about the group: Namely, that the lineup was never-ending game of "Guess Who?" in which players either fell to injury or struggled to separate themselves from their competition. It got so desperate late in the season that the coaching staff moved John Ross, perhaps the most electric playmaker on the offensive side of the ball, over to defense toward the tail end of the season.
It is also telling that every player listed above was either a first- or second-year player in 2014. (Brian Clay was a junior college transfer playing his first year at UW.) The lack of leadership apparent on the defense's back end was glaring early in the season, especially during the Eastern Washington game in which quarterback Vernon Adams completed 31 passes for 475 yards and seven touchdowns and zero interceptions against the Husky defense.
Fortunately, those trials that Washington's cornerbacks and safeties weathered in 2014 should serve them well in the years ahead, as coach Jimmy Lake continues to build the group's depth.
Looking Ahead to 2015
All indications are that the staff will make permanent the move of Ross from wide receiver to cornerback. If that comes to pass, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which he doesn't begin the 2015 season as one of the starting cornerbacks. Players of Ross' speed and agility simply don't appear very often, and an offseason of practice should be just the thing to bring his instincts up to par with his natural closing speed.
That will leave one other starting position, which should make for an exciting battle between Jermaine Kelly, Sidney Jones IV, Naijiel Hale, and Darren Gardenhire. As a starter prior to suffering his ankle injury, Kelly should have the inside track, but don't be surprised to see Jones match or overtake him. He's arguably the freshman who improved the most down the stretch, and starter or not, figures to earn plenty of playing time.
At safety, it would take an act of God to remove Budda from his perch. At just 5-10 and 173 lbs., Baker needs to bulk up arguably more than any other player on the roster to help himself weather the rigors of the Pac-12, and doing so will no doubt be one of his biggest priorities between now and fall camp. But he's a special player with a knack for putting himself in position to make plays, as evidenced by his beautiful one-handed interception in the Cactus Bowl.
The other starting safety position will likely be a fierce competition between front-runners Brandon Beaver, Trevor Walker, Kevin King, and junior college transfer Ezekiel Turner. At 6-3, 210 lbs., Turner offers a size dimension that none of his teammates can match, and will be ideally suited to helping a front seven that returns just one starter in run support.