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Washington Huskies Football 2018 Season in Review: Passing Defense

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Jimmy Lake’s secondary once again proved its mettle, but Washington’s lackluster pass rush remains a problem in search of a solution.

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Pac 12 Championship - Utah v Washington Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

We continue this week’s breakdown of what we saw from the Washington Huskies football team in 2018 with a look at what many recognize as the program’s biggest strength since Chris Petersen’s arrival: the pass defense. In 2018, Dawg fans saw a product that bore a number of striking similarities to what they saw in 2017 — namely, an elite secondary that received far too little help from a front seven that seemed at times utterly incapable of collapsing the pocket and pressuring opposing quarterbacks into errant throws and poor decisions. With that, let’s take a more detailed look at what made last year’s passing defense tick.

What We Expected

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Considering that Washington’s secondary has produced four first- and second-round NFL draft picks since Chris Petersen arrived to coach the 2014 season, it’s no surprise that many observers began the 2018 season regarding the Huskies’ defensive backfield as among the most loaded in the country. In particular, Dawg fans had particularly high hopes for cornerback Byron Murphy, who had shown flashes of brilliance in six games as a redshirt freshman in 2017. Joining him were fellow cornerback Jordan Miller and a pair of multi-year starters at safety in JoJo McIntosh and Taylor Rapp, the latter of whom earned earned recognition as the MVP of the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2016, and was selected to the Pac-12’s all-conference first-team following the 2017 season.

With the secondary all but sewn up by experienced playmakers, Washington fans hoped to see an elite pass rusher emerge during the season. Back in August, it seemed that the best candidates for such a breakout season would be Benning Potoa’e, Levi Onwuzurike, Tevis Bartlett or Ryan Bowman. What seemed clear is that the pass rush was the Achilles’ heel of an otherwise elite defense, as the Huskies hadn’t featured a player with double-digit sacks since Hau’oli Kikaha generated 19.0 in 2014.

What We Saw

Jimmy Lake’s secondary lived up to the hype and produced one of the best lockdown pass defenses in the country, with opposing quarterbacks earning just 5.8 yards per attempt (ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12, and No. 8 in the nation) and completing only 12 touchdown passes (No. 1 in the conference, No. 7 nationally). Byron Murphy in particular was a revelation; he earned MVP honors in the Pac-12 championship for scoring the game’s only touchdown, and was recognized by Pro Football Focus as the most highly-graded cornerback in the nation. Both he and Taylor Rapp were named first-team All-Americans by publications including Pro Football Focus, Athlon’s, The Athletic, ESPN and USA Today. In addition, Murphy, Rapp, Myles Bryant, and JoJo McIntosh all ranked in the top-six of the team’s tacklers, and Murphy, Rapp and Jordan Miller all corralled multiple interceptions, with Murphy pacing the team with four. Finally, Murphy’s 17 passes defended ranked No. 3 in the conference and No. 11 nationally.

Unfortunately, the Dawgs didn’t see nearly as much production from its front seven in pressuring their opponents’ quarterbacks. Defensive backs Taylor Rapp and Myles Bryant led the team in sacks with 5.0 and 3.5, respectively, with defensive lineman Greg Gaines also earning 3.5. Levi Onwuzurike (3.0 sacks) was the only player on the team who could be described as a designated pass rusher who earned more than a single sack on the season, as Benning Potoa’e, Ryan Bowman and Joe Tryon each tallied one sack throughout the entire 2018 campaign.

What We Learned

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Conference Championship-Utah vs Washington Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

First and foremost, we learned (or perhaps it’s better to say that 2018 reinforced) that Jimmy Lake is one of the nation’s elite recruiters and developers of talent in the defensive backfield. After initially developing the trio of Budda Baker, Kevin King and Sidney Jones into early-round picks in the NFL Draft, he seems all but assured of adding that distinction to the names of Byron Murphy and Taylor Rapp, with PFF’s Steve Palazzolo predicting both will become first-round selections in a mock draft posted yesterday.

We also learned that the Huskies are still searching for someone to become a pass rushing terror. There’s good reason to think that they already have the player(s) that will step into such a role on the roster today: Both Levi Onwuzurike and Joe Tryon showed flashes of that coveted skill set, though neither were nearly as consistent as fans and their coaches would like to see. With Myles Bryant being the only starter from last year’s secondary returning for the 2019 season, it’s imperative that the experienced players in the front seven step up and pick up the slack for their teammates in the backfield who will inevitably make their share of mistakes as they fill the shoes of their teammates who have either graduated or declared for the NFL Draft.

What Should We Expect to See in 2019?

Assuming Jimmy Lake is still calling the shots for the Washington defense next fall, it’s hard to imagine too much of a fall from grace for the Huskies. That being said, 2019 seems likely to represent something of a rebuilding/reloading year akin to 2017, when the Dawgs needed to find replacements for a trio of second-round draft picks in Baker, Jones and King. Fortunately, Lake has stocked the defensive backfield with quality talent as much as any coach and recruiter in the nation: Seven of the nine cornerbacks and safeties that Washington has signed since the 2017 class are classified as four-star recruits by 247Sports, and the Dawgs remain in the hunt for one more in the form of Asa Turner. It seems premature to imagine a depth chart before we get a look at the team during spring practices, but if I had to pick now, I’d probably imagine Keith Taylor and Elijah Molden as the starting cornerbacks, Brandon McKinney and Isaiah Gilchrist as the starting safeties, and Myles Bryant acting as the team’s senior leader in his role at nickelback.

NCAA Football: Washington at California D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

With so many new starters in the secondary, it’s going to be of paramount importance that the defensive front seven carry the lion’s share of responsibility in the early going of the coming season while the team’s DBs find their sea legs. Greg Gaines’ departure means that the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes’ hauls of Tuli Letuligasenoa, Faatui Tuitele and Jacob Bandes takes on an elevated importance. While Chris Petersen would obviously love to redshirt the latter two, it’s likely that the team’s lack of depth in the trenches will force them into action if they prove capable of adjusting to the speed of the college game.

As for Washington’s perpetual search for an effective pass rusher? The success of that effort probably begins and ends with Levi Onwuzurike, who is as good and experienced a candidate as any on the team for such a role. That being said, don’t discount Benning Potoa’e and Ryan Bowman, both of whom seem capable of stepping up and elevating their games. Finally, 6-4, 272 lb. true freshman Laiatu Latu was recruited specifically to help close the deficit in Washington’s pass rush; if he’s good enough to make a difference in 2019, he’s almost assuredly going to see a fair number of snaps.