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Originally published April 28, 2012 at 6:34 PM | Page modified April 28, 2012 at 11:43 PM

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Refurbished UW defense quickly shows it is ready to forget 2011

The direction of football games, the course of entire seasons often are determined by the one-on-one moments, the competitive plays, when...

Seattle Times staff columnist

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I was at the game yesterday, and it's clear there are parts of the defense that are... MORE
Defense is definitely better it sounds like but I am sure Price's #'s had a lot to do... MORE
The past few seasons UW has had a productive O and terrible D. This year the roles... MORE

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The direction of football games, the course of entire seasons often are determined by the one-on-one moments, the competitive plays, when the snap is made, or the ball is in the air and football becomes an individual sport.

Receiver vs. defensive back. Who is hungrier for the ball? Who is willing to make a play? Make a difference?

Pass rusher vs. offensive tackle. Whose will is unbendable? Who will sacrifice the most?

Time after time last season, Washington's defense was beaten badly and badly beaten up. It lost too many of the individual battles. It was too passive, too soft. Too often out of position.

No mas.

"At the end of the day, when the ball gets thrown, there's competitive plays," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said after Saturday's Spring Game. "Good defenses win those one-on-one battles. And we showed today that we were able to win one-on-one battles. And it wasn't just one guy. It was a variety of guys doing it."

Safety Will Shamburger nearly made an acrobatic pick in the back of the end zone, breaking up a Keith Price pass. Cornerback Marcus Peters knocked the ball out of James Johnson's hands with a staggering hit.

The aggression was contagious. Repeatedly defensive end Corey Waller flew off the edges, getting a pair of sacks. And defensive end Andrew Hudson also had a couple of sacks.

In their first full dress rehearsal under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, Washington's defense played like it believes in this new scheme.

"More than half the battle is belief," Sarkisian said. "Believing in calls. Believing in coaches. Believing in the guy lining up next to you and ultimately believing in yourself that you're going to make those plays.

"Our guys are at the point where they expect to make plays. They expect to be in the right position and understand the calls and ultimately make those plays. That showed today."

It's a new day for Washington football. A new defensive day.

After the repeated humiliations last season at Stanford, at USC, even at home against Eastern Washington and finally in the Alamo Bowl, allowing 777 yards to Baylor, a change had to be made.

The prowling, roaring Rasputin Nick Holt was replaced by Wilcox and a gaggle of new assistants.

"Last season is like erased, like a lost memory," junior safety Sean Parker said.

Wilcox restructured the defense. The cornerbacks are playing more snugly, giving receivers less cushion, making it harder for them to get off the line. Receivers no longer are loping alone in the middle of the field.

Price was under siege all day in Saturday's Spring Game, as a troubled offensive line tried to protect him. He was 14 for 28 for 168 yards, threw one touchdown and was sacked twice. The defense registered a total of seven sacks.

"I hear the linebackers talking about how much easier and understandable the defense is for them now," sophomore defensive tackle Danny Shelton said. "I feel the same way about the D-line."

Overall the defense was more aggressive, more offensive, playing faster. It allowed only one touchdown, stopped 12 of 15 drives and beat the offense 36-10. It didn't force a turnover, the only blemish in an encouraging afternoon.

"I like being aggressive on guys, making every catch hard," said senior cornerback Desmond Trufant, standing on the CenturyLink turf in the dappled late-afternoon sun. "And within this scheme we're getting to be a lot more aggressive. There's less air between the receivers, so we get to make more plays.

"Sometimes (last season) it was frustrating not being able to be aggressive, but you got to do what you're told to do regardless of what it is. You have to listen to your superiors. But I think with our coaches now, they're going to lead us in the right direction."

Parker said he felt the defense coming together during the first spring practice. Repeatedly his unit was making stops in its goal-line defense. The feel that day was indescribably different from last season.

"I always dream big and always envision myself doing big things," said Parker, who had a monstrous spring. "And when you're confident and you play fast and you're not nervous, the game just slows down for you and enables you to make a lot of plays. That's what's happening."

From the shredded ending at last year's Alamo Bowl to the sparkling conclusion of this spring's practices, change is happening to Washington's defense.

It's happening fast.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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