Defensively, the Huskies were just really, really bad against the run in 2020 & 2021. You don’t have to know the numbers, the eye test made most of us nauseous. But in case you want the numbers, they were meager:
2021: 194 rushing yards per game allowed, 4.76 yards per carry (11th & 10th in the Pac 12, respectively)
2020: 161 rushing yards per game allowed, 4.54 yards per carry (this was middle of the Pac-12, but in a four-game season in which one game was a huge blowout of Arizona where UA barely ran).
There was a ton of talk about the safety always being 15 yards off the line of scrimmage. Yes. We got pissed off seeing so much 2-high. But we do remember Budda Baker, Taylor Rapp, even Myles Bryant coming up from that deep position and making sure the opponent hitting the second level usually meant getting 9 yards max.
Anyway, some food for thought. Certainly it has to be more than just one thing. So we brought in Brad Johnson and Coach B to help break down this horrible run defense.
What happened to the Husky run defense?
In my opinion, our bad run defense last year was largely attributable to bad run fit design and a half-baked transition in philosophy than particularly bad individual play. Gregory, as the new DC, made significant structural changes to the defense in order to shore up a run defense that was already in decline. The problem was that those changes, like a transition to more odd fronts with two high safety shells, weren’t fully fleshed out, and they had the immediate effect of further regression. Those changes also affected our defensive play calling and play style by shifting to a more passive approach with fewer blitz packages and a more “bend but don’t break” defense.
In a way, it’s similar to what our offense went through under Hamdan when he reintroduced I-formation and empty formation packages in 2019. He was trying to reinvigorate an offense that was transition to a post-Browning/Gaskin era by taking advantage of a big OL and Eason’s big arm, but the heavy-package run schemes and empty set passing concepts weren’t fleshed out enough to be the foundation of a cohesive offense that was now lacking a true identity.
Instead of getting one of our safeties in the box with single high coverages, we tried to shore up the run defense with another big body up front. However, it always seemed like our LBs were put into assignment conflicts and weren’t able to play fast. This was also the case with our safeties when we did shift back into single high shells, and there were a number of times when the “box” safety was still playing 7-8 yards deep and immediately started to back pedal off the snap, thereby removing himself from the run fit and eliminating any potential benefit that we might’ve gotten from him playing closer to the LOS.
I think there’s a lot of noise in the decline of the defense, which makes it really hard to apportion blame as to what were the biggest factors. The mid 2010’s were a perfect storm of coaching staff, scheme, and personnel to battle the predominant offensive philosophies of the day, which was sort of the tail end of the pure speed spread offense. You had stabilizing influences at head coach and defensive coordinator, with talented assistants like Jimmy Lake that added swagger, and just a ton of continuity on the defensive staff. There was dynamic talent, and undervalued talent, and fabulous development all at the same time. Then almost all at the same time, a ton of things changed. 2021 might have been the culmination, but it was a process that you could start to see coming in 2019 if not before. The rebuilt coaching staff couldn’t coax the same performance from the players and the cupboard wasn’t quite as stocked as it had seemed before at a couple of key positions, more opponents were deploying bigger and more powerful brands of offense, and the design of the defense suddenly made it feel very small and behind the times when just a few seasons before it was cutting edge. The bad momentum the team built just grew.
What does the new staff bring, that Jimmy Lake could not?
The new defensive staff should be able to coax out better production from our current roster simply by having an established identity and cohesive scheme. As clichéd as it might sound, this is going to be a much more aggressive defense. Inge and Morrell run a version of the press quarters defense that Pat Narduzzi made famous at Michigan State and won an ACC divisional title with at Pitt. The defense is going to put a premium on speed in the defensive backfield, the front 6/7 is going to be blitz-heavy and 1-gap the DL to create chaos in the backfield, and both of our safeties are going to be involved in most run fits to clean up on runs that the defensive front spills outside.
Inge and Morrell have also alluded that they are looking to use this aggressive approach to address concerns at LB and CB. While we might not have a combo of future early-round NFL CBs like last year, we do have long and physical CBs to play press coverage on the outside, and we are going to use them to erase the easy underneath passes. While this might leave them exposed to the vertical passing game, the defense is designed to get pressure on the QB and not give him time to hit those passes. We are going to do that with lots of simulated pressure and get the LBs more involved in the pass rush. Inge pointed out in the coaches clinic saying that “blitz assignments are the hardest thing for an LB to screw up, then it’s run fits, and then coverage is one of the hardest assignments for them to pick up. So why wouldn’t we tailor their assignments to get the east stuff first?” This might seem obvious, but if the easiest way to get improved production out of the LBs is with the blitz package, then why not ask them to do it more often? We’ve already seen this approach work in our favor in 2020 when Eddie U broke out as one of the best blitzing ILBs in the conference and in 2022 when Bruener broke out as a tackling machine playing in a downhill role rather than a read and react role. Playing more downhill will help fix the square peg, round hole dilemma that might be holding back our LBs from taking full advantage of their talents.
The Huskies had a culture problem. The first huge red flag was the way the defense got worse over the course of the 2020 season (see: Debacle, Stanford in the last game). Then Pete Kwiatkowski, who’s been the ultimate good soldier his entire career, moved on for no real good reason. I wonder if football just wasn’t any fun under Lake and the rest of the circumstances surrounding the calendar year between the end of 2020 and DeBoer being hired. The (under) performance of the o-line, the QB play, the run defense...I don’t think it’s a reflection of the ability of the players.
Tuli Letuligasanoa is the only really established tackle out of the guys on the roster, but at least by recruiting rankings, it’s as talented a group of guys Washington has had in a long, long time. Faatui Tuitele was playing more, and better, until he got hurt last year. It’s possible that a scheme change allows him (or someone else) to step up. It’s actually going to be interesting to see if the scheme lets these guys be playmakers more often than just fence posts.
Would the two of you agree that even with Bruner making strides this year, the defense will be limited by the quality of the other inside linebacker? Who is going to shore up the middle? Eddie U is hurt, but can UW find someone even better? Eddie is a good tackler and a hustler, but he is a little bit Brandon Wellington on his reads. I feel like for this defense to be any good, someone has to emerge inside.
The Husky defense got better when they found John Timu, then it was on another level with Azeem Victor and Ben Burr-Kirven. Since then, a decline. Eddie has been good at times, but he doesn’t quite deliver a punch.
If you’re talking about needing better talent, I don’t think that’s necessarily the problem. As important as it is getting good “Jimmys and Joes,” I think that having the right fit within your scheme has an understated impact at LB. Scheme and the role of the ILBs have a huge impact on ILB production.
For example, physically/athletically, there isn’t that big of a difference between a guy like Nakobe Dean and BBK. At a quick glance you might think there was a big difference because one was a 3 star and one was a 5 star despite neither being prototypically sized LBs coming out of HS. In fact, one could even argue that BBK ended up being the better athlete on paper being ever so slightly taller/heavier with a 4.56 40 compared to Dean’s last verified time in the 4.7s range (HS).
Regardless, both were similar athletes who played similar roles working behind DLs that protected them and let them use their athleticism and instincts to make plays, and the end result was that they had very similar production because they were put in positions to succeed. Asking them to stack and shed blocks from a guard would’ve wasted their talent, just like asking a more conventionally sized LB like Noah Sewell to play a lot of Tampa 2 coverage might not make the best use of his talents. That’s why I hesitate to lean too much on the recruiting rankings of LBs as a gauge of potential production without taking a closer look at what type of player they are and what type of role their being asked to play.
In my opinion, the guys that we have in our LB room were “downhill” types of LBs in HS. They were more comfortable playing around the LOS and in the backfield rather than running sideline to sideline chasing the ball carrier. Our new defense asks the LBs to play more downhill, so we might see better results from the same talent.
The biggest way the run defense gets better is a healthy Eddie Olufoshio and Carson Bruener with a year of college under his belt. Zion Tupuola-Fetui will hopefully have a full season of health as well, in addition to being a full year past the Achilles tear. Maybe Cam Bright adds to that group, or Danny Heimuli or Alphonzo Tuputala finally take big steps forward.
What are things going to look like up front? Can this group become run stoppers?
The structure is going to be very similar to what we’ve run for the last few years with maybe a different approach to game planning and play calling. The hope would be that it’s an easier transition to pick up, but there’s definitely areas where we’d be struggling to account for some of the more innovative offensive concepts without serious talent upgrades at key positions.
Kinda like the last couple years, it’s tough to run an even front with coverage LBs behind it without excellent DTs. Our best defenses had one or two upper tier NFL DTs anchoring up front.
I’m a Tuli fan. I had hoped that he and Taki would be our interior combo of the future when they signed but Tuli took the next step that Taki didn’t. Disappointed that Taki didn’t pan out and left for Oregon but I’m still optimistic with Tuli progressing the way he has.
#99 Tuitele and #90 Tunuufi... I have been a fan of both from the get go. Tuitele is a Hawaii kid so I’ve been following him since his JV days. Awesome talent that has been hampered by usage and a major pec injury from his HS senior yr. His injury seems to be getting better finally. This’ll be yr 3 for him I think so I’m hoping for him to take that next step.
Tunuufi is a stud as well and he was only a freshman last yr. He was a big bodied edge rusher in HS that had inside-out upside at 275-280. He and Tuitele could’ve been excellent 3-4 or 4i DEs if we wanted to stick with the odd front that BG was using. I’m not sure how they fit in Inge’s even front unless they’re both 3-techs, and even then they’re not the most stout anchoring against the run and aren’t suited to shield the LBs.
My hope is that Ale can step in and soak up some reps at NT for Tuli. Other than Ale, we only have Tuli, Finau and maybe Tuitele and Bandes who might be good NT candidates, but even then I’d want a bit more beef in the middle. Maybe we mix it up and go for a more versatile combo at DT and use Eddie or Bruener as a primary run stuffing ILB, but it makes coverage so much harder to piece together if we do that.
As far as the front four, are you more concerned with the inside guys or the edge players?
Both, really. I think there have been flashes of potential and even high-level production from guys that can fill the spots, but it takes some optimism to say that those spots are “set.” Injuries, inconsistency, small sample sizes.
You can make the argument that the ceiling is higher up front, but even if everyone is 100% healthy, the floor is probably lower than it is at inside linebacker.
When you lose your best players to the NFL, key returnees to transfer, and then add a coaching overhaul, you can be as nervous (or excited) as you want with any guy or position group. Everyone needs to step up this fall. I think big improvement is very realistic, even if the D doesn’t reach the heights of the 2015-18 units.
Can we actually get excited about Asa Turner? I understand Turner has not been healthy, and he might be the guy the Huskies really need as an impact player in the secondary.
Asa Turner hasn’t really had a huge impact yet. He’s definitely been caught out of position a few times, and whiffed on some tackles you’d hope to see a safety make, but I know he was hurt almost all of last season in addition to the two or three games he outright missed. His practice time was limited, and he spent a lot of time with his arm in a sling. He might be better suited for a two-high defense, or maybe even a move up to linebacker back at the beginning of his career. Given last season, and the super disjointed nature of the 2020 offseason and season, he’s probably a guy that really benefits from the do-over granted everyone for 2020. Call this a long way of saying that I think it’s too early to write him off.
I did think that Turner looked better on some reps than he did in 2020. Mostly the reps where he played more conventional cover 2 safety depth or true box safety at 5-6 yards deep rather than 8+. When none of the safeties looked good this year I’d chalk it up to bad coaching/schemes.
Give us three players who are key in the new Inge/Morrell defense.
I’ll say our 2 safeties and the “Husky” are the three most important players. That’ll likely be Alex Cook, Asa Turner and Dominique Hampton. I’ve mentioned in several different articles that the safeties in this defense need to be super versatile because Morrell leans heavily on quarters coverage (Cover 4), but I’ll double down on that and add the Husky into the mix of key players because of how we mirror our defense.
Tuli Letuligasenoa was one of the more decorated defensive line recruits the Huskies have signed in quite some time. He’s played well at times. But he’s an upperclassman now, and he should be able to become more of a playmaker instead of just a two-gap hole-filler in 2022.
Number two is the void next to Carson Bruener. It’s hard to know what Eddie Ulofoshio will bring once he’s healthy, and when that will be, so there’s a huge opportunity for someone to step up and lock down playing time. Danny Heimuli, Alphonzo Tuputala, Cam Bright... someone needs to step up.
Last is Dominque Hampton (though as Coach B has said, all of the safeties need to be interchangeable), who seems like he was purposely made for the “Husky” position.
Thanks guys. To read what Coach & Brad had to say about the lousy UW rushing attack on offense, check out our Roundtable from May.