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Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Washington's defense needs to step up

By Ted Miller

Jake Locker, Jake Locker, Jake Locker. This isn't an article about him.

It's about something that has been doing a perhaps surprisingly good job making Locker's life difficult the past few weeks: The Washington defense.

Mason Foster
Mason Foster thinks the defense will be just as good as the team's highly-touted offense.
"We are actually holding the offense and making stops," linebacker Mason Foster said. "We've had pretty good battles throughout camp."

I know. No way. The Huskies lost their two best defensive players -- linebacker Donald Butler and end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim -- to the NFL from a unit that ranked eighth in the Pac-10 in total defense (389.5 yards per game) and ninth in scoring defense (26.7 ppg).

But the Huskies defense has consistently hinted during fall camp that it's not going to be the weakling counterpart to what should be an explosive offense.

"They've caused us some problems on offense," said coach Steve Sarkisian, who calls the offensive plays. "They've caused turnovers. They've gotten after the quarterback."

Foster, a senior and all-conference candidate, said the young guys who were forced into action last year are in far better physical condition. Along those lines, Sarkisian noted that junior noseguard Alameda Ta'amu is no longer just a massive mound of inert space filler -- who at his best is merely hard to move. After dropping 30 pounds to 330, he's a guy who can get into the backfield and make plays.

The secondary also appears significantly improved with corners Desmond Trufant and Quinton Richardson and safeties Nate Fellner, Nate Williams and Will Shamburger. The apparent successful return of end Everrette Thompson from a torn Achilles should bolster the pass rush.

But it's not just about maturing physically, getting healthy and conditioning better. A year ago, coordinator Nick Holt was only that slightly menacing guy who was always barking at them about not understanding what it takes to play great defense. Now the defensive guys and Holt are playing the same tune, one that probably sounds a bit like Rage Against the Machine.

"They've got a real mentality right now," Sarkisian said. "What I like most about it is they've really adopted Nick's personality. They are aggressive. They are tough. They are smart."

Of course, this also merely could be preseason optimism (or maybe the Huskies offense won't be all that potent). The unit certainly will be tested at BYU on Saturday. Sure, the Cougars only have 11 starters back and are replacing quarterback Max Hall. But they have won 43 games over the past four seasons: They are fairly close to the proverbial "reload not rebuild" category.

While there may be some sentiment about the trip for Sarkisian -- he was BYU's quarterback in 1995-96 -- the Huskies players probably don't look too fondly at the Cougars. In their 2008 game in Seattle, Locker scored what appeared to be a game-tying touchdown in the waning moments -- pending the PAT -- but he was flagged for a celebration penalty after flicking the ball into the air.

Just about everyone thought the penalty ridiculous, at least outside of Provo. Of course, barely anyone would remember the call if the Huskies hadn't blown the extra point and subsequently lost 28-27.

That was about as close to respectability as the Huskies would come during an 0-12 season that ended the Tyrone Willingham Era and brought in Sarkisian.

Moreover, one of BYU's quarterbacks -- it appears two will play versus the Huskies -- is true freshman Jake Heaps, a product of Washington State powerhouse Skyline High School. He picked BYU over Washington last winter, and there are just a few whispers that some of the Huskies might be eager to make him feel like he made a mistake.

"I didn't even really know he was from around here until a couple weeks ago," Foster said. "That's going to make it a little more exciting -- a big-time recruit from the state of Washington that went to another school and will play as a true freshman. It's going to be fun to get a couple of hits on him."

The Huskies -- suddenly -- have high expectations. Only two years removed from an 0-12 season, they are thinking about more than just earning their first bowl berth since 2002.

"It's a total turnaround," Foster said. "No more losing every game. The mindset is different. We're really looking forward to coming out in competing at the top of the conference this year."

A total turnaround likely would make Locker a leading Heisman Trophy candidate.

But that's not going to happen if the defense can't make stops.