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Holt looking forward, not back, for Huskies defense

8/18/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

SEATTLE -- Talent isn't an issue. Well, it is, but Nick Holt can't do anything about that right now as he heads into his first season as Washington's defensive coordinator.

Sure, it would be nice to insert Taylor Mays in as an insurance policy in the secondary. And defensive end Everson Griffen would be an exciting counterpart to line up opposite Daniel Te'o-Nesheim.

But NCAA rules prohibit Holt from inserting his former USC players into Washington's lineup.

So Holt finds himself leading one of the worst defenses in college football after leading the best one.

At this point, Holt's primary charge is mental and psychological rather than physical. He's trying to make the Huskies believe they are better -- way better -- than the 2008 unit, which ranked as the worst in school history, a fitting part of a 0-12 team.

"I think that's the biggest issue -- getting them to believe, to expect to win," Holt said. "We need to understand how to overcome adversity when something bad happens. We can't get our heads down and look in the rear-view mirror all the time. We need to throw away that rear view mirror."

Perhaps that's because objects in that mirror are closer than they appear, including last year's embarrassing numbers: 38.6 points and 452 yards per game.

The good news is 10 starters are back. The bad news is 10 starters are back.

And yet, after all the pokes and jokes are exhausted, it's curiously easy to look at the Huskies D and go: These guys aren't that bad.

The linebackers are solid. Maybe even better than solid. Te'o-Nesheim was second-team All-Pac-10 in 2008 and is a likely NFL draft pick. Strong safety Nate Williams was honorable mention All-Pac-10.

"I think we will control the run a lot better," Savannah said. "I think our linebackers can match up with anyone in the country."

We shall see. Just showing a little swagger is a step forward.

Holt knows swagger. The Trojans had it, and Holt is notoriously full of manic energy. It's unlikely players fall asleep when he's leading a meeting.

After spring practices and summer of workouts, he said his defense is "a lot stronger, a lot faster and a lot leaner." And it's learning how to practice.

"I think our guys understand practice tempo a little bit more," he said.

Still, there are issues. Significant ones.

There's a lack of speed, particularly in the secondary. There's uncertainty at the end opposite Te'o Nesheim. There's some potential at tackle, but it as of yet is unrealized.

"Our corners are getting better, but we have to find some guys we can count on day-in and day-out," Holt said. "We need to help our guys out who maybe don't run as well."

Holt isn't going to be able to run the defense like he wants to because he's going to have to cover up some shortcomings.

"We need to help them out with our calls -- there's no question," he said "We can't leave them on an island by themselves. They're getting better. But we do need to help them out. And that's our job as coaches."

That sometimes means taking chances. USC didn't have to run jailbreak blitzes to pressure the quarterback. The Huskies will.

"You look at it two ways," he said. "You either take risks or you are conservative and play really passive. That's not us. We want our guys to play aggressive and be hungry."

Being in better condition should help. Experience -- even the awful experience of 2008 -- should help. And renewed confidence and hunger should help.

"We better be a lot better than last year," Holt said. "We've got to be. That's unacceptable."

While Washington might not resemble a second-coming of the Trojans in 2009, it should be substantially improved compared to the previous two seasons.

As for the talent, that will require drumming up enthusiasm on the recruiting trail.