Seattle again playing the role of Leverage City 6/18, 05:42 PM
Next for the Seahawks: Handling the burden of expectations 6/14, 01:45 PM
Steve Sarkisian's worst nightmare: What if Nick Holt can't improve the Washington defense?
Posted by Jerry Brewer
For those who want Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt's head on a platter, a question:
Would you rather his bald dome be freshly shaven, or should he leave some stubble on top?
Holt is the biggest blame hoarder in Seattle currently, and that's saying something. Ichiro, Chone Figgins and Pete Carroll probably feel sorry for him. Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong are probably like, "Glad we're not you, dude."
It's that bad for Holt, at least at this moment. He does have a few things going for him: Despite the poor defensive showing, Huskies have a winning, 2-1 record (which is where most expected them to be) as Pac-12 play begins Saturday, and there is still hope the defense can improve and play to the level of its raw talent. Holt is still a member of a rising program, and he deserves some credit for the Huskies' stellar recruiting and the development of individual defensive players defense (examples include NFL draft picks Donald Butler, Mason Foster and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and 2012 NFL draftee-to-be Alameda Ta'amu) since this staff took over in 2009.
But overall, the results haven't been satisfactory at a school that once earned its reputation because of an aggressive, bone-crushing defense. Through three games, the Huskies are allowing 36.7 points and 452 yards per game. Washington has national rankings of 107th and 108th, respectively, in those two areas. And there are only 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Huskies lost 51-38 to Nebraska last Saturday. As a result, this week has brought the heaviest criticism of Holt. Predictably, head coach Steve Sarkisian has responded to the scrutiny of Holt with a strong public vote of confidence.
"I trust Nick Holt," Sarkisian said Monday, and he sounded annoyed by the line of questioning. "I believe in Nick Holt. I believe in our defensive staff. They are tremendous coaches. I've seen them coach for years. And we will get better."
Holt spoke to reporters Tuesday, and Bob Condotta filed this story on what he said. To his credit, Holt talked about an uncomfortable subject. Many football coaches bark and run scared in these situations. Then again, when your $650,000 salary made you the fourth highest-paid state employee last year, a little accountability isn't too much to ask.
So Sark and Holt remain optimistic while, all around them, pessimism about the defense grows with each disappointing performance. The discontent is worth monitoring, but is it errant griping or signs of a real problem?
Where is this issue headed?
As long as the Huskies continue to improve overall, Sarkisian won't even consider a change at defensive coordinator, even if the D remains an issue. In theory, the defense will show at least some improvement if the problem remains on the ascent, and that would be enough for Sark to continue to support his friend. Sarkisian won't be prematurely cutthroat with Holt because they're too close, their families are too close, and Sark has too much respect for Holt because they were assistants during USC's great run with Carroll.
But what happens if progress is stalled because of the defense's struggles? What if the Huskies develop an offense that can take them to the Rose Bowl, but they're held back by the inability to stop the opposing offense?
That is Sarkisian's worst nightmare.
And this is the problem with hiring your friends.
All coaches do it, and only the lucky ones don't suffer because of it. Job security is fleeting in coaching. Good coaches fail all the time. And head coaches are often force to fire their friends either to save their butts or to ensure their programs stay relevant.
Friendships can cloud the issue, but ultimately, it's about performance. Sarkisian has already been a great friend. He made Holt one of the highest paid coordinators in college football. If there ever comes a time when a change must be made, Sark should be able to make that decision without feeling too much guilt. But would he be able to do it?
Fortunately, that time is not now. The Huskies are only two seasons and three games into a major rebuilding project. Not only did Washington finish 0-12 in 2008, Tyrone Willingham's final season, but the Huskies had endured the two worst defensive seasons in school history. The 2008 team allowed a record 451.8 yards per game, which surpassed the 446.4 yards the team allowed in 2007.
(Speaking of being too loyal to friends, Willingham's trust in his buddy, defensive coordinator Kent Baer, helped ruin his Washington tenure. Baer's Husky defenses never performed well, but Willingham stayed with him through the end of the 2007 season. Then Willingham finally let Baer go and hired Ed Donatell in 2008, but it was too late.)
Since taking over, Holt's defenses have allowed 389.5 yards per game in 2009 and 384.8 last season. Opponent scoring has gone from 38.6 points per game in 2008 to 26.7 in 2009 and 29.3 in 2010. So Holt has improved things slightly, but the bar was the lowest it has ever been. And this "improvement" still hasn't helped the Huskies become even a decent defense.
And now, through three games, the Huskies have one of the worst defenses in the nation.
So, scrutiny of Holt's performance is warranted. The demand for better is exactly what you'd expect from fans hungry to see their team be elite again.
Is it time to fire Holt? No.
Is it time to turn up the heat on his seat? Absolutely.
Holt has some nice talent, including an defensive line with good players and good experience, to mold. He needs the defense to have a progressive run in the Pac-12.
He knows this. He promises you'll see better.
And your eyes are wide open.
But the most important question: Where's Sark looking?
Feb 5 - 8:27 PM Fancy new bloggin' digs (and what you need to know about it)
Feb 3 - 9:47 AM Wishing Steve Kelley the best in retirement
Jan 25 - 4:31 PM Jerry Brewer hits the red carpet at Sports Star of the Year