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Washington Spring Previews 2016: Defensive Back

Can the DBs this year top what they did last year?

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

2015 Year in Review

After enduring a trial-by-fire 2014 season, the young DBs lead by sophomores Budda Baker (FS) and Sidney Jones (CB) grew up in a hurry and became a top-tier Pac-12 unit in 2015. They ranked 30th nationally and 2nd in the conference in pass efficiency defense, while also intercepting 15 passes. Perhaps their most impressive feat was allowing only 11 TD passes all year. Against the wide-open Pac-12 offenses and gunslinging QBs, that is really something.

Not much was too surprising about the secondary's performance last year. Many of the key contributors flashed a lot of potential as freshmen and soon exceeded expectations. Outside of Baker and Jones, Brian Clay provided steady, experienced play at the safety spot opposite Budda. Covering the other wide receivers was a combination of Darren Gardenhire, Kevin King, and JoJo McIntosh. Kevin King in particular was a revelation as a nickel corner, and he used his length and athleticism to fly all over the field. Brandon Beaver and Austin Joyner missed most of the season due to injury, while Trevor Walker redshirted to continue rehabbing an injury suffered in late 2014. Ezekiel Turner played in 12 games, making 22 tackles.

Here's what we said going into fall camp in 2015:

Aside from the defensive nightmare that was the Eastern Washington game, UW's secondary did very well for a unit last year that spent the season breaking in untested and undersized freshman while contending with the challenge of facing off against a ridiculously talented slate of opposing quarterbacks without the help of an all-American prospect in Marcus Peters following his midseason dismissal from the team. They were helped immeasurably in that regard by a dominant front seven with players like Danny Shelton, Hau'oli Kikaha and Shaq Thompson; now, with those players gone, the secondary must return the favor to a front seven that is as inexperienced and untested any in recent memory. Washington's safeties and cornerbacks are young but not inexperienced, and will in all likelihood become the defense's leaders. Defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake has his work cut out for him, but if the Dawgs can avoid the injury bug, his players have the potential to be the strongest and most consistent unit on the entire team.

Well, pretty much spot on. The secondary was definitely the leader of the defense and contains arguably the team's best overall player, Budda Baker. However, I don't think anyone could have predicted that the 2015 secondary would be as good as they were. They were no doubt aided by the rapid development of the rest of the defense, which improved over the 2014 edition.

Players Lost, Players Returning

The Huskies lose one lone senior, Brian Clay. After transferring from Hawaii and redshirting, he played in every game in 2014 as a key special teamer, and seeing some action at safety. In 2015, he started every game (except Stanford) at strong safety opposite Budda Baker and generally provided good play. The team only allowed 11 TDs through the air, so he was definitely doing his part keeping the action in front of him. Clay's experience and passion for the program will be missed; however, there is sufficient depth and experience to cover his on-field contributions. I expect JoJo McIntosh to be the main competitor for Clay's spot.

In addition to freshmen joining the roster, there are a number of players coming back from injury/redshirt seasons: Brandon Beaver, Trevor Walker, and Austin Joyner.  Beaver and Walker figure to be in the mix for the SS position, while Austin Joyner will play CB. The Huskies have a bevy of young, talented DBs, and Joyner is a great running back as well, so he could see some time there. For now he is adamant about staying on the defensive side of the ball.

For the returnees, count on First-Team All Pac-12 performers Sidney Jones and Budda Baker as your two of your four starters. Their spots are cemented, and are both poised to have huge seasons. Kevin King may not officially be a starter, but he'll be on the field as much as any other DB. Darren Gardenhire will be given every chance to win the spot opposite Jones, but will be pushed by Austin Joyner and true freshman Byron Murphy. Jordan Miller will likely provide depth at both CB spots until he is ready to start.

Story Lines to Watch

Does Kevin King start? In one of the smarter position changes in recent memory, Kevin King moved from safety to corner and was an instant success. He went from a player oozing athleticism and potential, who flashed occasionally, to a ballhawk and consistent playmaker in the back end. As much as he was on the field, he wasn't actually a starter and was the 5th DB (nickel) on the team. Does he take Gardenhire's spot and start opposite Jones? Or do the coaches not mess with a good thing, and keep utilizing Kevin King's skillset in the nickel only?

Baker and Jones All-Americans? I don't want to jinx anything, but could they reach those heights? Budda Baker added weight and kept his speed this offseason, showing off some serious wheels at the "Husky Combine" a couple weeks ago. The added bulk will help him hold up for an entire season, and if he keeps up the tremendous play, he will garner national attention. He will be aided by the defense's overall strength, and if the team wins a lot of games he'll be in consideration. You could say the same about Jones, and while he may not possess Budda's "star power," UW is starting to get a little attention for producing quality CBs, which will aid Jones in his quest for All-American honors. Current NFL CBs Desmond Trufant and reigning Rookie DPOY Marcus Peters' careers will draw attention to Sidney Jones.

Who starts opposite Budda Baker? I have to say, while I'm not worried, I wouldn't characterize my feelings about the SS position as giddy either. JoJo McIntosh is a big hitter and seems poised to take over the position, but can he stay disciplined and not give up big plays? That will be key. If he can't, the coaches may opt for the experience of Brandon Beaver...though what, really, has the former US Army All-American done in 4 years here? Trevor Walker is an intriguing choice as well, and depending how his knee heals up, could be right in the mix.

Freshman Arriving in the Fall (or Spring!)

Washington signed a very exciting 2016 freshman class of DBs. It includes 4* CB prospects Kentrell Love, Isaiah Gilchrist, and Byron Murphy. They also signed 3* safety Taylor Rapp from Sehome, WA. It will be interesting to see who of this group redshirts and who plays in a secondary packed with young talent. If I were to bet, I would say Byron Murphy and Taylor Rapp are your best bets to play this year.

While Rapp was "only" a 3* prospect, he did have offers from Notre Dame, Stanford, and Oregon; if he's good enough for them, he's good enough for me. I think he'll see early action on special teams and by the end of the year he'll be rotating in at strong safety (because honestly, outside of Budda Baker, is there another safety on the roster that gets you really excited?). He's also enrolling early for spring practice so he'll be ahead of the game when the other freshmen arrive. Byron Murphy is simply too good to keep off the field, and in Head Coach Chris Petersen's own words has some of the best ball skills he's ever seen in a HS prospect.

Kentrell Love and Bellevue's Isaiah Gilchrist are both fantastic prospects who will probably see the field a little bit, but won't be counted on for much more than depth. That said, out of the 4 prospects they signed, I could see as many as two redshirting, with Gilchrist being most likely, followed by Love. Either way, it's refreshing finally to have enough depth and talent that we don't have to project every incoming freshman taking on a starting role.