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Washington Spring Preview 2015: Defensive Backs

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We kick off our spring practices preview series with a look at the defensive backs. This was an extremely young and inexperienced crew heading into last year, and now they are the veterans of the defense - can they be the cornerstones of the 2015 defense?

S Budda Baker
S Budda Baker
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the first of our 2015 Spring Previews - over the next two weeks we'll be taking a look at each of the position groups as the team heads into their second spring practice session under head coach Chris Petersen.  Today we start off with the defensive backs:

2014 Year in Review:

With the graduation of several key players including Sean Parker, Will Shamburger, Greg Ducre and Tre Watson this was a group sorely lacking in experience heading into the year.  Marcus Peters was the lone returning player with significant starting experience; beyond that it was question marks all around with true sophomores Trevor Walker and Kevin King providing the only other returning starts and a huge influx of new - but unproven - talent in the form of seven true freshman signees.  Things got tough enough in the secondary during the season that John Ross - a potential star candidate at WR - was moved over to defense to play corner.

The good news was the front seven was deep, talented and experienced and provided cushion for this young secondary to grow and develop.  Despite some significant bumps along the way - the season-ending injury to promising RS-Fr CB Jermaine Kelly after just 2 games and the suspension and then later dismissal of Peters - this group weathered early troubles and by the end of the year provided some reasons for optimism moving forward.

By most measures they were not a very good unit in 2014; by Passer Rating Allowed, they ranked a lowly 102nd in the country, and the more advanced metric S&P was only moderately more kind, ranking them 61st in pass defense.  This was a young group getting their feet wet and leaning heavily on the tremendous pass rush provided by the front four.  But despite their struggles, you could see the talent and potential there as players such as true frosh Sidney Jones and Budda Baker flashed star potential, and guys like Ross and Naijiel Hale gained valuable experience.

Here's what we said in our fall preview series heading into the year:

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. With the talent at QB and receiver in the Pac 12, the secondary is going to give up yards. But there's talent that's going to grow up, and the grey hairs in front of them are going to help them do so.

Players Lost/Players Returning:

name position year
lost:
Travell Dixon CB graduated
Marcus Peters CB dismissed/NFL early entry
returning:
Budda Baker S Sophomore
Brandon Beaver S RS-Junior
Aaron Chapman CB RS-Freshman (walk-on)
Brian Clay S RS-Senior
Darren Gardenhire CB Sophomore
Naijiel Hale CB Sophomore
Sidney Jones CB Sophomore
Jermaine Kelly CB RS-Sophomore
Kevin King S/CB Junior
Brandon Lewis CB RS-Freshman
JoJo McIntosh S RS-Freshman
John Ross CB/WR Junior
Ezekiel Turner S Sophomore
Trevor Walker S Junior

Storylines to Watch:

While Chris Petersen will always insist that every job is open for competition, I think we can say with some certainty that two of the starting secondary positions are essentially locked up heading into the spring with Jones at CB and Baker at S.  That leaves two openings and a lot of interesting candidates in play:

Cornerback:

Kelly arrived with a fair amount of hype after signing in 2013, and he secured the open CB job opposite Peters to start 2014.  He had some struggles as you might expect of a RS-Fr seeing his first game action, and then was lost to a serious ankle injury just 2 games into the season.  How well he's recovered - and how far that injury set him back in relation to the other corners on the roster - will be of great interest this spring.  The competition will be much stiffer this time around than it was last year. 

Hale was the most highly touted corner signed by Petersen in 2014 and he had his moments on the field.  He won't wow you with his speed or size, but he plays with a toughness and tenacity serves him well.  A year in the weight room working with Tim Socha should hopefully result in some gains in his speed and strength, and he gained valuable experience last year.

Ross is perhaps the most intriguing candidate, and there will be much attention paid to him and whether he's a full-time CB now, whether he splits his time between CB and WR or whether he ends up moved back full-time to offense.  Despite not a lot of practice time and playing almost strictly man schemes, Ross showed his physical gifts translate nicely to the defensive side.  His speed and agility allow him to stick close to his man, and he showed more physicality as a defender than he did at WR.  With an entire off-season at CB, he could emerge as a terrific prospect, but can this staff afford to keep his skills strictly on the defensive side of the ball?

Safety:

King is the other returning starter at S, but his position seems less secure than Baker's.  While tall at 6'3", he's still very lean and lacks the physical presence you like to see out of a safety as an enforcer in the middle of the field and in run support.  As a converted CB, his strength is his pass defense, but he struggled to convert that to production on the field, recording just 1 interception, 3 pass break-ups and 4 passes defensed.  He's indicated recently that the coaching staff is considering giving him looks at CB - if Zeke Turner can lay claim to a starting job at safety, it makes some sense to see if King can lay claim to the open CB job.

Turner is new to the program as a JC transfer, but he brings impressive size and speed to the position, and his recruitment suggests the staff is very interested in finding a quick upgrade at the position.  They like his size, his intelligence and his aggressiveness on the field.

Walker picked up 3 starts last year before going down for the year with an injury vs. ASU.  He plays bigger than his size (5'11", 186 lbs) and seems to be a better fit at SS backing up Baker, but he'll get his chances at FS this spring to make his case for the job.

Beaver is at a critical point in his career.  The former CB was a highly-touted recruit under Sarkisian, but he didn't make much of a dent in his first couple of years with the program.  He turned some heads this past spring and fall showing ball-hawking skills, but once the season commenced he had been passed-up by Baker, King and Walker.  He's got the coverage skill talent to fit a FS role and has enough size for the position, but he'll need to bring more consistency and physicality.

Freshmen Arriving in the Fall:

name position size
Austin Joyner CB 5'10", 192 lbs
Jordan Miller DB 6'1", 164 lbs
Quinten Pounds WR/DB 5'11", 166 lbs