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Spring Preview: Latest edition of Jimmy Lake’s secondary features depth, cohesion

Nearly everyone returns on a unit that should be at or near the top of the Pac-12

NCAA Football: Washington at Oregon State Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Huskies are absolutely loaded in the secondary. There’s raw talent, there’s experience, there are guys who lay violent hits, and players with remarkable ball skills. Even with key injuries at the cornerback position in 2017, UW ranked among the best in the country in opponent yards per attempt (5.9) and touchdown passes allowed (8). Still, there is room for improvement. While the Husky defense avoided the big play in the passing game for much of the season, five of the six completions over 35 yards against the UW defense were allowed in the final four games. A few of them were back-breaking.

Young defensive backs get beat. It’s part of the maturation process. Keith Taylor stumbled and gave up a touchdown in the season opener at Rutgers. Byron Murphy was beaten a couple times in his return from injury by Utah. Elijah Molden, Austin Joyner, and Myles Bryant were all beaten in the Stanford game (Yes, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside still has eligibility left), and in the Fiesta Bowl it was DaeSean Hamilton who burned Bryant for a pair of touchdowns. Even the ever-sound Taylor Rapp failed to read a go-route by Cal’s Jeremiah Hawkins, who then thankfully dropped a sure TD.

2018 Washington Huskies Cornerbacks/Nickelbacks

Name Jersey # Height Weight Class
Name Jersey # Height Weight Class
Byron Murphy 1 5'11" 184 lbs SO
Elijah Molden 3 5'10" 191 lbs SO
Austin Joyner 4 5'10" 193 lbs JR
Myles Bryant 5 5'8" 179 lbs JR
Jordan Miller 23 6'1" 180 lbs SR
Keith Taylor 27 6'2" 193 lbs SO
Dustin Bush 36 5'9" 180 lbs JR
Kyler Gordon* NA 5'11" 177 lbs FR
Dominique Hampton* NA 6'2" 197 lbs FR
Sean Vergara** 39 6'2" 184 lbs SR
Zechariah Brown** 38 5'10" 186 lbs R-FR
* Arriving in Fall **Walk On

2018 Washington Huskies Safeties

Name Jersey # Height Weight Class
Name Jersey # Height Weight Class
Taylor Rapp 7 6'0" 207 lbs JR
Brandon McKinney 11 6'0" 201 lbs SO
Jojo McIntosh 14 6'1" 211 lbs SR
Isaiah Gilchrist 18 5'11" 205 lbs SO
Julius Irvin* NA 6'1" 177 lbs FR
*Arriving in Fall

The Huskies were in nickel coverage on nine of every ten snaps last season. It was a luxury they could afford with the two-man bull rush of Vita Vea and Greg Gaines occupying the majority of their opponents’ offensive line. This year there’s a good chance UW won’t be able to employ the same personnel as regularly.

When you look at the roster above, the first thing that jumps out is the discrepancy of corners/nickels to safeties. Position assignments in the secondary (and on the entire defense) are quite fluid, with Rapp playing a lot of what looks like a nickelback (or just call it the Budda Baker “playmaker” role), and JoJo McIntosh is sometimes as much as 20 yards off the line of scrimmage in a single-high look, playing what would normally be called free safety. Call these players safeties or nickels or cornerbacks, they will all be playing tons of the Pete Kwiatkowski/Jimmy Lake zone/man combo defense. I remember seeing Sidney Jones rotate back and be the deepest man in coverage many times, especially during his final season. Murphy, Joyner, or Miller might be asked to do the same.

The Coverage Guys

If it’s Jordan Miller and Byron Murphy for the entire season, healthy and locking people down, that’s a nice start. Miller went out in the ASU loss, on the very play that was the first 30-yard completion allowed by the Huskies since the aforementioned garbage time TD by Rutgers. He’s the guy I’d like to see on Whiteside or ASU’s N’Keal Harry: just a really good coverage corner who doesn’t allow much separation and makes great plays on the football. He had two interceptions and four pass breakups in his seven games last season, and added 23 tackles. That’s a pretty high number of passes defensed considering opponents were staying away from him as much as possible.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington
Despite only playing in six games, Byron Murphy led the Huskies with three interceptions.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Murphy was lost for seven games and didn’t see Pac-12 action until the final two conference games. We’ve been told what this guy can do, we have seen glimpses of what he can produce when on the field; now we need to see it for a whole season. I don’t recall any Husky player at the cornerback position looking that capable that early in his career. He uses his hands really well—little grab here, little tug of the jersey there—and his ball skills are elite. Murphy is a bulk interception guy a la Marcus Peters the way he baits quarterbacks, and simply will always catch the football if it is near him.

Austin Joyner was entering his third year in the program last season, and was being counted on as the third cornerback in the new rotation replacing Sidney Jones and Kevin King. Fast forward to the UCLA game and Joyner is your #1 corner against Josh Rosen. Joyner is a breakout candidate to have some big moments this fall. His play during his first two seasons could be categorized as “almost there.” In a role where he’s playing alongside Murphy and/or Miller, with his experience and speed, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Joyner provide Ezekiel Turner-type production as a rotational player.

With Miller recovering from surgery this spring and Joyner recently sidelined with a hamstring injury, true sophomore Keith Taylor has gotten a chance to run with the first-string defense opposite Murphy. Taylor has great size at 6’2” and received his baptism by fire playing man coverage in the very first game last season. He stumbled and was beaten for a TD, but hey, maturation process, right?

The Nickels

Myles Bryant is a tough little dude, and a smart one too. And from now on, Bryant is to be referred to as a three-star scholarship player, not a former walk-on. Okay, he didn’t have a scholarship his first year because he was indecisive during the recruiting process and UW ended up not having room for him, but no player who was offered by UCLA should be confused with a kid that decided to go try out for football while walking back to the dorm from the Applied Physics Lab.

Bryant isn’t easy to fool, and when he is beaten it’s usually because he finds himself in a physical mismatch. It was asking a lot of him to play outside as often as he did in 2017, and when he can remain in his slot coverage role he is a disruptive force, especially in the screen game.

Elijah Molden is listed as the number two nickelback on the Adam Jude “best I can tell” depth chart. Molden was pressed into more playing time than was expected last season, and while it would be ideal to see him only on special teams and in occasional rotational play on defense, there are scenarios where he sees more time at the nickel position. The first—as was the case last season—is injuries to the secondary. The second would be if he is neck-and-neck pushing Bryant for playing time, which would be a good thing.

Dustin Bush is an interesting prospect. Bush walked on and redshirted for the Huskies in 2015, then transferred to Riverside CC where he played cornerback for two seasons. Now Bush returns to UW as a player with starting experience. Even if playing time is tough to come by on defense, he will factor in on special teams, and add even more depth.

The Back End

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington
No more 21. Taylor Rapp will be wearing #7 this season.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Rapp/McIntosh duo is as good as the Huskies have been at safety in this century, maybe better than Baker paired with JoJo McIntosh as a first-year starter in 2016. These two guys are the UW defense’s “Thunder and Lightning,” featuring obliterating hits by McIntosh and the tactical swiftness Rapp uses to get ball carriers off their feet.

There’s a good chance both the senior McIntosh and junior Rapp are gone after this season, making the development of the three young safeties on the roster extremely important this year. Chris Petersen has added a 4-star safety in each of the last three recruiting classes. Two of those players saw playing time in reserve and special teams roles as freshmen last season. Isaiah Gilchrist and Brandon McKinney are waiting their turn and should be the starting safeties in 2019. Gilchrist enters his third year in the program, and has added 25 pounds to his frame since graduating from Bellevue High School in 2016. He was originally labeled a corner, but also was given the distinction of “Athlete” on ESPN’s recruiting site. McKinney may have jumped Gilchrist on the overall depth chart last season, playing in all 13 games and seeing more time on defense, but you can’t read too much into that when were talking young players and garbage time.

The True Freshmen

Joining the Dawgs at the safety position when fall camp opens is Julius Irvin, a highly decorated player from Anaheim’s Servite High School. Irvin chose Washington over offers from all the Pac-12 giants, plus Notre Dame, Michigan, Penn State, Oklahoma, Alabama, Texas A&M, and Florida. The son of former NFL great Leroy Irvin, Julius was rated the 12th best safety in the entire 2018 class. Irvin will no doubt be in the mix to start in 2019, and is a good bet to see the field this season in some capacity. Jimmy Lake even hinted at Irvin as a “lockdown” corner (rather than safety) in this recent tweet:

Alongside Irvin in the photo above (along with Lake and new DB assistant Will Harris) is Archbishop Murphy 4-star Kyler Gordon. The Mukilteo product had his own list of big-time suitors (which included Notre Dame and TCU), and possesses the quickness and versatility to develop into the Swiss-army-knife mold of Budda Baker and Taylor Rapp.

The one true corner in the 2018 class is the 6’2” 200-pounder Dominique Hampton. He’s a bit of an under-the-radar guy coming in as a three-star recruit, but he skipped a lot of the camps where young players get more exposure. Obviously the size is damn near already what you want in a cornerback, but Hampton isn’t just big. He has a bit of an edge to him and played a ton of press coverage in high school. All three of these freshmen are really exciting prospects.

When the Dawgs line up against Auburn on September 1st, the secondary hopefully looks like this: Miller and Murphy at corner, Myles Bryant in the slot, and a safety tandem of Rapp and McIntosh. That’s five potential All-Conference players. Looking at the next five guys (Joyner, Taylor, Molden, Gilchrist, and McKinney), you could field a secondary good enough to start for a lot of Power 5 schools. Then add the three first-year Huskies whose upsides are astronomical.

It’s not a bad time to be a Husky football fan.