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Holt taking heat for Washington defense

10/26/2011

Washington fans are aflutter about the Huskies' defense and its stewardship by coordinator Nick Holt, the Pac-12's highest-paid assistant coach (at least with a published salary; USC, a private school, doesn't release contract information).

This, of course, comes on the heels of giving up 65 points and 446 rushing yards to Stanford. In the Huskies' other defeat, they surrendered 51 points and 309 yards rushing at Nebraska.

And in most of the other games, the pass defense was suspect. Washington ranks 101st in the nation in total defense and 104th in scoring defense. Arizona, which visits Husky Stadium on Saturday, has struggled this year, but it's been fairly potent on offense with quarterback Nick Foles, and the Wildcats lit up UCLA last week in a 48-12 win.

This is Year 3 under Holt, who is under contract through 2012 with an annual salary of $650,000. That ranks him among the nation's highest-paid assistant coaches.

Some, such as Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times, are recommending patience.

Did you really think the Huskies would have a complete team two-and-a-half seasons removed from an 0-12 campaign? It's no great surprise that the Huskies have an unbalanced squad right now. And considering that Washington hired a former offensive coordinator who inherited a nice collection of young offensive talent, it's even less surprising that the offense is far ahead of the defense.

The Washington student newspaper isn't. It begins a column this week with "Fire Holt."

The truth is, this defense stinks. And it shouldn’t. The only teams they’ve looked good against were Colorado and Utah. Colorado is bad and was missing its best player, wide receiver Paul Richardson. And the UW didn’t even play great defense against the Utes — it just made great plays in the red zone.

Holt met with reporters Tuesday and defended his defense. He said the most important numbers were wins and losses, the program's 5-2 mark being a total team accomplishment.

Asked if the defense is where he thought it would be at this point, he said: "Just still young at a lot of key positions. We just have to keep coaching them. There's a lot of things I could say; we've just got to keep getting better. We're 5-2 in our third year. We go to a bowl game our second year, so it's on course. Obviously we'd love to be 7-0 right now, but we're 5-2. We have a chance to come home and play Arizona - a great offensive team, a great quarterback, great skill. We have to play our butts off to get to 6-2."

There's a trap in unvarnished optimism, which Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian typically embraces. Last preseason, Sarkisian praised his offensive line, which reporters were questioning. When it didn't play well -- at least over the first half of the 2010 season -- it left Sark in a bit of a bind. This is what is happening with the Huskies' defense.

It was supposed to be better. More than a few writers -- yes, me included -- wrote about the defensive line, in particular, being among the best in the Pac-12. Writers don't just make stuff like that up. We get it from the coaches, and Sarkisian and Holt both talked about the defense being stout up front.

The Huskies did lose their best pass-rusher, defensive end Hau'oli Jamora to a knee injury, but that was during Game 4 against California. The defense didn't exactly look great with Jamora, either.

Holt hates that reporters bring up his contract, but that's just the way things go. Being the Pac-12's highest-paid defensive coordinator suggests strongly he's the conference's best defensive coordinator. And the conference's best defensive coordinator, in a third season running a defense, should produce at least solid results.

Holt's defense ranks ninth in the conference in scoring (33.7 points per game) and 10th in total defense (431.3 yards per game). Its 13 sacks rank eighth. Opponents are converting on 53.1 percent of their third downs, which ranks 11th in the conference.

Last year, the Huskies gave up 29.3 points and 384.8 yards per game, numbers that ranked eighth and sixth (out of 10) in the conference.

You don't take a measure of a defense through seven games. You do so after 12 games -- 13 if you include a bowl game. The Huskies improved dramatically down the stretch last year, so maybe they will do the same this season.

It's not unfair, however, to expect Holt's defense to end up with better numbers than last year.

Otherwise, Holt won't be producing what he has been paid well to do: Making the Washington defense better.