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Originally published Saturday, April 21, 2012 at 6:38 PM

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New-look defense puts on a show in scrimmage

What fans saw at Memorial Stadium is pretty much what has been on display in private this spring — the defense generally getting the better of things.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Fans got their first look at the 2012 Washington football team Saturday, with about 800 turning out at Memorial Stadium for a practice that featured roughly 60 plays of live scrimmaging.

And they saw pretty much what has been on display in private this spring — the defense generally getting the better of things.

"Yeah, they did," acknowledged receiver Kasen Williams, who had one of the offensive highlights with a 40-yard catch from Keith Price. "I remember last year during practice we would win most of the battles. As far as spring goes, it's been majority defense. And we are seeing a lot of different looks from the line and seeing different coverages and things, things I think are definitely going to work in games."

The newest of those looks features Nate Fellner — who has started 20 games at safety the last three years — playing strongside linebacker, often creeping close to the line of scrimmage at the snap.

"I was telling Nate with having all of us (safeties) on the field, it's more playmakers, more guys who are fast running to the ball, more opportunities to swarm to the ball and make plays," said Justin Glenn, who instead of battling with Fellner for the free-safety spot is now playing alongside him with the No. 1 defense. "We've got more DBs kind of running around and making plays."

It's a strategy new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox likes to try to combat the trend toward spread offenses like Oregon's, which stretch the field and create one-on-one battles. Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian acknowledges the trick is to also be stout enough to handle more physical offenses such as Stanford's.

"The first thing you look for is, can we hold up, more so than how fast we look," Sarkisian said. "I think that has shown up. We're holding up really well."

That was certainly the case Saturday, as the defense proved disruptive throughout. It was not a true gamelike scrimmage, with every possession being situational in nature — goal line, red zone, etc. But on eight non-goal-line possessions with the No. 1 offense against the No. 1 defense, there were just two touchdowns — a 31-yard Price pass to Cody Bruns and a 25-yard run by Jesse Callier.

There were several highlight plays from the defense, with Glenn making two against tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. On one, Glenn stripped the ball from Seferian-Jenkins for a fumble that he recovered. On the other, he broke up a pass to Seferian-Jenkins in the end zone to prevent a touchdown on third down.

Unofficially, there were 10 sacks (though those are called on the touch and sometimes with a quick whistle).

Fellner worked with the starting defensive unit throughout, saying he's making a quick adjustment to his new position.

"I think it's good for me, and I just like to be on the field and help the team," he said.

Fellner is the third safety moved to linebacker this spring — the others are junior Taz Stevenson and redshirt freshman Evan Zeger. Fellner, who is listed at 218 pounds, up from 201 last season, said it's a move he thinks could help his professional aspirations.

Sarkisian also said it's a way to get the best 11 defenders on the field, with Glenn and Sean Parker having formed a solid safety duo throughout the spring.

"They approached me about it and they told me, 'We want to get you on the field; we feel like you really fit this position,' " Fellner said. "... (We're) definitely trying to get more speed with all these teams that can spread it out on you, but at the same time I feel that I can also stop the run."

The real proof of defensive improvement will come in the fall, when the Huskies play the likes of Louisiana State, USC and Oregon in the first half of the season. And while it was the offense a year ago that had experience everywhere, that label now more fits the defense — especially with the offensive line having injury issues. The line continues to feature not a single starter at the same spot as a year ago.

Sarkisian noted that there were "a lot of self-inflicted wounds" for the offense Saturday, in some missed passes that were open, bad snaps and penalties. "That happened to us too much today," he said.

With Price back running the show, the assumption is the offense will eventually get it going.

Glenn said Saturday was a chance for the defense — which allowed a school-record 467 points last season — to begin regaining a little faith.

"I think for just the whole program in general, people need to know they can trust on the defense and that we are going to come out and get stops that are needed to win games," he said. "We know the offense is going to be good; Keith is going to put points on the board. It's going to come down to our defense and how we turn out this year."

Note

• There were no new significant injuries. WR James Johnson sat out after suffering a head injury Friday. Also out was LB Cooper Pelluer, who suffered another shoulder injury. His long-term prognosis is not known.

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

On Twitter @bcondotta

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