Justin Glenn’s face contorts when asked about the defense last season for the Washington Huskies. It’s not quite a look of pain – more like general discomfort. But it’s clear the senior safety doesn’t enjoy talking about it.
When the same subject is mentioned, cornerback Desmond Trufant lowers his head a little and gazes at his feet. He shakes his head in disbelief.
Ask any defensive player who endured last season’s struggles and a similar reaction usually follows.
It’s not an enjoyable memory to hold on to, let alone rehash.
But to think members of the 2012 Huskies defense are plagued by flashbacks and nightmares of last season would be wrong. Gone are the memories of getting run over by Stanford, erased is the beatdown at USC, and exorcised is the nightmare that was the Alamo Bowl.
They’ve moved on. At least they say they’ve moved on.
Sophomore strong safety Sean Parker had adopted his own mantra.
“Bad memories are lost memories,” he said.
But those memories aren’t easily lost on Huskies fans. The once-proud tradition of defensive domination under former coach Don James was reduced to a social network punchline under 2011 defensive coordinator Nick Holt. That type of defense was unacceptable to current coach Steve Sarkisian and the rest of Huskies nation. Changes needed to be made.
It’s why Holt, Jeff Mills (safeties coach) and Mike Cox (linebackers) were fired despite having one year left on their contracts. It’s why Justin Wilcox (defensive coordinator) was persuaded to leave Tennessee along with his buddy Peter Sirmon (linebackers), why Tosh Lupoi (defensive line/defensive run-game coordinator) was lured away from California, and Keith Heyward (defensive backs) was pried away from Oregon State – all with healthy pay increases.
The new staff has implemented new schemes, moved players around and changed expectations. The Huskies defense that takes the field at CenturyLink Field on Saturday against San Diego State will have a different look and attitude.
“I don’t know if it’s about proving anyone wrong or right,” Sarkisian said. “At the end of the day, I think they want to play well for themselves, for our football program, for our university and for our fans. I’m sure there’s a bit of a chip on their shoulder because they feel like they were better than they were last year.”
But one question needs to be answered: Will the defense be better?
That’s all that matters. There can’t be a repeat of last year.
The snarky answer to the question is: “Of course the defense will be better because it couldn’t be any worse.”
Indeed, the 2011 defense is stamped all over the UW record book – and not in a good way. The Huskies set records for points allowed (467), total touchdowns (58), pass completions (305), passing yards (3,700), rushing touchdowns (32), passing yards per game (284.6), total yards (5,893), average total offense per game (453.3), first downs (297) and passing first downs (167).
The 58 total touchdowns surrendered were second-most in school history, the 62.8 completion percentage allowed was third-highest, and the 22 passing touchdowns allowed ranked No. 5 all time.
And there were the single-game defensive marks set at the Alamo Bowl – the 777 yards of total offense and 43 second-half points by Baylor. The Bears’ eight rushing touchdowns and nine total touchdowns both tied school records. The 482 yards rushing allowed is second-most in UW history. And it was the first time the Huskies have allowed three players to rush for more than 100 yards in a game.
Perhaps using a little Football Psychology 101, Sarkisian and his staff emphasized the idea, “next play.” Meaning good or bad, players needed to move on to the next play no matter what the result. Maybe it applies for seasons as well.
“Our program isn’t about what just happened,” Sarkisian said. “It’s about where are we going and what are we doing. I think that’s been the focus.”
The players have embraced it.
“We are moving forward,” Trufant said. “We can’t afford to think about last year. There’s no reason to. This is a new season. Everything’s new.”
To Wilcox’s and his staff’s credit, they wouldn’t dwell on last season or somehow use it to their benefit. They watched the film, but only to evaluate and scout the defensive players. There was no mention of it for motivation or chiding purposes. It’s tough to preach a new beginning if you keep reminding of them what went wrong in the past.
“It’s a fresh start,” Wilcox said early in the fall camp. “The past is the past and you can’t change it. We can only change what we can control. Their attitudes have been great.”
There is a noticeable change in the defense under Wilcox. As promised, he came in and changed the basic philosophy. The Huskies would no longer stick to the 4-3 alignment at all times. He has experimented with 3-4 and 4-2-5 looks as well. He’s moved four safeties to linebackers and moved defensive ends inside and defensive tackles to the edge. The Huskies are going to be multiple in their looks and versatile in their personnel groups.
“Our job is to get the best 11 guys on the field,” Wilcox said.
But it’s more than schemes and Xs and Os.
“Obviously, you have to be physically and mentally tough and play with great effort,” Wilcox said. “But you have to really execute. Toughness and effort won’t win you the game alone, you have to execute at a higher level down-in and down-out for however long it takes.”
Wilcox boiled down execution to the simplest of terms.
“Getting our kids to do what we say they are going to do,” he said.
Several times last season, Holt lamented players’ inability to do that, saying that they were in the right position but didn’t make plays.
Some coaches call it the “moment of truth.”
And while some players are inherently good in that moment, others need to learn it.
Wilcox and his staff have decided to teach that by preaching unfailing aggressiveness at all times – no fear, no hesitation, no regrets.
“We want them to be aggressive and confident,” Wilcox said.
If a mistake is made, it better had been made while a player was going as hard and as fast as possible.
During spring practice and fall camp, players weren’t sent to the sideline or berated for those mistakes.
How could Wilcox preach “next play” to his players if he wasn’t able to do it as a coach? Instead, the mistake was addressed and the player was expected to be better on the next play.
“There’s no time to do that because it affects you on the next play,” he said. “As bad as you might want to, you can’t afford to do that. It’s a mentality you have to adopt.”
It was a refreshing change for the players.
“From a player’s standpoint, it makes you not worried about making a mistake,” Glenn said. “If you worry, you hesitate and you are slow and the guy is (past you) for (a touchdown). You have to play with an absence of fear.”
Admittedly, there were a lot of moments of hesitation last season for a number of reasons.
“At times, people were a little scared the coaches might get on them if they made a mistake,” Glenn said. “If you play like that, you can’t play to your full potential.”
Even the offensive players noticed the change.
“They believe in what their coaches are telling them,” wide receiver Kasen Williams said.
With all the different defensive fronts and schemes, the positions changes, the rebuilt and reshaped attitudes, the Huskies’ defense will be different when it steps on the field against San Diego State.
But will it be better? Players are ready to show it.
“That’s the main thing,” Glenn said. “We want to put out there on display all the hard work we’ve put in.”email@example.com 253-597-8483 blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @RyanDivish