Defensive Backfield and The Newcomers


In the 1986 movie Top Gun a mantra was, “I feel the need for speed.”

Washington’s new defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox, must feel a similar need. While speed on defense is needed at every position, with four very fast ballhawks in the secondary, Washington will have upgraded its defense significantly. Who might they be?

The 1991 defensive backfield archetype consisted of Shane Pahukoa, Tommie Smith, Walter Bailey and Dana Hall. All were fast, and three had size. Cornerback Bailey, at 5’ 11” was the shortest with the others over six feet tall. Hall and Pahukoa were both 6’ 3”.

To go with their speed, they were tough, particularly safety Pahukoa. As Pahukoa said about the 1991 Nebraska game (won in Lincoln), “I remember walking off the field at half time and having sodas and waters being dumped and thrown at us by their fans…Screaming fans were just a few feet away. I was thinking, this place is nuts! They just poured fuel onto the fire. We came out and hit ’em the mouth.”

By the end of the game, the Nebraska fans knew they had watched an extraordinary football game, and an extraordinary Washington team. No Washington fan has forgotten that team; it is the team against which every subsequent Washington team is measured.

Author Derek Johnson told the story of how Pahukoa got together with former Husky safety Brendan Jones at the Burbank Airport en route to a Husky spring game three years ago. “‘We talked about how excited we were about going up there [to Husky Stadium,’ said Pahukoa]. ‘He proudly showed his ring from when they went to the [1995] Sun Bowl. I didn’t want to embarrass him or anything but I dumped my four rings onto the bar. He went, “Ohhhhhhh.” And I said, “These ain’t Sun Bowl rings; these are three Rose Bowls and a National Championship.”’” That is the standard.

Head Coach Steve Sarkisian summed up the 2012 defensive backfield talent as “playmakers.” It may sound unrealistic, even blasphemous to some, but the 2012 Washington defensive backfield under Coach Keith Heyward might have enough talent to approach what the Huskies had in 1991.

How? Established names, yes, but primarily new names.

The leading established names are Nate Fellner, Desmond Trufant and Sean Parker.

The new names are Travis Feeney, James Sample, Marcus Peters, Antavius Sims, Darien Washington, Cleveland Wallace, Brandon Beaver and Shaq Thompson.

Desmond Trufant came to Washington three years ago and started as a true freshman, establishing himself immediately as the Huskies’ best cornerback. Shaq Thompson could do the same at safety during fall 2012. From watching video, it’s obvious he has the size (6’ 2” 215 lbs), speed, and instincts to remind fans of former Husky safeties Lawyer Milloy, Jim Rodgers, Tony Parrish, and Hakim Akbar. Thompson will be joined at safety by two-star Feeney and four-star Sample.

The star rating system is about as good as can be expected but can be misleading. For example, don’t overlook Feeney. 6’ 4” Feeney will remind older fans of Pahukoa because Feeney’s attitude is identical: “hit ‘em in the mouth.” 2011 game day captain twice and Defensive Scout Team MVP, Feeney was the true sleeper in last year’s Washington recruiting class, and Husky fans should watch him during spring ball. On the field he has the social graces of former Husky Olin Kreutz.

6’ 2” Sample, Thompson’s teammate at Grant Union High in Sacramento two years ago, has also drawn comparisons with Milloy, Rodgers, et al.

The competition will be fierce and, between Feeney, Thompson, Sample and Sean Parker, there is no guarantee that two-year starter Nate Fellner starts his senior year. Sarkisian, Wilcox and Heyward will put their best players on the field. Others in the mix are Will Shamburger, Justin Glenn and Evan Zeger. My guess (!) is the safety starters will be Thompson and either Feeney or Fellner or Parker or Sample.

Washington is blessed with talented depth at safety; and with Thompson on one side, the 2012 position will be improved regardless of who is on the other.

Desmond Trufant will start at one corner. He has started for three years and, regarding the need for speed, he’s one of the two fastest players on the team. The other player with equal speed is someone whom Husky fans have not yet seen: 6’ 2” 200 lb. Antavius Sims. Sarkisian wants recruits who are fast and versatile, and none exemplifies that more than Sims – who could play any skilled position on the field – but the talk is that he’ll start out in the defensive backfield, probably at cornerback. How well he adapts to playing cornerback will become evident during spring and fall practices but 1) Sims has already been spending significant time studying and training for the position, and 2) when the ball is in the air, Sims has the speed, size and quickness to get it in his hands.

Most receivers are not going to either outrun or outsize Sims. A JC QB by necessity (the team’s), Sims should have the mental ability to adapt quickly. For that matter, Washington does not bring in JC players unless they can contribute immediately (former Washington cornerback, NFL veteran and present game commentator JC Pearson is an example). Watch Sims during spring ball. If Sims picks things up in a hurry, he’s the other guy in space; if he is slow to pick things up, the other corner will probably be either speedy 5’ 10” veteran Greg Ducre or possibly 5’ 11” redshirt freshman Marcus Peters.

Or, who knows, one of the incoming freshmen might do what Marcus Trufant did.

The new corner recruits, 5’ 10” Darien Washington, 6’ 1” Brandon Beaver and 5’ 11” Cleveland Wallace, whom Sarkisian called a versatile and greatly underrated “dynamite player,” will all be given an opportunity to start. All are very talented – Sarkisian was obviously excited about this group when discussing them during the signing-day press conference.

All Washington corners are good but Sims has the potential to be the best. As with the safety position, the competition will be furious.

Again, when the smoke clears, the 2012 Husky defensive backfield could remind fans of former D-backfields in better times. Bailey, Smith, Pahukoa and Hall. Trufant, Thompson (Fellner/Zeger et al), Feeney (Parker/Sample/et al) and Sims (Ducre/Peters/et al). As always, the competition will make all players better.

A caveat.

Whether or not the defensive backfield realizes its potential will depend significantly on how well the defensive line – the real key to 2012 win/loss improvement, and subject of a near-future Husky Haul article – does at the point of attack. Former Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Tom Landry said years ago that the first requirement for a great passing defense is disruption up front, a great pass rush. If, in spite of the efforts of new D-line coach Tosh Lupoi (who also feels the need for speed), the Husky D-line does not play any better than in 2011, improvement potential at other defensive positions will be compromised. As stated above, however, the Huskies do not bring in JC players unless they can contribute immediately and, looking ahead, if the Washington secondary plays to their potential in 2012, considerable credit will probably be given another newcomer, three-technique Josh Banks. But more on Banks later.