The Washington Huskies had the #1 defense in the Pac 12 in 2015. This is hardly breaking news by now, but I have still tried to work it into as many conversations as possible since the end of the season.
"Hey, John. How's your tennis game?"
"My backhand is steady, but my forehand is becoming a weapon like the top rated UW defense."
"John, How do you like your Subaru Crosstrek?"
"The symmetrical all-wheel drive gives me great traction in all conditions, much like the UW defense; which was #1 in the Pac 12 last year."
"Happy Valentine's Day, John"
"Same to you, honey. The Huskies' Defense was frigging awesome!"
Chris Petersen's defense was not only tops in the Pac 12, but if you look hard enough, data can be found on the internet to suggest it was the best in all of college football.
While a few key freshmen on offense garnered well deserved attention last season, there were several young players on defense who keyed the success of that unit (it was the #1 defense in the Pac 12, you know). In particular, six sophomores emerged as stalwarts for the UW and collectively make the prospects for the 2016 Husky defense very exciting.
Of the six, four hail from Southern California, one from the Bay Area and one from Bellevue. There is an even split among the six between those who played as true freshman and those who redshirted. Three play in the secondary, three on the front seven. Ask four experts who the best player is out of these guys, and I could easily see four different answers. These six Super-Sophs accounted for 36% of the total tackles, 47% of the forced fumbles, and 60% of the Huskies' interceptions. Pretty remarkable when you consider that more than 20 players were part of the regular defensive rotation.
Let's quickly acknowledge these six players:
In the secondary, Budda Baker led the way. While he doesn't always light up the stat sheet, Baker might be the best football player currently enrolled at Washington. What a luxury it is for a defense to have a free safety who is always where he is supposed be, is as sure a tackler as you will find, and has impeccable timing for breaking up passes. He's just... good.
Cornerback Sidney Jones had a phenomenal 2015. Other than the bowl game when he found himself up against a physical receiver in Southern Mississippi's Mike Thomas, Jones shut down everyone he faced. He - along with Baker - were UW's only two players to earn first team All Pac 12 Honors. And who can forget his timely pick-six in the Apple Cup? I know I can't get it out of my head, most likely because I have watched it over 100 times by now. "Bender...Oh noooo. Picked off. Look out. Sidney Jones got this one. Sidney Jones has.... SIX." Yep, I just watched it again.
The guy who sits behind me at Husky Stadium refers to cornerback Darren Gardenhire as "Number Three" (eg: "Number Three got beat again"). Perhaps no player improved over the offseason as much as Gardenhire, and the 5'11" 185-pounder carried that momentum into 2015 to win the starting CB spot opposite Jones. Early in the season, he was regularly tested and beaten, giving what seemed like huge cushions to receivers. Gardenhire describes DB coach Jimmy Lake as a "big technique dude," and as the season went on, you could see his technique improve. By year's end, he was making plays all over the field, and at one point I heard from behind me "Number Three has gotten a lot better."
Azeem Victor hits hard. During the first part of the 2015 season, he not only hit hard, but very, very often. After tallying 14 tackles in the season opener at Boise, he followed with three more double-digit tackle games. When it was all said and done, Victor had amassed 95 tackles (9 for loss) on his way to earning All Pac 12 Honorable Mention honors. If he can harness his emotion and toe the line between violent and dirty play, 1st team all Pac 12 is well within his reach.
When offenses realized that staying away from Victor was in the best interest of their game plan, fellow inside linebacker Keishawn Bierria got his chance to flourish. Bierria was second to Victor with his 77 tackles including an impressive 51 solo stops. Tack on 7.5 tackles for loss to his resume and you have the makings for quite an outstanding talent to call your 4th best linebacker. He's definitely one of my favorite players to isolate in the binoculars and watch dissect and play and swiftly react.
Before injuring his ankle in the Arizona game, Elijah Qualls was probably on his way to an All Pac 12 season. Playing inside and eating up double team blocks doesn't allow for a great stat line very often, but Qualls managed to record 4.5 TFL and add another 4.5 sacks despite missing the better part of four games. His versatility was on display regularly, and with the emergence of some other outstanding interior defenders I expect to see him lined up all over the place next season.
Big things are expected from the Husky defense in 2016, largely because of these six players making the ascent to experienced upperclassmen. When you consider that 18 of the players taken in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft were Juniors, it stands to reason that for a at least a few of these guys, it could be their last season at UW. If that's the case, here's hoping they give me reason to be bragging about them well after the season ends... again.