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Washington Huskies Roster Recap: Cornerbacks

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Jimmy Lake Leaves the Secondary with an Embarrassment of Riches

Washington v Arizona Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

UW became one of the nation’s best developers of defensive back talent during the Chris Petersen years. Prior to 2019, it looked like the unit might take a step backwards with the losses of Byron Murphy, Taylor Rapp, Jordan Miller, and JoJo McIntosh. There were early hiccups, but by the end of the season, the Huskies were 18th in the country and 2nd in the conference in opponent pass yards per attempt. With projected improvement along the defensive front, the secondary’s job could get a bit easier in 2020. The cornerbacks, in particular, look like a tremendous source of strength for the Dawgs. A look at UW’s DBs over the last five years gives a pretty good explanation for how Jimmy Lake ascended from a positional coach to head coach in that time and he leaves the unit in great shape.

Key Losses

Myles Bryant played all over the Husky defense last year. Most often, he lined up as a safety, but he spent time as a nickel corner and occasionally lined up near the line as a sort of outside linebacker. Bryant played more defensive snaps than any other Husky with 848 and was arguably the best defender on the team.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Hawaii at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Alas, Bryant was mostly a safety, so I’ll leave that breakdown of his final season to that post. That also means that there weren’t any key losses to the cornerback room.

Key Additions

A big part of Washington’s success in the defensive backfield under Jimmy Lake has started on the recruiting trail, and last year’s class looks capable of maintaining that trend. The Dawgs brought in four defensive backs. A hallmark of Lake’s tenure as DB coach that has carried on under Will Harris has been versatility. The coaches frequently move players between corner, nickel corner, and safety to help them develop different defensive skill-sets. Even on the team’s official roster, the players are all listed as DBs rather than corners or safeties. To that end, it’s possible that all four DB recruits will see time at corner, safety, or both, but I will specifically focus on those listed as corners by 247.

Elijah Jackson is a 6’ corner from the LA area. He earned a high 3-star composite ranking as a recruit and received scholarship offers from most of the Pac-12. He ultimately chose UW over UCLA last August and signed on early signing day. Jackson is a big DB who will not require a dramatic change to his body type to play in college. He fits the physical profile UW prefers in CBs who can play man coverage on the outside and he can tackle. Nonetheless, with no outgoing CBs, it might be hard for him to find playing time this season and a red shirt is likely.

Most of the description of Jackson applies to James Smith, as well (I told you the Huskies have a type). Three-star recruit, over 6’ tall, from the LA area. Check, check, check. Smith was stuck behind fellow Husky Trent McDuffie and 5* recruit Chris Steele until his senior year at prestigious St. John Bosco. There were some early-season reports of uneven play, but he rebounded as the year progressed. Nonetheless, his relative inexperience makes him likely to spend a year or two lower on the depth chart.

Key Returners

The group of returning cornerbacks is an embarrassment of riches. As the 2020 season went on, the group rounded into form and looked like the strongest position group on the team by the end. They bring back every key contributor with another year of experience.

The best player in the group is Elijah Molden. The diminutive slot corner took Bryant’s job when Bryant shifted to the roving safety role last season. At 5’10” and 191 lbs, Molden does not look like a player who would dominate games, but he finished the season tied for the Pac-12 lead in pass defenses (12), interceptions (4), fumble recoveries (3), and graded out magnificently in every coverage metric. Pro Football Focus rates Molden as the #3 returning player in the entire conference, the #3 DB in the country, and the best slot-corner of 2019. He’s quick, he moves fluidly for his size, and he’s stronger than his frame would imply. More importantly, he’s a tremendously intelligent player, which is how he always finds his way around the ball and allows him to take calculated gambles to make big plays. Molden will likely get the lion’s share of nickel snaps again this year, but it will be interesting to see whether the coaches move him around to make the most of his talent like they did with Bryant before him.

The Huskies might have the best slot corner in the country, but there isn’t much of a drop to the outside CBs. Molden will be bracketed by Trent McDuffie and Keith Taylor, as he was for the second half of 2019. McDuffie took over for Kyler Gordon, less because Gordon struggled than because McDuffie was too good to keep off the field. As a true freshman, he succeeded on 44 of the 45 tackles he attempted. That tackling ability prevented yards after catch whenever receivers were able to catch the ball against him. PFF rates him as the #11 returning DB in the country. McDuffie is strong, fast, fluid, instinctive, and more technically advanced than his age. If there’s a knock on him, it’s that his size (5’11”, 192 lbs) is merely average for the position.

Washington v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Keith Taylor entered 2019 as a junior leader of the position group. He saw a great deal of playing time- his 825 defensive snaps was third most on the team behind Bryant (848) and Molden (835). Taylor did not break out to become a high-round NFL draft pick as some expected, but he was very solid. Statistically, his 6.8 yards allowed per target was very good and almost matched McDuffie’s elite 6.3 yards allowed. According to PFF, Taylor allowed the fewest combined TDs plus first downs in coverage of any regular DB in the conference with eight (nobody else had fewer than 12). Taylor’s 6’3 frame and high-end athleticism make him a pro prospect and a strong senior year could catapult him into the top half of the draft.

Kyler Gordon began his RS-Freshman year as the starter opposite Taylor. His coverage stats weren’t drastically different from Taylor and McDuffie’s but he is not quite the tackler that McDuffie is at this point. Gordon has some of the most unique athleticism in the program, which allowed him to excel at track (sprints and high jump), competitive dance, and kung fu before coming to Montlake. Gordon has made Bruce Feldman’s “Freak List” each of the last two years, largely because he topped the team in the vertical, 3-cone, and agility drills (with marks that would have topped many other teams, as well). The question for Gordon is where he will play. With so much established talent in front of him, it will be a challenge for DC Pete Kwiatkowski to find snaps for someone who can change games the way Gordon can.

Even with the logjam of four potential stars for three CB positions, the depth chart does not dry up there. Dominique Hampton played 68 snaps as a RS-Freshman last year. Hampton has great size and the practice reports on him have been consistently glowing. Julius Irvin hasn’t seen much game action due to a redshirt year and persistent injuries, but he was a highly-rated recruit (#156 nationally) when he chose UW over USC and Alabama. Irvin can play CB or safety, so he might play his way into more action. Kamren Fabiculanan was a four-star recruit who red-shirted as a true freshman last year. Like many of UW’s young DB’s he’s over 6’ tall and can hold up in man coverage. Junior Alex Cook, senior Isaiah Gilchrist, and true freshman Jacobe Covington all look likely to get reps at safety, but could sneak into the CB mix, as well.

Position Battle to Watch

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Hawaii at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The most interesting playing time question is how the Huskies will get Kyler Gordon more time on the field. Molden, McDuffie, and Taylor were staples in the secondary once McDuffie played his way into the starting lineup. Each totaled more than 700 snaps. Brandon Wellington was the only other defender to reach 600 and Gordon was on the field for 376. Bryant’s departure frees up 848 snaps, but those opportunities will be divided up between several DBs and none of the top four CBs have ever played a role quite like the one Bryant did last year. Cam Williams and Asa Turner will probably both play more as true safeties to take over about half of Bryant’s workload. McDuffie and Taylor are so good in coverage that it would be difficult to move them off their outside assignments. That leaves Molden and Gordon to play a slightly different role some of the time. Molden was tremendous last year in the slot, but the coaching staff did not shy away from defining a new role for Bryan to enable the secondary to get their five best players on the field together. To me, it seems more likely that Gordon would find playing time in a hybrid safety role that would allow him to use his quickness and agility to react to plays and wreak havoc in the secondary.

Projected Depth Chart

CB 1- Trent McDuffie

CB 2 – Keith Taylor

Nickel Corner – Elijah Molden

Hybrid – Kyler Gordon

In the rotation – Dominque Hampton, Julius Irvin, Kamren Fabiculanan

Roster

Poll

Which Husky DB will see the biggest increase in his total snap count?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Cam Williams
    (27 votes)
  • 51%
    Asa Turner
    (207 votes)
  • 35%
    Kyler Gordon
    (145 votes)
  • 6%
    Dominique Hampton
    (25 votes)
404 votes total Vote Now