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October 2, 2008
Trouble in the trenches
It's no secret why the Husky defense has been gashed for 507 yards per game this season. With zero sacks and only 11 tackles for loss through four game, both ranking them dead last in college football, they are losing the battle in the trenches. With that kind of production - or lack there of - you will not win many ball games.
"We need to step it up - all of us," said sophomore defensive tackle Cameron Elisara who is second behind only Daniel Te'o-Nesheim on the defensive line with 10 tackles. As the pressure to win grows, so does the need for the men in the trenches to produce more. Next up is an Arizona team that is averaging 423 yards per game ranking them No. 32 in the country. Last season the Wildcats hung 535 yards on the Huskies and quarterback Willie Tuitama accounted for 510 of those through the air. If Washington has any chance to pull off the upset down in Tucson, the defensive line must improve quickly. But is that possible?
"I'm hoping there is a big burst coming," expressed Elisara. "It should be coming because people are fed up with what is going on. A lot of us are ready to snap."
Defensive line coach Randy Hart has confidence in his young line and sees talented players who will be good in the future. Unfortunately for the Husky coaching staff, improvement can't wait until the future and Hart doesn't expect things to be fixed overnight.
"I don't know if a light bulb is going to go off," explained coach Hart. "I think as strength improves, as fundamentals improve, as the mental awareness improves, and as seeing the expectations improve they will gradually get better."
But will gradual improvement be enough to stave off the critics and cool head coach Tyrone Willingham's hot seat? Can a defensive line dependent on quality playing time from four freshmen and two sophomores produce enough to win now?
"There is plenty of time ahead but we are not thinking about ahead we are thinking about right now," said Elisara. "We have no idea what is going to happen in the future but we can control right now. It's right now that has been killing us and it's right now that we need to change."
The problem is inauspicious for a Husky team searching for a quick fix, as only Te'o-Nesheim notched a start in 2007 and the obvious inexperience has reared its ugly head often in 2008. Consider that one of the most productive players has been senior defensive tackle Johnie Kirton who was lining up at tight end only a season ago and the troubles in the trenches are understandable. Even though coach Hart asserted the defensive line has no young players, only freshmen, he and the rest of the team admit important experience was lacking.
"It's experience," said 6-foot-3, 350-pound true freshman tackle Alameda Ta'amu. "Although we may big freshmen coming in, you can't make up for guys that have been in there for years. It's kind of hard."
Coach Hart has been around since the days of Don James and understands this young group can only gain the lessons needed by playing.
"There is so much going on they haven't experienced," said Hart. "So much of it is new to them. I have seen it but they haven't. As a result it's just about letting them get the experience and enjoy the experience."
Enjoyment can be hard to invoke as loses mount and fingers are pointed in your direction early in your playing career.
"They are not seeing many positives and they aren't seeing themselves making great plays," explained coach Hart. "At one time they thought from watching it on television it was easy - but in person it's not so easy. They get frustrated but again I'm not frustrated so I need to carry that lack of frustration through to them and just keep working with them."
One thing the young players are working hard to improve is their strength. Physical limitations can be just as stunting to a young lineman's success as mental ones. The three true freshman receiving significant playing time this season were all heavily recruited and project to be standout players. That is why physically they can hold their own against some of the opponents they face, but they are not close to reaching their full potential.
"Some of them are as strong as the guys they are playing with," explained coach Hart. "They hold up in there as well as they can."
Eilsara agrees and doesn't envy the position the young linemen are in.
"Physically they are right up there with any of the other guys I have played against. They are ready to go, but they are still dealing with the high school transition. I don't know how it is for them, but I know it would still be a weird thing for me going into only my fifth week of playing football at this level. I think they are making the transition and they will be good players."
For many of the young players the frustration is intensifying, as there own expectations along with those of the fans are not met. But players like Ta'amu see the game slowing down and understand that with more playing time will come better results.
"All games are slowing down as we're going along. This game compared to our first game was way easier. We'll be good pretty soon," Ta'amu said. "Physically, I think the freshman; we're ready to play. But mentally, experience-wise, we're not there. Just certain steps we mess up on. Being in a certain gap and making the wrong step... I guess the people that have more experience gain more leverage on that. I mean, a lot of the freshmen, we go in there and want to do our assignment and not mess up. We're told to clog a hole or get in a gap and if we get in the backfield, we think too much. The sacks have been hard to get."
The answer is simple yet perhaps impossible to obtain before it is too late. In the mean time coach Hart knows the only thin they can do.
"Just keep working - keep banging away."