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Originally published Friday, April 6, 2012 at 10:01 PM

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Coaching quartet goes back to basics to elevate Washington's defense

Justin Wilcox, Peter Sirmon, Tosh Lupoi and Keith Heyward have switched Pac-12 allegiances and teaching football basics to Husky defenders.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Mark your calendar

April 21: Open spring scrimmage, at Memorial Stadium, 11 a.m.

April 28: Spring Game, at CenturyLink Field, 1 p.m.

Sept. 1: Season opener vs. San Diego State, CenturyLink Field, time TBA.

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Until this week, the only colors Keith Heyward had worn as a major-college football player or coach were the black and orange of Oregon State.

No wonder he did double-takes the first few times he looked down to see himself adorned in Washington's purple and gold.

"You throw it on and it's like 'Oh, my God, that's purple and it's a W,' " he said Friday. "But now, this is what I wear and this is what it's about, the W."

More important, getting W's.

Heyward and four other coaches with long and deep ties to other Pac-12 universities were hired by UW in the offseason, replacing either coaches who left on their own or were fired. Heyward and two other defensive coaches — coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, both of whom attended Oregon — played at some of UW's longest-standing rivals.

But after the third practice of the spring for the Huskies on Friday, all of the new assistants said they are feeling comfortable in their new environs.

Defensive-line coach Tosh Lupoi, who spent his entire playing and coaching career at California before coming to UW in January, has worn a T-shirt and shorts at every practice this week, despite a little rain or cold wind.

"I couldn't be happier," Lupoi said. "Just the culture here and what a big deal football is in this state and this area and the city of Seattle. I feel at home here and it all starts with the culture that is created from the top with our athletic director, our head coach, and it's an incredible environment to be a part of where football is tremendously important here."

That attention also means pressure to turn the UW defense around. That's the reason Lupoi and the rest were hired after the Huskies allowed a school-record 467 points last season.

Considerable attention has been placed on the Huskies' switch to a defense featuring more 3-4 looks than 4-3. But Wilcox says fixing the UW defense isn't that simple.

"Whether you are 4-3 or 3-4, there is no magic answer," he said. "If there was, everybody would be doing what that is."

Instead, Wilcox said the Huskies have to get better at the basics.

"Up front, we've got to be great striking blocks and be great with our hands and our eyes — that's a huge emphasis for us this spring," he said. "In the back end, (the emphasis is) going to be covering people, and (if you're) a linebacker, it's going to be taking on blocks, matching people in your drops, good footwork. So those are the things we do every day, really getting back to basics every day. And as a defense, tackling is going to be paramount and we will tackle every day.

"You can draw up every defense in the world, but if you can't get the guy on the ground, what's the point? So we are going to tackle every day and we've got to improve. I don't care where you are at, you can be in high school, college or the NFL, you've got to be a great tackling team in order to play good defense."

In one drill, cornerbacks held a pole between their arms and behind their back as they backpedaled

"Just so they could keep their arms right here by their hips and backpedal," Heyward said. "You see some guys, they don't want to use their arms, they have them dragging out in front of them or they are reaching too far. We just want to keep everything nice and tight so the poles put one arm on one side or the other. You can't reach back too far because the pole is there and it's going to fall and it keeps that nice 90-degree bend of the elbow."

The coaches say the attitude of their players isn't an issue, despite the defensive struggles of last season.

"I think they just moved on," Heyward said. "We don't bring that up to them because that was a whole 'nother staff and a whole 'nother defense. What we are here to do is to make them play the best that we can within what we are trying to do here now."

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

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