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Huskies surging defense overcomes losses to NFL draft

Washington's lost seven starters from its 2014 defense, including four players picked among the first 44 selections of last spring's NFL draft. Each of those four -- nose tackle Danny Shelton, cornerback Marcus Peters, linebacker Shaq Thompson and outside linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha -- are now NFL starters.

So, yeah, terming that a talent drain seems accurate. Preseason questions about the Huskies defense certainly seemed valid.

Yet the Huskies 2015 defense, a unit that welcomed back just one player who even earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 accolades last season, is statistically superior to that glittering, star-studded 2014 unit -- at least so far.

"We were sitting around talking about that leading into the game," said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, whose offense mostly sputtered in a 26-20 win at Washington on Saturday. "How are they better after losing four first-round picks or whatever? They are just playing tremendously well."

It's a good question, one Stanford coach David Shaw also is asking as his team prepares to play host to the Huskies on Saturday. No Pac-12 offense is playing better than the Cardinal of late -- it has averaged 48.5 points per game during a 4-0 start to conference play -- so it's an A-list matchup with significant North Division implications.

Said Shaw, "You don't hear a lot about the individual names like you did last year because they were such star players, but you look at the rankings and see this is a very good defense, one of the best defenses in the nation."

The Huskies are yielding just 16.8 points per game, which ranks first in the conference and 16th in the nation, one spot below defensive stalwart Alabama. Opponents are gaining 4.7 yards per play, which ranks first in the conference and 25th in the nation. While the sack numbers are down -- the Huskies were second in the nation with 3.71 per game in 2014 -- the overall pass efficiency defense rating is much improved.

The Huskies also have been consistent. They haven't yielded more than 30 points to any foe and have held four to 17 or fewer points. No opponent has reached its season scoring average, the closest being California, which scored 10.2 points below its 40.2-point season average. ESPN.com ranks Washington 16th in the nation defensive efficiency.

So, again, why is the Washington defense better?

"They are doing a lot well," Helfrich said. "Schematically, they are tremendously sound. They make you earn everything. They play deep-to-short a lot in the secondary. They don't ever give you a chance to get over the top."

Helfrich touches on the most obvious area of improvement, which was a decided weakness last year, as a young secondary has grown up and become outstanding in coverage. That's also the first area that coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski noted (it's worth recalling that Peters was kicked off the team at midseason, removing its lone veteran, star presence).

It's also important to remember that Kwiatkowski and his staff were new last year, taking over a veteran unit that was entrenched with Justin Wilcox's scheme. While Kwiatkowski says the general concepts weren't terribly different, the terminology was. The decision was made to limit the schematic inventory.

"We didn't have a lot of defense," Kwiatkowski said. "We couldn't overload them with all these calls and still get them lined up and playing fast."

While Kwiatkowski doesn't say this, every other Pac-12 coach who was asked about the Huskies defense this year compared to last used the term "sound," so it's not too difficult to extrapolate some unsoundness last year due to veteran players freelancing, feeling their talent would allow them to save the day outside of their assignments.

Sometimes that created a great play. Sometimes the offense exchanged high fives.

What's sound? Washington opponents have scored touchdowns on just eight of 22 attempts from inside the red zone (36.4 percent), easily the best such percentage in the Pac-12.

Kwiatkowski called back after an interview to make sure he spread the credit among his staff -- Jimmy Lake, Jeff Choate and Bob Gregory -- and that makes sense because the Huskies are controlling offenses with a mostly no-name defense that plays well together. Sure, most Pac-12 observers know about safety Budda Baker, and nose tackle Elijah Qualls is looking like an All-Pac-12 pick, while Azeem Victor ranks among the conference leaders in tackles and tackles for a loss, but those guys didn't show up on many preseason watch lists.

That said, coach Chris Petersen doesn't want this to become another tale of magical schemes and scrappy, team-first guys surprising all the big, bad men on Pac-12 offenses.

"You're not going to get anything done without talent," he said.

Cal coach Sonny Dykes similarly noted about the perceived talent drain to the NFL, "The guys who took their places are really good as well."

The Huskies won't face the same sort of attrition in 2016. Just four seniors start, and there are only six among the 31 players listed on the depth chart this week.

"Yeah, it's exceeded our expectations," Kwiatkowski said. "Some of the younger guys have really stepped up."

Next fall, the expectations will be rightfully stratospheric.