September 11, 2008

The Sooners the Not So Better for Husky Defense

For a young and inexperienced defense looking to improve, week three of the 2008 season doesn't bring any relief. After facing two top 25 teams in Oregon and BYU to open the season, Washington now turns it's attention to the third ranked Sooners of Oklahoma.

The Sooners are led by an array of offensive weapons. Everything starts with redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Bradford. Bradford had a stellar freshman year, completing 237-of-341 passes for 3,121 yards and 36 touchdowns to only eight interceptions. Bradford's sophomore season has started well, going 46-of-60 for 578 yards and seven touchdowns to two interceptions. Bradford's backup, senior Joey Halzle hasn't been too shabby this season either, going 14-of-16 for 122 yards and one touchdown.

The running back position won't provide much relief for the Husky defenders. While Oklahoma lost it's top running back from last season in Allen Patrick, the Sooners return arguably a more talented player in redshirt sophomore DeMarco Murray as well as junior Chris Brown, Oklahoma's second and third leading rushers last season respectively. Murray rushed for 764 yards and 13 touchdowns on 127 carries last season, and is off to a fantastic start this season with 212 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries. Brown has rushed for 134 yards and four touchdowns this season after amassing 611 yards and nine touchdowns last year.

Think it gets any better at wide receiver? Think again. The Sooners return five of their top seven pass catchers from a year ago, including three of the top four. The group, which boasts four players with over 100 yards receiving this season, is led by senior Juaquin Iglesias, who caught 68 balls for 907 yards and five touchdowns last season. Iglesias is off to a great start this season with seven catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Manuel Johnson, who lines up in the slot, leads Oklahoma in receptions and yards, with 14 for 144. Too boot, tight end Jermaine Gresham is arguably the biggest weapon in the group. After grabbing 37 balls for 518 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, the junior has picked up right where he left off, pulling in 10 catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns this season.

"This is a pretty talented offensive group. They are big, they play hard, they're well coached. You notice with them, the little things that they do. We talk to our football team a lot about eye discipline. It's a term of making sure your keying the right things. What you notice with them, right off the bat, is they have the ability to focus their eye discipline and really key the right things, which puts them in the right spot to execute their job. Rarely do you see them out of position doing that," explained Washington Head Coach Tyrone Willingham. "They will be very difficult to put pressure on the quarterback, but yet that's one of the things we've got to find a way to do. You've got to try to get the ball out of his hands as quick as possible, to hopefully force the action in some cases. Other cases, you obviously do it with some coverage things, but hopefully we can get it out of his hands a little quicker."

The scary thing, is that even with all of the talent spread amongst the skill positions, it's the offensive line that is arguably the strongest point of the Sooner offense. The line, as a whole, has combined for 138 starts and 196 games played. Oklahoma has only given up one sack through two games, ranking 15th in the nation in that category. The group is led by senior guards Duke Robinson and Brandon Walker. Robinson earned All-American honors last season while Walker was named to the Big 12 second-team.

"When you look at them all the way around, they're just strong in all phases," said Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell. "You start with their offensive line. This offensive line has many guys that probably will play at the next level, I'd say at least three of them."

Did I mention that Washington hasn't recorded a sack this season?

"We spoke about that the last couple of days, about how we thought we would be further along than we are right now, as far as production, as far as sacks and stuff like that," explained redshirt junior defensive end Darrion Jones. "But we know that takes time. We have a young group. We know we're going to get there, we just keep trying everyday to focus on the fundamentals and how we're going to get that. We don't think it's a problem or anything that we're lacking or not getting. We've been close at times, probably a technique error here or there cost us a step or a second on getting to the quarterback. That's probably about it. It's not like we're not getting there because we can't get there, because we can. Technique hasn't been as perfect as we want it to be."

While it certainly is not a positive that the defense hasn't recorded a sack thus far, Donatell believes it's not as bad as it seems.

"The Oregon game - they spun out of a couple. For that kind of game, we would of had two, and that would have been about normal. The last game, you've got to try to find a way to get that guy down once or twice when he has that many snaps. He needs to go down," explained Donatell. "We're looking to spike that up, no question about it. We went back and looked at it all, and it's never quite as bad as it looks."

Creating sacks is not the only problem for Washington's defense. The Huskies must improve their third-down defense. The Ducks converted 6-of-13 third downs while BYU converted 12-of-14.

"There's a couple of things that go into third down - how many short ones you have and how many long ones you have. If you had a lot of short ones, you didn't do something well before that. The long ones - what's your execution like? What's your combination of pressure and coverage? We didn't win our one-on-one's in that ballgame [BYU]. The other thing is, you're playing an efficient offense. The guy made some good throws," explained Donatell. "The thing we'd like to play better is situations. That comes with growing your team up. Third and 14, we don't want to take double moves. Third and a long two on the goal line, people are going to pass - you've got to play better there. One of our goals as a defensive staff, is to be a really smart situational team, and that's what we want to move toward."

The Sooners run a no-huddle offense, that at times, will switch from an I-formation to a five-wide formation without changing personnel - something that can cause trouble for opposing defenses.

"First thing is, the flexibility of their tight ends, both 83 [Brody Eldridge] and 18 [Gresham], really allow them to get to that personnel grouping and lineup. When you can do that, now you're trying to be a team that substitutes with them, it becomes very difficult, because at some point they get a match-up that they're very comfortable with and you're uncomfortable with," expressed Willingham. "We will educate our guys to that and hopefully how to adjust correctly, so that we don't get ourselves in those kind of positions. One of the things they're known for doing, is their no huddle. I think they have a couple of automatic calls built in, so if you're a little lazy and a little slow, they snap the ball with you standing around. They do an excellent job of that, of really keeping you on your toes and keeping you off balance."

Jones knows fully what's on tap for he and his fellow Husky defenders.

"The no huddle sends you into a frenzy, because after a play is over, you have no time to react. After the play is over, they're back on the line, and you're scrambling to get your signals, calls and to make your checks," explained Jones. "It forces you to play the game faster. That's where film comes into play, because you have to see what they're doing just as fast as you're getting lined up. You have to look around, find where everybody is and then react to it. You have to be able to communicate on the run just as fast."

Playing in your first collegiate game is never an easy thing. Playing in your first collegiate game as a true freshman at a position that you didn't have the luxury of practicing at during all of Fall camp, and having that game be against the third ranked team in the nation - that just sounds intimidating. However, that's the situation that's staring Johri Fogerson square between the eyes. After participating in all of Fall practices as a running back, Fogerson made the switch to safety last week at the request of the coaching staff. While the move and current situation may worry some, Fogerson is anything but scared.

"Yeah I'm ready, it's fun. There's nothing better than having the number three team come in here and you get a chance to start against them, so I'm ready. I really don't get nervous - ever since I was little. You know how people get butterflies before the game? I just focus and I'm ready. They're regular people just like we are, that's how I see it," expressed Fogerson. "I just had to get into the flow of things, that was basically last week. I picked up the plays and everything real fast - it was easy. I know the concepts of the game, so everything falls back into my mind really easy. The thing that was hard, was coming back and getting into the motion of being a defensive back.

"The coaches got together, sat down and called me into the office. They switched me, I didn't switch myself. They basically wanted their best athletes on the field, so that's when I made the switch. They recruited me as a running back, and I came here as a running back, but they saw that the secondary needed help, so they put me in there. I really never had a preference, I'm just a football player. Whatever spot they put me at, I'm going to do my best to play and play hard."

Willingham knows Fogerson will be swimming for the time being, but he likes what he's seen so far.

"Obviously we're trying to ramp up his learning curb as fast as possible with the injuries we have with the other guys in the secondary. Victor Aiyewa is still kind of sidelined. You've got Nate that's now a little bit sidelined, so we've got to ramp him up. What he does, is he adds a strong presence. He has excellent ball skills and he has shown himself to be physical. We haven't had a chance to let him do that yet, because we haven't put him in a true scrimmage environment, but we think he'll be physical when the time comes."

Joining Fogerson in the secondary, is 26-year old Tripper Johnson. While he may be upwards of eight years older than some of his teammates, Johnson is true freshman in terms of playing experience. Johnson was recruited by Washington out of high school, but chose to play minor league baseball after being drafted in the first round of the 2000 MLB Draft. With two games under his belt, Johnson is beginning to settle in.

"I'm definitely getting more comfortable out there - got some playing time against BYU. The game's starting to slow down a little bit," explained Johnson. "The more playing time I get, it's going to slow down. I've got to keep up on the film study this week, and hopefully I'll be prepared."

After walking on in the Spring, Johnson certainly didn't envision himself slated to start the third game of the season against Oklahoma.

"Not at all [did I see myself starting]. My number one goal was to see the playing field this fall, whether it's special teams or a backup safety role," said Johnson. "But now here it is, it's right here. A couple of injuries, and next thing you know, I'm in the game. I've just tried to prepare the best I can, and you've just got to be ready to go."

Playing for the Huskies is something that Johnson has thought about for quite a while.

"It's always been in the back of my mind for all these years. When I was playing baseball, I wanted to come back and play football at Husky Stadium. It's kind of been going on and building up over these years, been in the back of my mind over these past six, seven, eight years, that if I get a chance to go play, it'd be that much more special," expressed Johnson. "It was pretty exciting [playing my first game at Husky Stadium]. It's been a dream come true. I never thought I'd be here at the age of 26, playing in front of all those fans, but it's come true. It's just a great experience."

While the Husky defense has a long, long way to go, Donatell is looking at the bigger picture, but feels playing at home will give Washington a fighting chance against the Sooners.

"We've got a vision of what the Husky standard is, and we're working toward it - we're not there. All of our energy is toward that. Sometimes there's a little bit of a process, and it doesn't feel good till you start seeing some of the fruits of your work. That's our intention, to see more of that," expressed Donatell. "Our guys are up for a challenge with this group coming in. You always have a chance in Husky Stadium. The tradition, the crowd, the city, the way it's all set up and what it means to play in there. When that crowd comes out and supports us, history tells you, you can always win a game in there. That's the way we're looking at this thing."

Despite two tough losses, Johnson feels the Huskies are ready for Oklahoma.

"We're really hungry as a team overall. After that BYU game, we were pretty frustrated. When we came back into the locker room, everyone wanted to go right back out there and keep playing. A lot of guys stood up in that locker room after the game and said things are coming together," said Johnson. "We're going to give it everything we've got this weekend and we think we have a chance to win. We've just got to execute. Oklahoma is a very good, disciplined team, it just comes down to us executing."

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