Recruiting: What’s The Most Important Position Now?

facebooktwitterreddit

Washington’s football team would be good if the Huskies had a good defense.

It’s a practical matter.  With a good defense, the Washington offense spends more time on the field, gains more yards, scores more points – while the other team’s offense does the opposite.  Years ago, one opposing quarterback was so harassed by the Husky defense he lost his ability to discern colors.

But that was then.

During the regular 2011 season, Washington wound up 10th in Pac-10 scoring defense, 10th in total defense, and 11th in pass defense.  It’s a wonder Washington is in a bowl game.  Bless the Washington offense.

It isn’t that all Husky defenders are less-than-adequate.  This past season, who led the Pac-12 in tackles?Todd Marinovich  Michael Clay of Oregon?  Mychal Kendricks of Cal?  No, the top tackler in the Pac-12 was Cort Dennison with 60 solo tackles and 53 assists.  Tied for 14th was

Sean Parker (41/35).  Washington has some good defenders but the Huskies could be much better.

In a 4-3 alignment, the D-line consists of two defensive ends, a defensive tackle/three technique and a nose tackle.  It is expected that interior linemen occupy the offensive linemen, enabling the linebackers or safeties to make tackles.  Of the top 10 2011 season tacklers in the Pac-12, eight were linebackers and two were safeties (including OSU’s Anthony Watkins from Highline High).  It isn’t until No. 19 that a defensive lineman, redshirt freshman DE Scott Crichton (Narrows League Defensive MVP from Tacoma’s Foss High) of OSU, makes the list; and it isn’t until No. 50, Nick Perry, USC DE, that another defensive lineman is named.

Great Washington teams have always had great defensive lines.  A great defensive line is a necessary and sufficient condition for winning.  A weak D-line, compromising strengths at other positions, is a necessary and sufficient condition for losing.  When it comes to winning football games, after the quarterback position there is no more important team component than the defensive line.

What makes a great D-line?

While size, quickness and strength are very important, mental toughness, pride and desire are paramount.  A D-lineman without mental toughness, pride and desire is like a pastor who doesn’t believe in the gospel.  If that’s how you feel, why bother?  During the early Jim Owens era a sign hung over the locker room door that said, “Without mental toughness, physical toughness is a mockery.”  Those early Owens era players were seldom physically superior to their opposition but they were always mentally tougher, always had more pride as a team, all the time, even in practices.

“We weren’t the most talented team, though we had a lot of talent,” 1960 Rose Bowl Co-MVP George Fleming said in a Seattle Times 2007 interview.  “We weren’t the fastest and we weren’t the biggest. But we were a team. We had a team concept, and we weren’t hung up on statistics. We [had excellent technique] whether it was blocking or tackling, and we were in better condition than most of the teams [we played]. And the major theme to me was that we never gave up.”

Following a Kurt Gegner block, George Fleming returns a punt for a touchdown in the 1960 Rose Bowl

Second and third efforts were the norm; the early Owens gang never gave up, setting a standard for future Husky teams.

A pass defense ranking eleventh in the Pac-12 isn’t making it.  A team’s pass defense is only as good as its pass rush.  In 2011, it didn’t help, of course, that Washington lost Hau’oli Jamora, the team’s best pass rusher and one of the leading tacklers.  This, however, enabled Josh Shirley to spend more time on the field where he became the Huskies’ sack leader with five solo sacks and one assist, tying him for 7th in the Pac-12.  Like Jamora, Shirley already plays non-stop with an attitude.  By Fall 2012, if Shirley will significantly increase his leg strength (think Donald Jones), he could be a demon off the edge, matching a healthy Jamora, and Washington pass rush efficiency from the ends could be where it should be.

Dramatic improvement needs to be made at defensive tackle and nose tackle positions, however, and the extant problem doesn’t seem to be size, strength or speed.

What’s left?

What’s left is what George Fleming was talking about above: mental toughness, pride and desire.

When I watch Washington interior defensive linemen, they occupy the O-linemen.  But I’m reminded of the opening speech in Patton where the great general says: “Now, there’s another thing I want you to remember: I don’t want to get any messages that we’re holding our position.  We’re not holding anything… We are advancing constantly…  We’re going to kick the hell out of [the enemy] all the time, and we’re going to go through him like crap through a goose!”  Football isn’t war but that attitude is no different with a good D-line.  A good interior D-lineman doesn’t occupy anything.

The Husky interior guys may believe, no doubt, they already are going all-out.  From watching video, however, there is often evidence of a lack of tenacity, mental toughness.  This disappointment must be fixed if Washington is to have a great D-line.  There are two ways to do it: either 1) present players, e.g., Lawrence Lagafuaina, Semisi Tokolahi, Taniela Tupou, Sione Potoa’e and Danny Shelton, learn to bring it all the time or 2) Washington recruits new players who will.

Recruiting J.C. player Josh Banks, a 6’3” 283 lb. San Joaquin Delta College defensive tackle will help.  Banks brings an attitude to go with his strength and speed.  When No. 1 ranked City College of San Francisco (CCSF) played Delta this past season, CCSF had won all previous games by an average victory margin of 53 points, racking up 527 yards per game in total offense.  Bank’s Delta team held San Francisco to 16 points due primarily to tough Delta D-line play.  During the previous game against San Jose City College (SJCC), Banks sacked the SJCC QB four times.

Mt. Miguel High’s Malcolm Jackson, another Washington commit, is wide and fast. It’s obvious he needs to work on technique but the tools are there.  Presently around 258 lbs., Jackson has the frame to carry 295 lbs.  One tired offensive lineman who went up against Jackson this past season said after the game, “He doesn’t stop. He goes whistle to whistle. He’s got a motor behind him.”  When Jackson is the subject of discussion, invariably the word “motor” is used.  Although Jackson received offers from many schools, he visited none of them – including Washington – before giving his commitment to the Huskies because, Jackson says, “Washington’s the school I really wanted to attend.”

Washington appreciates Jackson’s foresight and loyalty because Washington needs to recruit interior D-linemen who can get into the offensive backfield.  Ellis McCarthy is still out there.  Azziz Shittu.  Getting five-star D-linemen is not an easy matter.  On the other hand, coaches cannot let promising local talent, such as was the case with Foss High’s Scott Crichton, escape.

One way or another, Washington needs to assemble a defensive line that follows in the tradition of past great Husky D-lines; they need to do that if Washington is to rise to an acceptable level of respectability and consistently contend for Pac-12 championships.

The offense is playing well and, considering the ages of O-line starters, will probably improve.  Obviously, if the defense can rise to the occasion, the future will brighten even more.  Meanwhile, an improvement in mental toughness, pride and desire “all the time” along the D-line is absolutely necessary.  Either present D-linemen step-up their game or Washington brings in fresh blood that can wreak havoc in the trenches.  Or, ideally, both.

Finishing among the worst teams on defense in the Pac-12 is, of course, inimical to Washington football tradition.  Washington was known for great defenses.  Granted, Washington still has ground to travel before the pain of 0 – 12 is forgotten.  The quickest way to memory loss, however, is simple: recruit a few interior D-linemen with future NFL potential, and these young men will gradually cure much of what has been ailing the Huskies.