Defense wins games, right? If that's the case, buckle up because this season could be interesting. The good news is that the Huskies' defense should be better than last season. However, it would be hard for the defense to be worse. After all, last season's defensive unit was the worst in Washington's history. If the 2008 Husky defense is to be successful, the linebacker corp will need to step up - something Linebacker Coach Chris Tormey expects.
"I think you'll see a more confident group. I think you'll see a group that is going to play faster because they're more experienced. They have a better understanding of how to play the game," expressed Tormey. "They're healthy right now. We didn't really have that last year. We had an inexperienced group that was riddled with injuries at times, so I don't think we had much consistency. I'm looking forward to this group being more consistent."
Last season's porous defense ultimately led to former Husky Defensive Coordinator Kent Baer getting the axe. In his place, Washington brought in Ed Donatell to patch up the holes. Before joining the Husky staff, Donatell spent 12 of the last 13 seasons as an assistant coach and defensive coordinator in the National Football League. Not only does Donatell bring plenty of experience with him to Montlake, he also brings an attitude and personality that has won the players over.
"Coach Donatell is a real energetic, exciting personality. From day one, he came in the weight room and shook everybody's hand and told them what he expected," explained sophomore Mason Foster. "He lets you know what he wants, and if you don't do it, he'll let you know. But he'll let you know in a more constructive way. He's a real cool guy. People really want to play for him. It's really exciting to have a coach with NFL stature to come and want to coach us, so I'm really excited for that."
"He brings an energy that this entire defense has been looking for. He brings his own style, and that flare that he carries brings an energy that just flourishes throughout the entire defense," exclaimed redshirt senior Trenton Tuiasosopo. "From the defensive line to the secondary to the linebackers, everyone feeds off of it. We started learning a new defense, and we go off of that and just keep playing. If you make a mistake, it's ok, it's going to be corrected the next day - we're just going to keep moving."
While the linebacker corp will be strong this season, the group took a massive hit before fall practices even began. Redshirt junior E.J. Savannah was deemed academically ineligible, and his return to the field remains indefinite as of now. Savannah, who played in all 13 games last season and started 10 of them at the weakside linebacker position, led the Huskies in tackles with 111 and was second in tackles for loss with 14. While the loss of Savannah surely stung, the Huskies' group of linebackers have moved forward and are not looking back.
"It's not hard at all. You've got the guys you've got and you work with them. There's no thought that goes into it. There's no wasted motion or thought process about who we don't have," expressed Tormey. "We focus on the guys that are here. We're happy to go with the guys we've got, we like the guys we've got."
One player the Huskies will count on in Savannah's absence is junior Donald Butler. Butler posted 57 tackles last season, and would have racked up more if he didn't miss five games due to injury before returning for the final game of the season against Hawaii. Butler discussed his progression over the summer and through fall practices thus far.
"I'd say I've improved my knowledge of the defense overall, knowing the scheme of what we're trying to do, why we're running the defenses we are. When I'm out there, I can help out a strong safety coming down to help us in the run game, or a defensive lineman who's out of his gap - bump a guy over," explained Butler. "I think that also helps my leadership when I'm out there on the field - when you can kind of direct guys and let them know that you know what you're doing on top of making plays as well."
Butler echoed his teammates' sentiments of their new defensive coordinator.
"Coach Donatell is a great coach who's brought an excitement and enthusiasm to our defense," said Butler. "He emphasizes having fun out there on the field. He's a blessing for this program and definitely a step in the right direction."
Pushing Butler for supremacy at the middle linebacker spot is Tuiasosopo, who's Husky career began rocky after suffering a head injury in a bike accident - something that kept him sidelined for his first two seasons at Montlake.
"It's big," exclaimed Tuiasosopo of the competition with Butler. "We both want to be out there, but it's mostly competition within ourselves. We need to be perfect out there, so we're just doing whatever we can to go out there and do what we need to do for the team and also for ourselves."
"Coach is always talking about how we need competition," explained Butler. "It just makes us better as players out there on the field. We're both finally 100 percent healthy, and it just elevates both of our games."
Tormey gave his thoughts on the battle between Butler and Tuiasosopo, who are both fully healthy at the same time, for the first time.
"They are both very good players and they both have their own individual strengths," expressed Tormey. "Trenton is extremely physical at the point of attack. If there's a fullback or a lineman trying to zone up to him, his block protection technique is excellent. He brings a real toughness and tenacity to the game. Donald is an excellent football player who's excellent in coverage. He understands schemes, he reads blocking schemes very well and he's got a nose for the football. They both are going to have big roles to play in our defensive success this year."
Foster is one of the Huskies' budding stars after recording 25 tackles and five tackles for loss during his true freshman season. Foster played in all 13 games in 2007, starting four of those contests. Foster feels his understanding of the game has improved since last season and hopes to make an impact in place of Savannah.
"I think my biggest improvement is just being a smarter player. I worked really hard with the coaches in the off-season. I know what it feels like to be out there and take hits from the guys, so now I want to learn what everybody else is doing on defense," explained Foster. "I feel like if I can learn to be a smarter player, I'll be able to play a lot faster, be able to run free and make everything a lot easier for me."
Foster is on track to start the season opener, and while he is happy about that, Foster remains determined to better his game and not settle on his current success.
"It's a good feeling, but at the same time I want to keep my spot," expressed Foster. "It's really humbling too because I'm getting all of this praise early on in my career - it makes me really work harder because I don't want to lose my spot and be the guy that people say 'oh, he was really good his freshman year, but now he's second, third', so I'm really working hard to keep my spot - it makes me work harder."
Tormey discussed his rising playmaker.
"The first thing that you notice is the athletic ability - you like his size. He was able to pick things up. He learned schemes fairly well - I'd say very well for a freshman. Now I think he understands the schemes. It's just a matter of learning the individual intricacies with each defense against each formation. Understanding where he fits, where his help is in every situation, and he's getting a lot better at that. I'm really pleased with his progress so far this fall," explained Tormey. "He could probably play any one of the three positions, but we're trying to leave him at will right now and let him learn that position, so he can learn the intricacies of it - understand formation theory, understand what his specific job is and how it fits in with the rest of the guys. When he has a complete understanding of that, he's going to be able to play very fast and have a productive year for us."
Taking over for former Husky Dan Howell is former walkon, redshirt junior Joshua Gage. Washington fans may question a former walkon starting, but Gage has the confidence of his fellow teammates.
"I really like Gage. Gage consistently gets the job done. On top of that, he makes plays too - that's obviously why he's in there," expressed Butler. "You don't have to worry about Gage being out of his gap or not taking responsibility for something he was supposed to be out there doing."
"Gage is quick, he's fast. Once he gets the read down, he's there," explained Tuiasosopo. "He's what we need on the linebacking corp. He's quick to jump the ball and he's almost there to intercept it. If not, he's there to knock the ball out of the receiver's hands. Overall, he's looking really good."
Pushing Gage is redshirt sophomore Matt Houston, who played in nine of the Huskies' 13 games last season.
"I think that Matt is a very good athlete who's improving," said Tormey. "I'd say Josh is probably a little bit ahead right now in terms of his understanding of the game. He's an excellent athlete and he's very capable of going in and playing if need be."
Another linebacker that will earn some playing time this season is senior Chris Stevens. Stevens recorded 24 tackles last year, and is arguably the Huskies' best special teams performer. Stevens drew much praise from his position coach.
"You've got Chris Stevens right there at that will position, and he's a young man that's played a lot around here. He's got an important role to play on special teams and he's a great third-down player as well," expressed Tormey. "He's a very important part of what we're doing. He's a young guy that's a great leader through his actions - just does everything right. He works his butt off in every phase of football and academically. He sets an example for his teammates out there everyday, and by the way, he's played quite a bit of football around here over the last three years."
Two other players that will look to provide depth are redshirt freshman Cort Dennison and true freshman Kurt Mangum.
"Those are guys that will have a chance to work into the depth. They're playing behind some experienced players right now - still learning, but they're getting better and there's a chance that they could work into playing time this year," explained Tormey. "It looks like Kurt is going to be playing primarily the mike spot right now, and Cort plays more of the will. That's where we have them right now, but they're two bright young guys that can be interchangeable and play other positions as well."
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