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Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Spring football Q&A: Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt


Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Nick Holt left the seven-time defending Pac-10 champions, USC -- and sunny Southern California -- to follow Steve Sarkisian to Washington, which has won 11 games over the previous four seasons, including a 0-12 finish in 2008.

Hmm.

 
  Jeff Golden/Getty Images
  Nick Holt knows he has his work cut out for him at Washington.

He left the Trojans' defense -- the nation's best unit -- to oversee the Huskies defense, which ranked 116th in the nation in 2008 after giving up 38.6 points per game.

The good news is things can only get better under Holt and Sarkisian. The question for long-suffering Huskies fans: How long is it going to take?

Washington is heading into the home stretch of spring practices, so it seemed like a good time to check in with the man charged with restoring a once-proud program's defensive tradition.

So, how are you adjusting to a beautiful Seattle spring?

Nick Holt: [Laugh] I'm adjusting. I have to get used to all the wetness. Heck, when it's sunny, it's really beautiful. You've just got to get used to wearing rain gear sometimes.

How hard was it to leave USC? You guys kind of had a nice thing going down there, particularly on defense?

NH: It's always hard to leave a really, really good place. But you look for opportunities, and you look to keep motivated and keep stimulated and to keep moving up the professional ladder. You keep on changing. That makes the world go around. It was a good opportunity and I think the world of Steve Sarkisian. I think he's a tremendous football coach and I wanted to be part of the program.

When you were at USC, what did the Trojan coaching staff think of Washington? Was it hard to get guys motivated to play the Huskies?

NH: In 2006, they played us tough [26-20 final]. It came down to the wire and we won on the last series of the football game. They were driving and time ran out. And in 2007, it came down to the last part of the fourth quarter [27-24 final]. We barely got out of Seattle. They always played us really competitively. Down at USC, we always respected the University of Washington. When we first got into the conference in 2001, during our early years at USC, Washington was one of the better teams in the Pac-10. It just so happens this past year they had a disappointing season. But whenever they had Jake Locker in the football game, we always had to be ready because he's such a good athlete. We were fortunate we didn't have to play him last year [58-0 final]. He was hurt. That kind of hurt their season. So, to answer your question, we've always respected the University of Washington. We've always thought it was a tough place to play because Husky Stadium is so loud and they have such great fans.

After you were hired at Washington, what did you do to evaluate the talent presently on the roster?

NH: The first thing we always do is look at film and make evaluations through cut-ups. Obviously, when we first got here we were recruiting, so we were multi-tasking. We're doing a bunch of things all at once. But we had our graduate assistants on the job right away, getting them to make evaluations cut-ups of all the returning players and all of the freshmen. The kids that didn't have game film, we went through practice films. We got about 20 to 25 plays on each player who was coming back. That was one of the first things we did after signing day -- we started evaluating what we have coming back and how they are going to fit into our package. And obviously during winter conditioning we got to see kids do agility drills and conditioning drills and you get further evaluations and information on these kids.

Who looked good to know; who did you know could help you?

NH: There's a couple of kids who we really think are going to help us out. I think you always start up front, and there's one guy that is a pretty special kid and that's [defensive end] Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, who has started for the last three years. We've always felt, while watching film on Washington, that they had a really special player in No. 66. And he's not letting us down. He's a guy who we really thing can do some good things. I think a couple of our linebackers are really special or could be special when it's all said and done. No. 9, Donald Butler, and having E.J. Savannah coming back, No. 22, I think he's going to be a really good player. And there's a young linebacker, Mason Foster, who I think is going to be pretty good. We have a good linebacking corps. We don't have a lot of depth. In the secondary, they've had so many young guys in and out of the lineup. But we have some good young prospects that redshirted who we are finding out more about in spring ball. But there's a kid who's played every game and always did a solid job and he's young and he keeps on getting better and so far we're impressed with his coachability. And that's Nate Williams, the strong safety. Those core guys right there can play really anywhere in the Pac-10.

When you address the defense in meetings and at practice, what do you say over and over again?

NH: Besides installing the X's and O's, I think we're always talking about our tackling and the passion you have to play football with and the passion you have to play defense with and the joy with what you do. That's one of the themes we're always talking about. Going out every day at practice and enjoying what you're doing and having passion. And learning how to compete in every drill. That's really huge. We're constantly putting these kids in position to learn how to compete and battle in different situations. We're looking for great competitors and kids who have great passion for football. We talk about X's and O's and stripping the ball and getting turnovers and all those good things, but I think the basic stuff, learning how to compete every day is what we most talk about.

USC has high-energy practices. Washington's practices under Tyrone Willingham were closed, but word was they were decidedly low energy. How quickly can you transform how a team practices?

NH: It takes a while. USC has that stuff right now and that's what we're trying to accomplish here. It's a process. How long it takes and how quickly you get there you never know. Hopefully it happens quick. But these players want to believe and they're good kids. They're trying to do things we're asking them to do. The will is really there with these kids. The want-to is there with these kids. We've got to keep getting better athletes -- that's recruiting -- but I really like our team's attitude. They're willing to do what you ask them to do. That was not always the case when we first started at USC. There was a lot of transition there, but we got it done. We're going through those growing pains here also.

Who's stepped up on defense this spring, the young guys or redshirt guys who haven't yet made names for themselves?

NH: There's a couple of young corners and a young safety who didn't
play at all last year, and they are miles away, but they've given us a glimmer of hope of being good special teams players as redshirt freshman and maybe getting some good, quality snaps. A couple of the corners, guys like Anthony Gobern and Adam Long and a safety named Greg Walker, those kids come to mind. They're miles away but I think they are good young prospects. Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of young linebackers in the program. All our good linebackers are upperclassmen. We've got some depth issues. We've got a couple of good, young D-linemen, but they played last year as true freshman. [Tackle] Alameda Ta'amu is having a good spring. He could make an impact for us, as well as Everrette Thompson, who played a lot last year at defensive end.

How long will it take for the Huskies to develop into a top-flight defense?

NH: Boy, man, it just depends on what you have coming back. Hopefully it happens really soon. Hopefully it happens in September for us. But realistically it takes a while because of recruiting. But I really believe we have a couple of players that are really good now and I don't want to cut those guys short and say it's going to take a while for us to be good on defense. You're not being fair to the seniors. We tell them we're going to be good right now. They've just got to keep believing in what we're doing and keep on playing with passion. Hopefully, it's this fall, hopefully it's by the time we get into Pac-10 play. Hopefully it's by the time we play Idaho or the time we play LSU. The sooner, the better. There's no timetable, but you better get there.

Do you feel like that if you guys return Washington to the top of the Pac-10, you'll get a chance to run your own program as a head coach? Is that the long-term goal?

NH: In some regards, that's my ultimate goal. But I really like what I'm doing right now. I like being able to start something new on defense with good kids and a new coaching staff. I really like the guys who I am working with. I think we have a really good defensive staff. I'm still young enough to pursue some of those things you talk about. I have been a head coach [at Idaho], however, it was a really, really difficult situation. I grew as a coach. I loved every minute of it. But it was hard. If that opportunity arises again, I want to makes sure it's at a place where I have all the resources you need to be successful. But I'm very happy with where I am right now. I think this is a very special place. I love the city. We'll see how far we can take it here.