Huskies begins spring practices with new defensive outlook
After allowing the most points in school history, capped by a 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl, the Huskies start spring drills with new defensive coaches and different scheme.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Tracking the Huskies
What: College football teams are allowed 15 spring practices during a 34-day span. Tackling is allowed in eight, and physical contact in 12.
When: Washington begins Monday and concludes with the Spring Game April 28. Practices are Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8 a.m. for four weeks, plus three Saturdays — April 14, 21 and 28.
Where: Most practices will be on campus and closed to the public. Washington will hold open practices April 21 at Memorial Stadium at 11 a.m. and the spring game April 28 at CenturyLink Field at 1 p.m.
What to watch: The most intrigue will revolve around the defense, which has a remade coaching staff after allowing a school-record 467 points in 2011. UW seeks replacements for departed running back Chris Polk (Jesse Callier could be the favorite) and receivers Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar. Those three scored 30 of UW's 57 touchdowns last season.
When last seen on a football field, the Washington Huskies were hitting rock bottom on defense, a 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl that proved the final straw in a decision to fire three defensive coaches.
At 8 a.m. Monday, the Huskies take the field for the first time since then for the beginning of spring practice, with four new defensive coaches on hand and a whole lot of work to do.
"We are starting at ground zero on the defensive side of the ball," said UW coach Steve Sarkisian. "That goes without saying. We have to teach every aspect from it, from stance and start and alignment and assignment, then our effort and all of those things. And then eventually, execution."
None of those proved good enough last season as the Huskies finished 106th in the nation in total yards allowed (453.31) and 108th in points allowed (35.92). Their 467 points allowed was a school record.
Two days after the Alamo Bowl, UW fired defensive coach Nick Holt and two other position coaches. Combined with another defensive departure and some reshuffling of responsibilities, the result is that every defensive position has a new coach
The new coordinator is Justin Wilcox, hired away from Tennessee, where he worked for two years after a successful stint at Boise State. He's joined by defensive-line coach Tosh Lupoi, hired away with much fanfare from California; linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, who worked alongside Wilcox at Tennessee (they were also teammates at Oregon in the late 1990s); and defensive-backs coach Keith Heyward, who came from Oregon State.
Since letter-of-intent day on Feb. 1, the coaches have been holed up in their offices, beginning the plan to put the UW defense back together — as well as simply getting acquainted. Sarkisian said it has been a smooth transition so far.
"The one thing that I really appreciate about the guys we have on staff, they are great communicators," Sarkisian said. "They work well with one another to ensure the fact that we aren't doing so much offensively that they can't get the defense taught, but yet still pushing our offensive players."
The new defensive staff will also mean lots of new schemes, including a move to more 3-4 looks. Sarkisian, though, said it won't necessarily be a total overhaul from the 4-3 that was UW's predominant defense under Holt.
"A little bit more (3-4) principles," he said. "We are just trying to maximize the personnel that we have. And also the teams that we play against and what they do."
Sarkisian has talked for several years now of UW attempting to recruit longer, more athletic, quicker players on defense who can play well in space against the type of spread offenses that are becoming the vogue in college football, such as Oregon's.
Those players are now beginning to come to maturity, such as sophomore defensive end Josh Shirley, who led UW in sacks last season with 8.5. But instead of having Shirley line up solely with his hand down, the new defense would have him sometimes standing up at the snap, able to do more than just rush the passer.
"That doesn't mean we don't want (players like Shirley) to the rush the passer," Sarkisian said. "That's still their strength. But to give us a little more versatility and to do things like take care of our edges better. And that was a focus of ours a couple years ago in recruiting, to recruit longer, taller athletes. And I think now we have a system in place to allow those guys to get on the field.
" ... I think this will be a very player-friendly system where they can go out and operate and play fast and play physical, and allow some of our younger players to get involved earlier in their careers."
While the coaches are new, many players will be familiar — the Huskies return seven starters and a handful of experienced reserves. They also will welcome touted newcomers in the fall, notably Shaquille Thompson of Sacramento, Calif., rated by many as the top safety in the nation last year.
In that mix of players and new coaches, the Huskies need to find the cure for a defense that too often doomed the Huskies in 2011. Sarkisian said the entire team feels a need for redemption in 2012.
"There's a little bit, still, of a bad taste in their mouth from the bowl game, which is not a bad thing," Sarkisian said. "What they had to work on to get right, to get better. There's a lot to prove on people's minds right now in our building, as far as coaches, coaches to coaches, coaches to me, me to our players, our players to each other. There's a lot of 'I want to go out and show who we are and what we're about.' That's a great feeling to have."