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Spring Position Preview: Defensive Backs

Washington loses a few key pieces but also returns a ton of talent which should make for an exciting spring

Utah v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

2020 Season Recap

The Huskies returned nearly their entire secondary from 2019 with Myles Bryant as the lone exception. Keith Taylor and Trent McDuffie continued to have the outside corner spots locked down while Elijah Molden returned as one of the best nickel corners in America. The true freshman safety duo of Asa Turner and Cameron Williams both came back and it was expected that they would each start in 2020 with the opening from Bryant’s departure. Instead, converted receiver Alex Cook won the starting job alongside Turner.

Molden and McDuffie continued to play at an all-conference level in the abbreviated 4 game schedule. Kyler Gordon started as the 6th DB but rotated in throughout the secondary while Elijah Molden also saw some time at safety when Alex Cook’s playing time diminished in the final game of the season.

It ended up as an inconsistent but still above average effort in the passing game, The 1st team defense dominated Oregon State and Arizona with the Wildcats only putting up plenty of garbage time stats against the backups in the 4th quarter. Both Utah and Stanford carved up the defense in the first halves before getting stymied in the 2nd. Put it all together and opposing QBs threw for an average of 185 yards and 1.3 TDs per game on 64% passing and 6.4 yards per attempt. Very good numbers but a slight letdown given the hype the unit got coming in.

Key Departures

CB Elijah Molden- It will be hard to replace Molden who was a star for Washington and will be an early selection in the NFL draft. He was an elite playmaker in both the pass and run game as a slot corner and never needed to come off the field.

CB Keith Taylor- Taylor ended his career with 0 interceptions but provided a steady presence at the boundary corner spot. With Taylor moving on it gives the Dawgs a chance to potentially upgrade at the position but if they don’t get adequate production then they could also end up with a lower floor.

2021 Spring Additions

CB Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles- The transfer from Oklahoma was a 3-year starter for the Sooners as the nickel back and has a chance to make a major impact right away. He was a top-50 national recruit coming out of high school and has the type of natural athleticism that few Huskies possess. Penalties and missed tackles have been an issue which is why he’s looking for a new home but if the UW coaching staff can shore that up then he has a chance to be a dynamite addition.

2021 Fall Additions

CB Zakhari Spears- 6’2”, 190 lbs, #511 nationally in 247 Sports Composite

CB Dyson McCutcheon- 5’11”, 175 lbs, #479 nationally in 247 Sports Composite

S Vincent Nunley- 6’1”, 190 lbs, 3-star in 247 Sports Composite

Washington will have another 3 true freshmen added to the defensive backs room in the fall. Spears and McCutcheon have the same body types as Taylor and Molden respectively and the hope will be that long-term they be similar types of players. Nunley is expected to start out at safety but Washington loves versatility from its defensive backs so we’ll see where he eventually ends up seeing the field.

Spring Storylines

Where Does Gordon Go?

Somehow Kyler Gordon enters the spring as both a sure thing and a complete unknown. It’s not exactly a stretch to talk yourself into Gordon starting at any position in the secondary next season. Per Pro Football Focus he played 19 snaps in the box (essentially as an OLB when no receiver’s on that half of the field), 51 snaps at slot corner, and 55 snaps at outside corner. With Keith Taylor and Elijah Molden both departing there are openings at both corner spots and Gordon could easily fill in at either one. Before the transfer in of Bookie Radley-Hiles it seemed like the bigger need was in the slot but if Bookie’s able to lock down that position then it maybe frees up Gordon to play opposite McDuffie on the outside.

And it’s not crazy to think that Gordon could also end up seeing time at safety. Myles Bryant transitioned from slot corner to safety. Elijah Molden started making the transition in his final game. If the coaching staff feels that no one is stepping up to lock down the spot next to Asa Turner then Gordon could conceivably take up the mantle of being the Budda Baker/Taylor Rapp-esque Swiss army knife. With Gordon’s athleticism he could line up in slot coverage against 4 WR sets as well as attack in the run game and rush the passer on the occasional safety blitz. If the coaching staff feels strongly that one of the younger guys can step in and be a seamless transition from Keith Taylor then it’s maybe worth a trial run.

Who’s Safe at Safety?

As I alluded to above, there’s some uncertainty at the safety positions despite the number of experienced bodies. Asa Turner appears to have his job completely secured. He and Trent McDuffie tied with the most defensive snaps on the team last year at 242.

However there’s plenty of uncertainty next to him. Alex Cook began last season as the starter but after 3 games with 30+ defensive snaps he played just 16 against Stanford. Cam Williams has several starts from his true freshman season but served primarily as Cook’s backup last year. It’s not out of the question though that he could, with a full offseason, wind up reclaiming the job from Cook. There are also plenty of unproven younger players that could find a way to enter the fray as we’ll discuss below or the possibility of Kyler Gordon moving back a spot as we discussed above.

Which Newbies Break Out?

There are plenty of players who could also rise up from lower on the depth chart to demand playing time this season. Julius Irvin struggled mightily with injuries his first two years but with a fully healthy complete offseason he could easily make a move with as much raw talent as anyone else in the secondary. Irvin gave up 2 touchdowns in the 4th quarter against Arizona this fall but both were tight window throws where he just didn’t get his head turned around in time. He could conceivably challenge Bookie at the slot corner spot or try to enter the race at safety. Last year Irvin was listed as the backup on the depth chart behind Alex Cook but in reality Williams (who was listed behind Turner) was given the next shot as Turner almost never came off the field.

Regardless of where Kyler Gordon ends up starting there will be still be plenty of playing time available for at least one other corner when the Huskies go to their 6 DB look in clear passing down situations. The most likely player to step up would be Dominique Hampton who has seemed to be the heir apparent to Taylor on the outside after 3 years in the program. He was also next on the published depth chart behind Taylor this past fall.

Kamren Fabiculanan and Jacobe Covington are the 2 other names most likely to break through and find their way into the 2-deep. Fabiculanan came in at slot corner during the 4th quarter against Arizona and if he takes a leap could challenge Bookie at that spot. Meanwhile Covington was a major recruit and he certainly wouldn’t be the first recent Husky DB to not play as a true freshman but then have his talent undeniably shine through during spring/fall camp and force his way into the spotlight. If neither Cook or Williams are able to assert themselves as the 2nd safety then Covington could conceivably jump above them.

Spring 2021 Scholarship Defensive Backs

Name Jersey # Year Height Weight (lbs) Yrs of Eligibility
Name Jersey # Year Height Weight (lbs) Yrs of Eligibility
Kyler Gordon 2 Junior 6'0" 195 3 to play 3
Brendan Radley-Hiles 4 Senior 5'9" 180 2 to play 1
Alex Cook 5 Senior 6'1" 200 2 to play 2
Cameron Williams 6 Junior 6'0" 190 4 to play 3
Jacobe Covington 12 RS Freshman 6'2" 195 5 to play 4
Asa Turner 20 Junior 6'3" 200 4 to play 3
Dominique Hampton 21 Junior 6'2" 220 3 to play 3
Trent McDuffie 22 Junior 5'11" 195 4 to play 3
Makell Esteen 24 RS Freshman 6'1" 180 5 to play 4
Elijah Jackson 25 RS Freshman 6'1" 185 5 to play 4
James Smith 27 RS Freshman 6'1" 190 5 to play 4
Julius Irvin 29 Junior 6'1" 185 3 to play 3
Kamren Fabiculanan 31 Sophomore 6'1" 185 4 to play 4