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Washington Huskies Roster Recap: Safeties

A pair of young dudes lead the way.

NCAA Football: Washington at Stanford Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, Andrew talked about the cornerbacks going into the fall. Today we’re gonna look at their secondary cousins, the safeties.

That’s all for intros, because intros are the worst.

To the safeties!

Key Losses

Earlier in the week I published the fall preview for outside linebackers and concluded in this section that the answer was simply, “Not much.” That remains true at safeties.

The only answer here is Myles Bryant, who was primarily at safety in 2019 after being a nickel prior. Otherwise, no one.

That being said, he didn’t line up there exclusively and, especially near the end of the year, there were a decent amount of snaps where he wasn’t lined up at safety at all as Asa Turner and others grew into the role. But while his being there was just as much about positional need as his own talents, he still saw the field for more snaps than anyone else in the secondary room. Despite his diminutive stature at 5’9” and 180something pounds, Bryant’s ever-present instincts and leadership led him to an All-Pac-12 2nd Team distinction. He was the only defensive back to play over 900 snaps — 909, precisely, with Elijah Molden almost hitting the mark at 896 — so it’d be naive to think his graduation won’t mean anything. But he also struggled more with missing tackles, especially against the run, and obviously wasn’t an enforcer in the middle — the first time Washington’s secondary experienced these issues in a very long time.

In other words, while losing Bryant stinks, the implications for his loss are far less serious than when previous UW safeties left under the Pete-Lake regime like Budda Baker or Taylor Rapp.

Key Additions

With Jimmy Lake’s emphasis on versatility with the secondary, it’s always tricky to say with certainty whether an incoming defensive back is definitively a safety, outside corner, or nickel guy. Kevin King, who tinkered with safety early on before establishing himself as one of the Dawgs’ best corners since the turn of the century, is a perfect of example.

That being said, there’s two freshman DBs explicitly listed as corners on the roster in Elijah Jackson and James Smith, so for ease’s sake I’ll exclude them here.

That leaves the additions at safety as Jacobe Covington and Makell Esteen (and walk-on Meki Pei, who was defensive MVP at the Polynesian Bowl and chose Washington over a scholarship to Hawaii).

Between the two scholarship guys, Covington is probably the more “pure” safety prospect. He’s also the only one I’d expect to see have a shot at the field this year just from a physical readiness standpoint; while they’re both 6’1,” Esteen is a pretty skinny dude at the moment and is a whole 20 lbs lighter than Covington, who’s 196 lbs. That being said, Esteen is excellent at tracking the ball and is smart in zone coverage both when it comes to awareness, anticipation of routes, and reading quarterbacks. Furthermore, he’s a fundamentally good tackler, which is a surprisingly rare trait it feels like. (I went more in-depth on Esteen in his signing day piece here if you want to check it out.) For all of these reasons I’m really looking forward to seeing Makell Esteen play for the Dawgs, but he just needs to physically be ready for the college game first.

Covington, on the other hand, is more physically ready. Rated in the top 150 recruits in the country for 2020, he can pretty much play wherever — he was at outside corner a lot in high school — but is the most safety-ish of the 2020 DBs Washington brought in. As a Dawg fan, his physicality is exciting; he’s physical in man coverage and, when in a zone shell, can hit hard especially if he’s able to get up to speed before doing so. He also accelerates fast for a guy his size, exacerbating those first two traits if you’re an opposing receiver.

I’m not putting money yet on Covington getting a huge number of snaps, but given his physical abilities and the fact that safety is the thinnest of the Huskies’ secondary positions, he’s by far the most likely of all the DBs to see the field and possibly burn his redshirt.

Key Returners

The key returners are a handful of backups with seniority (Isaiah Gilchrist, Brandon McKinney, and converted receiver Alex Cook) a couple young’uns that are likely the first strings until proven otherwise, and a young wildcard.

Cook was a receiver from the class of 2017 who converted to safety a season or two into joining Washington. Gilchrist was a four star recruit who’d clearly been overtaken on the depth chart the last couple seasons by younger players. Meanwhile Brandon McKinney was thrown into the fire against Ohio State in the 2019 Rose Bowl in place of Taylor Rapp, played probably as well as you could expect for someone making their first start against a perennial blue blood and Heisman finalist, but still had obvious weaknesses.

None of those three saw more than 100 snaps in 2019. In fact, Gilchrist didn’t record any stats, while McKinney and Cook played in every game but only for 90 and 19 total snaps, respectively. Cook was never targeted, while McKinney was only targeted four times. In other words, while their experience makes them reliable backups, that’s obviously their role going into 2020 — backups.

Which, don’t get me wrong, isn’t a slight — as far as second stringers go, they’re more than serviceable. But the best safeties at Washington have surpassed them at this point.

That is, Asa Turner and Cam Williams are the top dogs until proven otherwise.

Both true sophomores, Williams joined Washington for spring ball last year and had glowing reviews as Washington’s next great true freshman safety in practices. He started the first game of the season last year and six after that and it was clear he was good — but not flawless. While Husky fans had become spoiled by the practically seamless transitions Budda Baker and Taylor Rapp had from high school to college, Williams’ learning curve had more bumps from the beginning. Most notably was his tendency to take poor angles to ball-carriers and pass-catchers which resulted in a few explosive plays Washington fans had become unfamiliar with under Jimmy Lake’s secondaries.

As last season went on and Asa Turner caught up, he saw more and more action that was previously Williams’ and appeared to be a better tackler in the run and have a bit better intuition against the pass. Beyond the eye test, some of their numbers were drastically different: while Williams gave up almost 10 yards per target (9.89), Turner allowed just 2.23. Opposing quarterbacks also had just a 42 QBR throwing against Turner versus a 170 against Williams. Against Williams, quarterbacks were successful over 50% of the time — against Turner, less than 10%.

This isn’t to rag on Williams, who played better than most true freshmen would. Furthermore, it would be stupid to talk about his performance last year as though, as an 18/19 year old, that performance was his peak. Despite his occasional eff ups, he still was a Second Team Freshman All-American and had good athleticism and ball skills with three interceptions. But it is a good illustration that, especially with younger players, progress is neither linear nor equally occurring. Williams had decisive instincts and athleticism and a head start in the spring; he was better at the beginning of the season. Turner was a more intuitive player with better physicality but who got a later start at Washington; by the end of the season, he was probably the more reliable of the two. But the bottom line is: A) they’re both good and B) they’re both young and getting better.

And with Myles Bryant gone, now they’ll probably be side-by-side a lot.

Unless Julius Irvin has something to say about it.

The redshirt sophomore was a .94 composite four star as a recruit, redshirted his freshman season, and then only played in four games last year as he had to deal with multiple injuries. As Dan Raley at SI’s Husky site put it, Irvin is “possibly the most talented person on the roster who hasn’t adequately shown what he can do.”

If either of Turner or Williams gets challenged for the starting role, it’s very likely to be by this guy.

Unfortunately, the only footage we have to go by since he’s been out of commission so far during college is his high school film. But watching that — and I want to make it clear that I tried to talk myself out of the following comparison since it feels like unhealthily lofty expectations — reminds me a lot of the light beer version of Taylor Rapp. While the high school version of Rapp hit harder, high school Irvin is probably faster with better ball skills. Smart, good at coming up to make the tackle in run support or in quick passes, quick to diagnose, good closer, you know, the usual.

So that’s fun.

Which, by the way, if you’re bored go rewatch Taylor Rapp’s high school HUDL. That dude murdered people even as a 17 year old.

Those are probably the main culprits as far as returning safeties, although, because Lake and Company value versatility in DBs so much, you can’t ever count anyone out for switching positions. (For example, Dom Hampton, presumably a lanky outside corner, has beefed up to 209 lbs? What’s that about? Probably nothing, but who knows.)

Position Battle to Watch

I’m thinking this comes down to Julius Irvin and Cam Williams. Obviously no one’s gonna play every snap at safety especially in this defense so, if Irvin is healthy and in the right form, Turner, Williams, and Irvin could end up a 1A, 1B, 1C situation. But of the two true sophomore safeties, Turner seemed to really have got a hold of his position by the end of the season while Williams was taking a bit longer to develop past the initial flash of a true freshman who can hang most of the time.

So, if we accept that Williams is the least surely secure of the two, then Irvin is probably the most likely guy to take advantage of that. Otherwise, who else? McKinney, maybe, but he had a greater advantage over Williams last year than this year and he couldn’t secure it then. Surely, then, it must be Irvin.

The main question, since we haven’t seen him for two years, is simply at what point in his development is he? Coaches have, at various points during fall camps the last two season, had plenty of praise when he’s healthy.

So if he’s finally injury-free and playing like he was projected to in high school, this could be quite a fun competition.

Or, who knows, they’ll move Kyler Gordon to safety just to mess with us and get his 40,000 inch vertical on the field.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.