SEATTLE — As Washington’s first-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox greeted reporters after a practice earlier this week, he joked about their ability to withstand the hot afternoon temperatures.
The real question, though, is whether the Washington defense will be able to handle the heat this season, as it too often couldn’t in 2011 when the Huskies gave up a school-record 467 points.
That led to the firing of defensive coordinator Nick Holt and two other assistants and a complete reshaping of the defensive coaching staff.
At the forefront of that reconstruction is Wilcox, who spent the past two years as the defensive coordinator at Tennessee and before that worked four years as defensive coordinator at Boise State.
The early returns on Wilcox’s new schemes — notably, mixing in more 3-4 alignments and asking the secondary to be more aggressive — were positive in the spring. And as UW enters its second full week of camp, players and coaches say the defense has picked up where it left off in the spring, when it won more than its share of battles with the offense.
“I feel good about it, especially with a lot of the changes we are making from a personnel standpoint,” UW coach Steve Sarkisian said.
Progress this fall has been interrupted by a slew of injuries, notably a broken foot suffered by projected starting outside linebacker Nate Fellner that this week prompted the Huskies to move redshirt freshman safety Travis Feeney to that spot. Fellner could miss the first few games of the season. Other regulars have been limited, though none of the injuries are regarded as serious.
Players insist the defense has come a long way since the 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl that helped seal Holt’s firing.
“I know that there’s a lot more confidence, a lot more energy coming off of them,” said tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. “And they feel like they know what they are doing.”
An emphasis on more man-to-man coverage in the secondary is among the bigger changes, something players say they are embracing.
“Aggressive, swarming to the ball, man-to-man coverage,” said safety Justin Glenn, describing the new look. “We’re trying to cut out some of the air. In years past it’s kind of like there’s always been too much air on the comeback (routes), so we are getting guys pressed up in coverage and trying to squeeze these routes and make more plays on the ball.”
It helps that UW is more experienced in the secondary, with Glenn — a fifth-year senior — and Sean Parker, a junior, projected as starters at safety, and senior Desmond Trufant in place at one cornerback.
Holt also often preached wanting to play aggressively but seemed to draw back as the points and yards piled up last season.
Players say they are eager to show they are deserving of the chance to play more aggressively.
“That’s what I do is man-to-man,” Trufant said. “I want to be a man-to-man, pressure-type corner, physical guy. This scheme is going to allow me to do that. Now I’ve got to produce.”