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Fall Camp Position Preview: Defensive Backs

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It’s a whole new world in the secondary with 4 starters having moved on to the NFL

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NCAA Football: Oregon State at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

I think if most people had to pick one position grouping which has defined the Chris Petersen era they would go with the secondary. The Huskies have put out star after star into the NFL under Petersen and Jimmy Lake’s base nickel defense. This past offseason saw 4 Husky defensive backs move on to the NFL: Byron Murphy, Jordan Miller, Taylor Rapp, and JoJo McIntosh. The last time the Huskies had such an exodus in that grouping they filled in with the players listed above and hardly skipped a beat. Can the Huskies continue to reload rather than rebuild? Let’s find out.

2019 UW Defensive Backs Roster

Name Position Height Weight Class
Name Position Height Weight Class
Myles Bryant Defensive Back 5'9 184 Senior
Elijah Molden Defensive Back 5'10 190 Junior
Isaiah Gilchrist Defensive Back 5'11 209 Junior
Brandon McKinney Defensive Back 6'0 201 Junior
Keith Taylor Defensive Back 6'3 198 Junior
Alex Cook Defensive Back 6'1 202 Sophomore
Kyler Gordon Defensive Back 6'0 195 RS Freshman
Julius Irvin Defensive Back 6'1 183 RS Freshman
Dominique Hampton Defensive Back 6'2 205 RS Freshman
Asa Turner Defensive Back 6'2 199 Freshman
Cameron Williams Defensive Back 6'0 185 Freshman
Kamren Fabiculanan Defensive Back 6'1 183 Freshman
Trent McDuffie Cornerback 5'11 187 Freshman

*All info listed exactly as it appears on the official Husky roster

Position Battles to Watch

Safety

With 4 starting spots up for grab there will be a ton of intrigue in the secondary. Even the one spot that appears to be a lock down could shift if the coaching staff decides to mix things up a little. The biggest question mark appears to be at the safety spot. Last year the Huskies used Taylor Rapp like a Swiss army knife and lined him up all over the field. He spent meaningful snaps as a deep safety, in the box, lined up in the slot, and as a pass rusher. It’s unlikely that any single player on the roster has both the skills and the confidence from the coaching staff to play that role single-handedly. More likely it will be a group effort.

One safety spot is likely going to be occupied by Brandon McKinney. The junior out of California played in place of an injured Taylor Rapp in the Rose Bowl and while he had some rough moments, he seems to be the clear next guy in line. Not only was he Rapp’s backup but he was also the first guy off the bench as a 3rd safety in Dime alignments. All told McKinney was on the field for about 24% of the defense’s snaps last season so despite not being a regular starter he got a good amount of experience.

The other starting safety spot is a complete mystery and will be perhaps the most interesting part of fall camp. Last year the Huskies famously were able to avoid burning the redshirt for a single true freshman with the new 4 game rule. If there’s any place on the roster where a true freshman can not only burn their redshirt but become the day one starter it’s at safety.

Cameron Williams was one of the standout players in spring practices and earned a substantial amount of time playing with the 1’s. The 6’0 safety from Bakersfield, California was an Oregon commit before the Huskies came a calling and almost instantly flipped him. While Williams got an edge by enrolling in time for spring practices, he wasn’t the most highly rated safety recruit in the class.

That distinction belongs to Asa Turner who had the most drama filled recruitment of any eventual Husky in a back and forth battle with Notre Dame. Turner was listed at 6’4 on some of the recruiting sites but checks in at 6’2 on the official Husky roster. He’s a player the coaching staff is clearly excited about and if he were to make a strong early impression once fall practices get going it wouldn’t be a big surprise.

The most likely candidate however is another highly rated DB recruit. Junior Isaiah Gilchrist was the 2nd ranked DB in the 2016 recruiting class behind Byron Murphy (but ahead of Taylor Rapp and Myles Bryant) but he’s had a tough time seeing playing time to this point in his UW career. Given the level of talent ahead of him on the depth chart it can’t be considered a giant surprise. Gilchrist was one of the stars of the spring by all accounts however and if he can carry that momentum into the fall then as one of the veterans in the DB room he seems a natural fit to occupy the other safety spot.

Corner

The lineups at the corner spots appear much more concrete than at safety although there is still some room for variation. Myles Bryant returns as the lone Husky defender to make the preseason all-conference 1st team at the slot corner position. He’ll be out there for just about every snap this season outside of goal line situations. But he could be used at any spot in the secondary depending on where the coaching staff thinks they’re weakest. Bryant played outside corner two years ago when the Huskies were wracked with injuries at the position and also repeatedly lined up at safety during the spring and so could see some time there.

That last part makes some sense given the uncertainty there but also because the coaching staff would love to give more playing time to junior Elijah Molden. Every indication is that Molden is ready to emerge as the next star in the Husky secondary. The problem is that he’s likely best suited as a slot corner meaning that potentially the two best UW defensive backs play the same position. Hence the potential move to safety for Myles Bryant. But the coaches will make sure that Molden and Bryant are both on the field at the same time as much as possible and Molden can play an outside spot if need be despite being a little undersized. He played 29.7% of defensive snaps a year ago mostly as the 3rd corner in place of Bryant or as a 4th corner in dime alignments. That is going way up this season.

The Wild Cards

In the 2018 recruiting class the Huskies signed yet another stellar group of highly rated DBs in Julius Irvin, Kyler Gordon, and Dominique Hampton. The trio saw just a combined 13 snaps on defense however with some time on special teams allocated to get them a little bit of game experience without burning their redshirts. There are still a number of talented defensive backs on the depth chart above them but the question with this group is when not if they’re going to break through for major playing time.

If someone is able to get on the field a substantial amount this season the edge would seem to go to local product Kyler Gordon. The RS Freshman made Bruce Feldman’s list of biggest freaks in college football citing his 42.5 inch vertical leap and a pro agility score at the Husky combine that would’ve been the best of any DB at the actual NFL combine this season. My guess is that Gordon follows a similar trajectory to Elijah Molden and gets on the field as essentially the 4th corner but also plays for a drive here or there when guys need a breather.

Julius Irvin was actually rated slightly higher by the 247 Sports composite than Kyler Gordon coming out of high school in Anaheim but has had several nagging injuries during his brief time with the Huskies. The hope is that he can be fully healthy this fall and show the talent he displayed before arriving in Seattle. Meanwhile, Dominique Hampton is the lowest rated remaining Husky from that class (following the dismissal of Mosiah Nasili-Kite this month) but showed some serious flashes this past spring. He is the closest in size to presumed starter Keith Taylor (I’ll finally get to him shortly) so if Taylor were to go down with an injury we might see Hampton emerge as a potential replacement.

Rest of the Roster

We’re about 1,250 words in and I just mentioned Keith Taylor at the end of the previous paragraph. The reason for that is I expect him to lock down one of the outside corner spots and be fully entrenched as the starter there. And this is a fall camp preview so in my opinion there isn’t much intrigue around Taylor until the season starts. Taylor played 41.6% of the defensive snaps last season which is the most of any returning Husky DB except for Myles Bryant. Also, he’s very good at the game of football which is an added bonus.

Alex Cook made the move in the offseason from wide receiver to safety after failing to get meaningful playing time on offense. Cook was a two-way standout in high school so he has some past experience on the defensive side of the ball. Even with the availability of playing time at the safety spot however it’s difficult to imagine him making the transition and instantly locking down meaningful playing time. He provides extra depth at the position which was needed but I’m not expecting much from Cook on the field outside of special teams this season.

The last two scholarship players I haven’t mentioned yet are true freshmen Kamren Fabiculanen and Trent McDuffie. Interestingly, McDuffie is the only Husky on the roster listed as a cornerback rather than a defensive back. My guess is that’s a mix-up rather than a meaningful statement but it does seem likely he’s viewed as a pure cover corner rather than a hybrid like many of UW’s other DBs. He is the 3rd most highly rated DB of the Petersen era behind only Budda Baker and Byron Murphy so we should expect big things from McDuffie. I just see them happening after a redshirt season. A similar sentiment for Fabiculanen who just has too many guys ahead of him for it to be realistic to burn his redshirt.

I’ve focused on scholarship players to this point but there are a quartet of walk-ons in the secondary: Fr Mishael Powell, Fr Nick Juran, Jr Zechariah Brown, and Sr Dustin Bush. Bush played a drive as the nickel back at the end of the North Dakota game and while I don’t expect him to see legitimate playing time, he is experienced depth.