A defensive unit is only as strong as its weakest link. Prior to the start of the 2015 season, much was made of the loss on defense of Danny Shelton, Hau'oli Kikaha, Shaq Thompson, and Marcus Peters; four players good enough to be taken early in the NFL draft, but somehow not good enough to make the Husky defense any better than the middle of the Pac-12. In a 2014 season that saw the UW defense allow 287 yards per game through the air, 28 TD passes, and yield a QB rating to opposing passers of nearly 138, when all was said and done that star-studded defense could only muster a pass defense ranking of 10th best in the conference.
Based on those grim numbers and the loss of great talent, the prognosticators understandably saw a fall-off for 2015. But what many forgot to consider was the youth of the secondary in 2014. Young pups, really, thrown into the fire. And although Kikaha and Shelton were phenomenal at getting to the quarterback, there was not a lot of question for whom opposing coaches needed to gameplan, and where to attack. Redshirt freshman Darren Gardenhire was pressed into action and was picked on regularly. Budda Baker and Sidney Jones were among the best true freshmen in the conference, but they were still one year removed from high school and were short on experience for players being counted on as stoppers in the secondary.
In 2015, the Huskies showed that while the star power had diminished, the talent was deep. Who do you double-team on the defensive line? Who do you go after in the secondary? Suddenly these freshmen who spent a year learning what Pac-12 football is all about were playing like veterans, and opposing coaches looking for weaknesses in the Husky defense kept rewinding game film and uttering "shit."
The UW pass defense was 4th overall in the conference last season, posting a sub-116 opposing QB rating, allowing 62 yards fewer per game through the air than the year before, and intercepting 15 passes while only allowing 11 TD passes. Those numbers are great, but they can be even better. While 11 TD passes yielded may have been an aberration and difficult to match, the other numbers have room to improve.
Pass rush and sacks are not always the same thing, but the Dawgs were down over a full sack per game in 2015 from the year before. Kikaha was a sack specialist, and most thought that Joe Mathis would be able to step into his role as a dominant pass rusher. While Mathis had his moments, he was hampered by injury. His ability to generate a rush off the edge will be a key for the UW pass defense in 2016. Elijah Qualls and Benning Potoa'e are among other players capable of making opposing QBs panic.
Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton—the top sack-men from last season—are gone, and their departure can be viewed as having left gaping holes in the defense. But in college football, coaches tend to look at vacated spots as opportunities for other players and not voids that need to be filled. Entering last season no one was sure who would step up on defense with the exodus of so much talent. It turned out that Feeney and Littleton exceeded all expectations. This fall there are a lot of really promising candidates to flank Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria, two of the top inside linebackers in the Pac-12.
Other than Mathis (whom I still see more as a defensive end in the Kikaha vein), Tevis Bartlett and Psalm Wooching are the best bets at this point to get the lion’s share of snaps. The senior Wooching has great size and motor, but has always had trouble getting disengaged from blocks. With the strength of UW’s defensive line, Wooching is in a great position to face one-on-ones with tackles and tight ends. His success rate in getting home and putting hits on the quarterback will directly affect the overall stinginess of the entire pass defense. Bartlett is said to have strengthened his hold on the other starting spot with a great understanding of the playbook and a solid spring. Talented redshirt freshman Bryce Sterk will get a long look at both outside spots, so far backing up Wooching and junior Connor O’Brien at strong-side outside linebacker. Fellow redshirt Jusstis Warren is another name to remember when it comes to players with a propensity for chasing down QBs. Greyshirt Myles Rice and true freshman Amandre Williams both possess great natural talent, and if one of these guys emerge as a pass rushing weapon this season it wouldn’t be overly surprising. Another year in the weight room may be more beneficial for the Huskies long term if these two are not ready or needed in 2016. D.J. Beavers and Ben Burr-Kirven will rotate into the inside LB spots where rushing up the middle and dropping into coverage are key in Pete Kwiatkowski’s pass defense.
While there is some level of mystery when it comes to the players who will provide pass rush for the Husky defense, the secondary has decidedly fewer question marks. Sidney Jones is a lockdown corner. Budda Baker is everything you want in a free safety. Gardenhire and senior Kevin King have fantastic ball skills and are excellent tacklers. Despite the loss of starting strong safety Brian Clay, there is little reason to believe the secondary as a whole will not be improved this season. Baker, Jones, and Gardenhire make the leap to upperclassmen where young players with talent and potential develop into confident veterans. Jojo McIntosh earned valuable experience last season and has added 10 pounds this year. Expect McIntosh to take hold of the strong safety spot and become the 5th All-Pac-12-caliber member of the Husky secondary.
Trevor Walker and Brandon Beaver are experienced backups at free safety and Ezekiel Turner adds solid depth at the strong safety position. The buzz surrounding true frosh Taylor Rapp has me thinking he sees the field this season and gains experience. If Baker leaves for the NFL, I’m intrigued by the thought of Rapp paired with McIntosh at safety in 2017. Who is SS? Who is FS? Such conundrums are nice to have.
The next generation of Husky corners looks promising as well. Jordan Miller, Austin Joyner, and Brandon Lewis should get plenty of reps if all goes to script during the 49-0 (x3) non-conference schedule. Miller is a favorite of former Husky coach and current ‘Husky Honk’ Dick Baird, who praises his "fluid hips." At 6’1" Miller is no longer undersized, having bulked up to over 175 pounds. He was one of the most praised players during the spring.