Defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake called it a feeding frenzy.
With both starting cornerback and safety spots up of grabs — and possibly nickelback depending on how it all shakes out — Washington’s defensive backs are competing at everything from on-the-field reps to lifting to who can finish gassers first.
And of course, there is the coveted “Best Hands” trophy, which is awarded three times a year to the defensive back with the most interceptions after spring ball, fall camp and the season. Right now, junior Keith Taylor and redshirt freshman Kyler Gordon are leading the way with two interceptions a piece.
The Huskies are missing last year’s starting cornerbacks Byron Murphy and Jordan Miller as well as starting safeties Taylor Rapp and JoJo McIntosh. Lake can’t remember a preseason with so many open positions in the secondary, and maybe that’s why senior Myles Bryant called this year’s group the most competitive he’s played with.
A grinning Lake didn’t disagree with the description.
“That’s just awesome,” Lake said, “that they’re able to have that competitive nature about them no matter what we’re doing.”
For Lake, spring practice and even fall camp aren’t just about deciding the starters. They’re also about figuring out Plan B through Plan D. That’s why several players have spent the first five spring practices rotating throughout the secondary.
Bryant, who started at nickelback last season and earlier in spring, spent the majority of the last two practices as a first-team safety alongside Brandon McKinney. During that time, Elijah Molden has been the starter at nickelback but he’s also been a first-team cornerback. Isaiah Gilchrist has spent time at cornerback, nickelback and safety. He started at safety in the Huskies’ first two practices.
“We’ve been doing this for years,” Lake said. “Guys play multiple positions, especially in the backend. Injuries happen all the time and we’ve been devastated by injuries. … Guys like Myles, guys like Elijah Molden that are very, very smart, very athletic, can play different positions.
“We’ll always sprinkle those guys in there to make sure they learn those positions so then when we get to Week 4 and we’re playing a big-time Pac-12 game, we’ll just insert them right in and away we go.”
Bryant’s instincts, quickness and athleticism remind lake of former defensive back Budda Baker, who also learned and played various positions for the Huskies.
In past years, Bryant started games at cornerback. And he stepped in at safety during preparation for last year’s Rose Bowl when UW wasn’t sure if Rapp was going to play.
“I was back there getting reps at free safety just in case I needed to be plugged in there,” Bryant said. “That was one of the first times. Even earlier in spring 2018, I was taking some free safety reps, just getting the feel of the position.”
When Bryant moves to safety and Molden shifts to nickelback, Gordon has often started at cornerback alongside Taylor, who has been a staple at the position throughout spring practice. Redshirt freshman Dom Hampton has also rotated in at cornerback with the No. 1 defense.
“(Kyler’s) got really good ball skills, which you know we’re always looking for in our corners, to be playmakers on the football,” Lake said. “Kyler’s athletic, can jump, can move side-to-side. It’s really more about him just continuing to grow, continuing to attack the football and getting his man skills at a higher level, which he’s working at right now.”
Molden said the secondary is just “hungry to learn.”
“You can just tell with people, we’re really focused in,” Molden said. “In the past, we had people who had been in the secondary, you know three-year starters or fifth-year seniors or whatnot. But now, we call it eighth-grade mentality. Everyone wants to learn as much as we can.”
During spring practice, Lake said, nothing is set in stone. And there are true freshman who have yet to enter the mix. One of them — four-star defensive back Asa Turner — was watching from the sidelines on Wednesday.
“It’s going to be an awesome, competitive camp with I feel a lot of competitive players,” Lake said. “We’ll see what happens when the dust settles at the end of August.”