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Originally published September 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 11, 2008 at 12:21 AM

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Struggling Huskies defense needs a better pass rush

It's not just the big numbers that have Washington defensive players and coaches searching for answers this week, but a real little one, as well. Specifically, the zero next to the category of sacks. "It's embarrassing," said UW defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, a junior who as the most experienced player on a young defensive front is expected to provide the Huskies with much of their pass-rushing this season. "There's no reason we shouldn't have gotten there two weeks straight."

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

No. 3 Oklahoma @ Huskies, 4:45 p.m., ESPN

It's not just the big numbers that have Washington defensive players and coaches searching for answers this week, but a real little one, as well.

Specifically, the zero next to the category of sacks.

"It's embarrassing," said UW defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, a junior who as the most experienced player on a young defensive front is expected to provide the Huskies with much of their pass-rushing this season.

"There's no reason we shouldn't have gotten there two weeks straight."

Actually, it makes some sense when examined closely. The first two opponents, Oregon and BYU, are each teams with veteran offensive lines and schemes designed for quick passing. Both have allowed just one sack this season.

And then there is the fact that the defensive line — with three new starters, including true freshman Senio Kelemete at tackle — was expected to take awhile to mature.

Those truths have coaches balancing the reality of their situation with what they know has to get done if the team is to have any success.

"The Oregon game they spun out of a couple and for that kind of game if you have two that would have been about normal," said defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. "The last game, you've got to find a way to get that guy down once or twice. When they have that many snaps, he needs to go down, so we are looking to spike that up, no question about it."

But it gets no easier this week against Oklahoma, which boasts one of the best offenses in the country. The Sooners go with three seniors and two juniors on their offensive line, a group with a combined 116 starts led by left guard Duke Robinson, projected at No. 12 of available prospects for the 2009 NFL draft by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr.

Donatell says "at least three" of OU's offensive linemen will play in the NFL.

So, probably, will quarterback Sam Bradford, running back DeMarco Murray, tight end Jermaine Gresham and a receiver or two.

"It's a real solid team," Donatell said.

As were Oregon and BYU. Facing that opening gantlet makes it a bit premature to accurately judge a Huskies defense that has seven new starters and one playing a new position.

The Huskies gave up a school-record 446.4 yards per game last season, and 31.6 points, leading to the firing of coordinator Kent Baer. In two games this year, the Huskies have allowed averages of 485.5 yards and 36 points. And the third-down issues of the past few years seemed no better Saturday when BYU converted on 12 of 14.

But inexperience, a new scheme and the schedule are all mitigating factors.

And despite some of the numbers, Donatell said he has seen signs of hope.

"We still have some polishing up to do," he said. "But it's not 100 miles away."

Further complicating matters this week, however, is the unsettled secondary. With starting strong safety Darin Harris out with a concussion, walk-on Tripper Johnson is listed as the starter. And with injuries at free safety, true freshman Johri Fogerson of O'Dea, who until last week was a running back, could see significant action.

Starter Nate Williams wore red in practice Wednesday, bothered by an illness and bumps and bruises from the BYU game, but is likely to play.

Safeties serve as the de facto quarterbacks of the secondary, trying to align coverages, which has been further complicated by opponents running no-huddle offenses, something Oklahoma does, as well.

"I think it adds to the mental pressure, no question about it," Donatell said.

What the Huskies need, UW coach Tyrone Willingham said this week, is some players winning battles, up front and everywhere else.

"We've got to get some one-on-one success," he said. "And that's probably most of where we've been struggling [to get sacks]. We can't rely on a lot of pressure all the time, because that puts your back end at such a disadvantage."

Also at a little disadvantage is Te'o-Nesheim, who led the team with 8.5 sacks last season. Coaches say he is getting a bit more attention this year from opponents who realize he's the one proven player up front.

Te'o-Nesheim, however, took all the blame.

"I've heard all that stuff that you're going to get double- and triple-teamed," he said. "But I don't feel it. [I] just didn't get there fast enough."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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