Huskies defense coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, along with defensive backs Budda Baker, Kevin King and Sidney Jones, and linebackers Keishawn Bierria and Psalm Wooching, met with reporters at the Hyatt Regency this morning to preview Washington’s national semifinal against No. 1 Alabama on Saturday. Here is what they said during their time at the main podium.
PETE KWIATKOWSKI: I know me and the staff and all these guys are excited to be here. It's a great opportunity. Bowl Week's been going great. Practice has been awesome, good energy. Guys chomping at the bit to go out there and, you know, compete.
THE MODERATOR: Budda, I'll ask you about what did you think of your experience at the Martin Luther King Center last night?
BUDDA BAKER: For me, it was a great experience to even be in the same company as people that were friends with Martin Luther King and all that type of stuff. It was great to hear their stories and all the stuff that they said.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks. We'll go ahead and open it up.
Q. For both of you, Taylor Rapp has had an incredible freshman season. Why do you think that is, and did it surprise you guys that he was able to do everything he could?
PETE KWIATKOWSKI: Coming out of high school, Taylor was a guy that played on a team that didn't have a great record, but did everything for them. So he ran the ball, he played quarterback, played DB, played linebacker. So you were able to see what he was able to do athletically. So he graduated early and was able to come in and hit the ground running in spring ball and you could see what he could do as a football player.
And then for young guys coming in, the big learning curve is always how they're going to handle the change of intensity, all the defensive terminology and stuff they have to learn. And then they have school.
So he was able to handle all that great, so got a trial run with him through spring ball and then he had a great summer. He came in in the fall and just kept getting better and better and better, and he got more opportunities and he made the most of those opportunities. And he is where he is now.
So to answer the question, looking back on it, no. Just the way he handled himself through all that, that whole growth process and learning process of this year.
BUDDA BAKER: For me, no either. I'm from Seattle, Washington, as well. And we don't really know a lot about Bellingham, Washington. That's where Taylor Rapp's from. So we saw this freshman, he came in while we were doing our player practices. Big already, like 200 pounds, like 6'0". Doing the DB drills, he looked flawless. He looked like one of us the first time he came out there. So for me, it was like okay, this guy's good. He's going to play.
He, you know, takes in instructive criticism and all that type of stuff. So, you know, when I saw that, I knew that he was going to play.
Q. This is for Budda. Couple days ago, Nick Saban said your secondary was very Seattle Seahawk-like. What are your thoughts on that comment and do you compare yourselves to the Seahawks?
BUDDA BAKER: That's cool (Laughter). We don't really, you know, think of any -- we watch NFL defenses and all that type of stuff and, you know, see our defense as a great defense, but we feel like we're Washington defense-like. So that's it.
Q. Budda, just your comments on being here after the season that you guys have had, a big championship game in the Pac-12 too and just the feeling around here this week and what it's like here in Atlanta for you guys.
BUDDA BAKER: For us, it's a great opportunity. We're glad we got accepted to be in the College Football Playoff and we're here to win. So, for us, we're all Alabama, no social media, just all thinking about Alabama.
Q. For both of you, who do you put in the category of the best quarterbacks you've faced this season, and where does Jalen Hurts fall among them and what have you seen from him?
PETE KWIATKOWSKI: Well, he's up there at the top. Anybody that plays quarterback for a team that's gone 13-0 and has been as dominant as Alabama's been all year is a very good player.
So looking back on the season, our only blemish is SC. And Sam did a really good job of keeping plays alive and was accurate with the ball and didn't make a lot of mistakes that a freshman would make. So I would say probably Sam Darnold.
BUDDA BAKER: I'll go with coach as well. Sam Darnold is a great quarterback. Watching film, we knew he was going to be a problem. He can run, he can throw beautiful balls.
Same thing with Alabama's quarterback. He can throw when he's on it. He can definitely run. So he's definitely in our, you know, defensive package.
Q. Budda, what's your favorite Taylor Rapp interception this year? Which one do you think was the most impressive? Does it, like, kill you that a freshman has the most as a veteran?
BUDDA BAKER: We always talk about, you know, we have a pick board. And Sid, Sidney's been the one to get it two years in a row. So this freshman comes in, and he's winning right now. So we're all trying to one-up him. He has four. I think the closest is Sid with two. So, you know, we got to catch up to him.
What was the other question?
Q. Which one was your favorite?
BUDDA BAKER: Oh, my favorite pick is probably his pick six, going into the third quarter of the Pac-12 championship, close game. Pick six, we knew we took the crowd away and we saw all the players' heads go down and, you know, that was probably the best moment.
Q. Coach, what's unique about Alabama's passing game? And then for Budda, what is the receiver you'd least like to guard, Alabama's receivers?
PETE KWIATKOWSKI: Yeah, so Alabama, everything starts with the run so they do a good job with that. And then their pass game comes off of that, play action pass, RPOs. So, you know, everything starts with the run, being able to establish that, whether it's the quarterback or those running backs.
Then like to take their shots and RPO game.
BUDDA BAKER: I don't feel like there's a least receiver I would want to guard. I mean, we just take it in as a great opportunity. We talk about separations in the preparation. They've got tremendous wide receivers, 3, 13, 11, 88, tight end.
They just got, they got great passing threats. So we just love to watch film and then, you know, get ready to go against them.
Q. Your defense all season's been focused on getting turnovers and winning that way. What do you guys see on film in Alabama's offense that you think helps you the most with the turnovers, like what do you think you can get them from?
PETE KWIATKOWSKI: We're always looking at ball security, those type of things, how the running backs, receivers hold the ball when they run with it. And we work it a lot in the off-season, through the season, emphasizing turnovers.
Really, it comes back to these guys talking amongst themselves, emphasizing amongst themselves, and then just going out there and just continually trying to rip at the ball. If the ball's in the air, make plays on the ball.
For whatever reason, every coach in America does what I'm talking about, but teams gel at it.
Q. Budda, for the last six years, the winner of the Bowl Cup Challenge belt has won the game. Does that mean anything to you now that you guys are ahead, and who stood out last night in hoops and who was the scariest driver the night before?
BUDDA BAKER: No, we don't pay attention to -- I mean, we think that's a cool event for, you know, the Peach Bowl and everything. But we love to compete and everything so we'd like to win in everything.
Your question was on the driving? Probably me, you know. My go cart was slow. I'm blaming it only my go cart. So I was going slow while everybody else was passing me up and I was trying to cut them off so people wouldn't pass me up.
Q. Budda, there's been a lot written and said about the importance of your decision to attend Washington and what that meant for other players coming and stay in the state. Do you take special pride in that? And can you talk about just being a Seattle guy, seeing this program rise to prominence, what it means to you?
BUDDA BAKER: I mean, I don't want to think that just me committing made other players want to go to Washington. But I mean that's a cool thing, the hometown guys coming to state of Washington, you know, me trying to recruit those guys and trying to get them to stay. And I feel like, you know, it's been great. Coach Pete, you know, great recruiter. All these coaches, great recruiters.
Just be real with the players and tell them that if you work hard and all that type of stuff, then maybe you'll have a chance to play. But at the end of the day, it's all about school as well and Washington's a great school.
Q. I want to get both you guys to comment on the nickname for this defense, Death Row. That's a very impressive nickname. How much pride do you take in kind of upholding that standard?
PETE KWIATKOWSKI: I will defer to Budda on that one, because that's more of a player driven deal.
BUDDA BAKER: My freshman year, Shack, Timu and that class, those guys, they made up the name Death Row. A lot of those guys are from Cali, too. I don't know if it's from Cali.
Keishawn might have a better understanding of it. But when I think of it, I think of just a team that's smart, physical, that's going to come after you each play, not be stupid with their penalties and all that type of stuff, personal fouls.
I think of just a smart team that's going to come after you each down. So that's what I think.
Q. This is for Coach. And Budda, if you could respond. How do you balance everything that comes with a game like this, all the bowl activities throughout the week and then, of course, keeping the focus on the game and the mental preparation that goes into a big game like this?
PETE KWIATKOWSKI: Yeah, obviously we talk about it a lot and with the guys. You know, we're here for a reason, to play a game. At the same time, we don't want to -- we want these guys to enjoy it and so it's a balance of trying to get these guys dialed in in the meetings and on the practice field.
And when we're not doing football, they're enjoying their time in Atlanta and the events they're doing. Yeah, it's easier said than done when you've got 105 guys.
But these are good kids, and it started with these guys three years ago. So everything that we talk about and how our culture is in our program, these guys have been being prepared for this type of situation and handling the distractions that come with playing college football.
BUDDA BAKER: Yeah. We talk about how this isn't like a vacation. It's a business trip. So at the end of the day, we're here to play a football game, and, you know, all the activities are a plus.
So we have fun during the activities, walk around Atlanta. A lot of guys -- I haven't been here before. A lot of guys haven't seen it. But at the end of the day, we want to watch film, do all that type of stuff to prepare for the game.
Q. For Pete and Budda. Just was curious, I've talked to a number of players and coaches. They seem to think the seeds for the season were really sown last year, in terms of some of the things you guys went through. Can you guys talk about what happened last year and why do you feel like maybe the trials and tribulations that you went through kind of formed what happened this year for you guys?
PETE KWIATKOWSKI: Defensively, it started after our first year. We had a bunch of talented guys on the defense that ended up going to the NFL. And we had a lot of guys coming back that hadn't played a lot. So I think Budda was a true freshman and a lot of these guys were, you know, hadn't played and so it was an opportunity for these guys to show what they could do, what kind of competitors they are. So getting them to take the coaching and practice hard and all the things that come with becoming a good football player, and a lot of it's between the ears, it started there.
And then last year, our success on defense, the confidence grew. And then as a team last year, we weren't able to finish games that we could have won. And so I know these guys took that to heart and that was a big issue in the off-season. Even at the end of last year, you know, the way we finished, these guys could feel and understand what it took to seal the deal, and they carried it over into the off-season with Coach Saha and the guys and played one game at a time and this is where we're at.
BUDDA BAKER: I feel the same as Coach. All the losses, nobody likes to lose. All the losses keeps getting to you, and you just got to, you know, dig in and just, like, say I hate to lose and just go on each day, one day at a time, on trying to get better.
And, you know, all the stuff Coach Pete preaches, taking each opportunity one at a time, each day one at a time, each lift one at a time when it was summertime. And then, you know, everything else will take care of itself. And that's what we did.
Q. Budda, how big of a step would it be for this program, for this league to beat the number one team in the nation Saturday?
BUDDA BAKER: I mean, it would be a big step. You know, Alabama's been, you know, Alabama for years. And it would be a big step to win. But you also got to -- we also got to know and realize, like, there's two more games left. So you beat Alabama, you still got another game to play. So it's not no celebration, you know, pop out the cans of soda and all that type of stuff. Like we got another game to play the next week.
So we'll celebrate that night if we win, and then the next week we have a game. So it will be a great, great big step if, though. Alabama, they're a great offense, tremendous defense, special teams great. You know, no weaknesses.
THE MODERATOR: Coach, did you want to address that as well, knocking off the number one team?
PETE KWIATKOWSKI: Oh, yeah, it would be quite an accomplishment and it's a big-time challenge. But we would -- yeah, that would be a great feeling. But like, echo what Budda said, we would have another one right behind it so we wouldn't be able to celebrate that too long.
THE MODERATOR: Joining us now for the second session, we've linebacker Keishawn Bierria, cornerback Kevin King, cornerback Sidney Jones and linebacker Psalm Wooching.
Gentlemen, I guess just to get you warmed up in here, we'll just go down the line and give us your favorite experience from Bowl Week so far out of the activities that you've been able to participate in.
KEISHAWN BIERRIA: For me, it was probably being able to go to Martin Luther King's church and just hear the panel just speak to us about, like, what he went through in his life and what he achieved. And we see that on an everyday basis. But being able to see and hear words out of their mouth and their stories was a great experience for me.
KEVIN KING: I think that was probably the best experience for me as well. I'm an A.S. major, which is American Ethnic Studies, so I spent a lot of time in college, taking a lot of classes about the Civil Rights Movement and things that went on like that. So actually seeing the panel and seeing some of the people who I actually studied, you know, and people who I seen in different movies and documentaries when I was in class was actually pretty cool, being able to see that. So that was probably the best.
SIDNEY JONES: Same for me, these two guys. M.L.K. memorial, the church, that was a great experience for me as well. Just seeing, like, the history, learning about my culture, just everything about that.
PSALM WOOCHING: I think everything we did was a blessing this week. The M.L.K. thing was awesome. Go carting was fun. I think the hair cutting thing was a cool experience. You know, I didn't get cut, but pretty awesome. But yeah.
THE MODERATOR: We'll go ahead and open up for questions.
Q. The USC game was the only game you guys lost and Sam Darnold in that was kind of a mobile quarterback, gave your defense problems at times. What did you learn from that game, and how can you put it towards stopping another mobile guy who can run like Jalen Hurts?
KEISHAWN BIERRIA: We learned a lot from that game. They definitely game planned pretty well for us. They got the job done. And I feel like we just got to play better team defense, tackle better and just, you know, just make better plays. They made great plays on us.
When I went back and watched film, it's like, man, we could have did a lot more here, but they made their plays and we didn't make enough. And I feel like we just rely on each other more and make better plays, I feel like we can get the job done.
PSALM WOOCHING: I think also it showed that we couldn't rely on just ourselves as an individual to make plays. It taught us that a collaboration of all of us tackling at the same time, making plays, breaking on the ball is more better or helpful to our defense and our team than just trying to run out there as an individual and make tackles and make plays.
SIDNEY JONES: I thought we just had to get off on third downs that they converted too many of those. As Keishawn was saying, we just have to make more plays as a unit. That will put us in a better position to win.
Q. Keishawn, can you talk about the nickname for this defense, Death Row, what that nickname means to you and what it means to uphold a nickname like that?
KEISHAWN BIERRIA: So that nickname's been around for a while. We probably haven't put it on the, like, front row so much. But that's just the mindset we live by. We die by it too.
It's to play with our hearts on our sleeves and to play for each other. And willing to get beat down or get hurt for your teammates, you know. Because it's always the next man up. A lot of guys have lived and played by the mentality throughout the season. You know, we've got Ajamu going down. We got Joe going down. Regardless, you know, you look to your left and there's another dude that's ready. There's another dude that's going to hop up, it's my turn. What have I got to put on the line for my team. What do I got to invest in.
That's who we are as people, regardless if we're playing football or hanging out or going to class, we're always helping our teammates out and, you know, investing in each other.
Q. Kevin, I asked both Budda and Sidney about Taylor Rapp and what a good year he's had. I wonder, does it kind of like bother you guys that a freshman is leading you in picks? Your coach laughed and nodded when I asked Budda.
KEVIN KING: We're a competitive unit. I think each one of us want to be leading in picks. That's one thing. We have a pick board that we tally up and at the end of the year, we give out a little award for who got the most picks. But whoever can go out there and make plays.
We're happy for Taylor. It's not a surprise for me. It's not a surprise for anybody, seeing him have the type of game that he's had. And I've never had a multiple interception game, and he's had two this year. So being able to have a play maker like that, and he's only a true freshman, you know, the sky's the limit for somebody like that.
So I'm happy for him and I'm glad being able to play with him this year and I'm glad to watch him for years to come.
Q. So did you guys already give out your --
KEVIN KING: No, no, it's not over. It's the whole season.
Q. Do you know what the award is?
KEVIN KING: It's just like our best hands in the room.
Q. But do you get like a prize or something?
KEVIN KING: Yeah, you get a ball. You get a football. You get your name engraved on it. It's got the names from the prior years.
SIDNEY JONES: Tell them.
KEVIN KING: I'm about to tell them. It has Sidney's name on it, I think, twice. That just means he's targeted more.
KEISHAWN BIERRIA: Ooh.
Q. Budda Baker was in here earlier and described Alabama as a team with no weaknesses. What do you think about that claim and what he said there?
KEISHAWN BIERRIA: Yeah, I'd agree with him. They are a pretty sound team. A lot of teams, you look at them, go okay, where do we attack here? Where can we go here? Can we get them on special teams?
We call it a pigeon, you know, on special teams. We don't see that. And for a lot of teams, you really see, like, okay, they look like they don't have a lot of depth at this position. But for Alabama, they're pretty stow, as far as they have great players and you can pretty much cover positions if everybody's in on each other. I'll agree with him.
But, you know, this is football.
THE MODERATOR: Psalm, what do you think about his comment?
PSALM WOOCHING: I mean, no team is perfect. I mean, if they were perfect, they would score on every play. They'd pick the ball, get a sack on every play and that's not the case.
So I'll leave it at that. No team is perfect. Thank God.
Q. Any of you can answer this. A few weeks ago, John Ross told me that he spent basically all of fall camp worried that the offense sucked because they could never score on you guys. And then early, like at halftime of the Rutgers game, you went to Dante and said, Hey, good news, we're not bad. Our defense is awesome.
Did you guys feel that, that you were locking them down? I know you know everything they run, but did you feel early on that you guys were going to be really good?
KEISHAWN BIERRIA: Yeah, that's pretty much how it went. Yeah, we were kind of doing the same thing, but we just kind of looked at each other like, well, we've been together for a while and they're still building. They're bringing freshmen in. They're trying to get guys acclimated to the program that we're going to actually use. For some reason, we keep bringing in play maker after play maker, guys like Taylor Rapp. For offense, they need to truly find who they were as an identity.
We already had ours set because we spent like one or two years together and spent a lot of adversity together. They really didn't get that chance, you know. They were playing on a short year like to get guys together. I feel like they've been doing excellent so far. They've been leaning on each other and a lot of younger guys showed up this year.
KEVIN KING: I think it's kind of hard for both sides of the ball to have a great practice. Maybe when the offense is doing good, looks like the defense is not doing as well. And, you know, vice versa.
And so when we kind of went into fall camp, we kind of had our mojo going. We had a lot of the same guys coming back from last year. We had a pretty decent year.
And then, you know, kind of going forward, defense started off having a lot of really good practices. So I think maybe the offense kind of started getting a little discouraged a little bit. But we try to just tell them not to get discouraged because we've been playing for a while and we know the type of competition that we go against. And we tell them, like, you guys are better than anybody we play. And, you know, come game day, you guys are going to be something special.
So I think they listened to us and they kept going out there every day and then they get with their coaches and it will be one day they'll come out and do something different and they just beat us for like three or four touchdowns.
Then it's just like, all right, now we've got to go back to the drawing board, and kind of being that back and forth type of deal instead of being so one-sided. That's when I really started seeing the identity of our team and of our offense starting to click a little bit.
So, you know, being able to watch them is something special. And I think last year, we might make a turnover and then we'd be right back on the field. Make a turnover, then we'd be right back on the field.
Now we make a stop and it's touchdown. It turns into points. That's been something that's been huge in our success this year.
SIDNEY JONES: Just going off of what Kevin said, just, you know, being dominant in practice with them, I knew they were going to be good once they started, like, competing and making plays against us. That's the whole turning point of when I saw, okay, we're going to be pretty good this year. Just that whole sense, yeah.
PSALM WOOCHING: I'd say it's like that butterfly effect. So our team is so well structured, well put together that when someone sparks something, the whole team starts trending that thing. And for this was the competing.
So, you know, we came into fall camp really hyped, really amped up for this year. I can't speak for offense. I don't know what they were doing. But we were ready. We came into fall camp, I think, the first half we were just straight up dominating.
And that caught flame, that caught fire with the offense, and they're like, you know, we're not going to back down and just take it in the teeth, take it in the mouth. That's the good thing about our team is that competitive nature.
So that offense, you know, started gaining. They're like okay, these guys want to play like that, we're going to play like this. So, you know, after the halfway mark, you know, they started gaining, they started making plays, they started rising to the top.
And at the end of fall camp, and all these guys can confirm that, it was a one-on-one battle. It was up at the top, offense, defense, every day. It was like Kevin said, they win, we win, they win, we win.
When it got to that game, that Rutgers game, that's when we really seen these guys are legit and they're looking back at us probably saying these guys are legit, too.
Q. Could you guys explain what it means to have a S.W.A.T. team mentality that you talk about, where that mentality began and give an example of a time this season when you've used it and it's worked?
PSALM WOOCHING: So S.W.A.T. team mentality, it's like everywhere we go, everywhere we go, we're ready for something to go wrong. And the S.W.A.T. team mentality is like, you know, those S.W.A.T. guys out there, those Marines, all those, you know, military folks out there, nothing goes perfect for them. They get put in a situation where -- a life or death situation, they have to fight their way through and make it to whatever they have to do. And we've kind of put it toward a football standpoint, where our bus might break down, for instance, or a hotel room might not be ready. Something not life or death, but something like, you know, we have to put our mind to this and say, hey, you know, we will compromise, improvise, and still go on with our game plan.
Q. This is for all you guys, if you want to comment on this. What would it mean to this program, to this league to knock off number one Alabama Saturday? How big of a boost would that be?
KEISHAWN BIERRIA: That was a good question. It would probably just be -- it would be a great feeling across the board. But for this program and for us up here, just show how hard we worked.
Because throughout like our school and everything, we've been going through a lot of adversity, from losing our AD, losing our coach, like pretty much the whole class, like the class I came in when I was recruited like just going to different schools, breaking up.
And it would just show that regardless, we were destined for this. We worked hard enough for this. We put in an effort for this and this really is a great team. I tell my guys every day, you guys are great. From what we've done like to get here and all the stuff we've been through, I don't think I could have did it with anybody else.
THE MODERATOR: Kevin, thoughts on possibly beating number one Alabama?
KEVIN KING: I think for Husky Nation and for people who have been fans for a while now, I think it would be great. I think everybody's behind us. Everybody's had a great year watching us and seeing what we've been capable of.
But like Keishawn said, for us up here and for us that have been in the team, in our little circle in the team, we're not coming to possibly knock off number one Alabama. That's not what we -- that's not our mindset. That's not what we've come to do.
We've come to win. We've come to compete and we're not thinking oh, like we might be able to do this. We come with the mindset of, okay, let's go in there. Let's get it done.
Because from the top to bottom, we're ready to play, and, you know, we're going to go out there, we're going to play like we know we can and how we're capable of. So I think definitely getting to this point and being able to beat anybody at this point in time is going to take your A-game. It's going to take precise execution and we're ready to get it done.
THE MODERATOR: Sidney?
SIDNEY JONES: Just going off what Kevin said, you know, it would be awesome to knock off Alabama. But we still have another game after that. So we've got to complete the task and that's what we came here to do. That's our whole mentality. We have to win a national championship. We made it this far. We're not going to stop.
THE MODERATOR: Psalm, bring us home.
PSALM WOOCHING: Kind of like Sidney said. It would be great, a great feeling to knock off number one, Alabama. But I think it would be a greater feeling to know that we'd be going to the national championship.
I think that knocking off the number one, it would be great for, for sure, us. But our past brothers that have been in our shoes -- or that haven't been in our shoes and wanted to get here, that wanted to play Alabama, wanted to be on those stages of right now.
And I think it would be really for them, before them, preaching hey, we're going to make it to this top spot. We're going to play Alabama teams like that. For us to actually be here on this stage and representing our past brothers behind us, our family, our university, I think that means a lot for them.