How good is Trent McDuffie?

UW assistant defensive-backs coach Terrence Brown — a former cornerback at Stanford — was asked that question on April 23, following the Huskies’ 10th practice of the spring. And in a black hat and sweatshirt, his smile only widened.

“I think we all know the answer to that,” Brown said with a loud laugh. “I think we all know the answer to that.”

If you don’t, you should.

Head coach Jimmy Lake fist bumps a player while the team stretches during spring practice at the east practice field on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
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In his first 17 games (and 15 starts) in Seattle, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound junior has recorded 59 tackles with four passes defended, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and three interceptions. He is one of just three Power Five outside corners who has earned a Pro Football Focus coverage grade above 75.0 in both man and zone coverage since 2019, and he ranks second among Power Five corners in run defense in the last two seasons as well. Plus, despite his somewhat diminutive frame, McDuffie has missed just two of his 64 career tackle attempts.

Avoid McDuffie all you want, but UW’s Pac-12 opponents won’t find much relief on the opposite sideline. Junior Kyler Gordon — he of the 42.5-inch vertical jump — has effectively secured the other outside-corner spot, and he has the highest athletic ceiling of any Husky on the roster.

“These guys come here and of course they’re highly touted recruits and they want to play right away. Kyler Gordon needed a lot of work to learn how to play corner at a high level,” UW head coach Jimmy Lake said of Gordon, a former four-star recruit who started the first four games in 2019 before surrendering his spot to McDuffie.

“We all knew he was an extraordinary athlete, and now finally he feels it. You can see the smile on his face. He’s like, ‘Coach, I know what I’m doing now. I know the techniques. I know the plays are coming before they’re being executed against us.’ So it’s fun watching football slow down for a player like Kyler Gordon. He’s going to be an exciting player for the Dawgs here coming up.”

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So we know how good Trent McDuffie is, and we know how good Kyler Gordon could be.

But could UW’s current cornerback duo surpass the 2016 tandem of Sidney Jones and Kevin King?

“With Trent McDuffie, who has obviously played a bunch of football and made a lot of plays around here, in a lot of ways he’s ahead of those corners that played back then in 2016,” Lake said. “He’s played at a high level really since he’s been on campus.

“Kyler Gordon still has to go out there and do it. Now, he has all the athleticism, all the speed. He’s finally honing in on his technique and learning the defense. But I think it remains to be seen where he’s going to be when we enter into the fall. He reminds me a lot of when we moved Kevin King to corner. Kevin King had played nickel and safety, and then he played corner all spring ball, figuring out how to play corner, and then he goes in and has an amazing fall and of course becomes the 33rd overall pick right after that.

“Kyler Gordon is in a very similar situation, where the light has clicked on. He’s playing his position at a high level. Now he’s got to go out there and go do it in the fall.”

But who’s going to do it at nickelback?

With spring practice behind us, let’s dive into the depth chart at corner and nickel.

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Cornerback

Trent McDuffie, junior, 5-11, 195, Westminster, California

Mishael Powell, sophomore, 6-1, 200, Seattle

Jacobe Covington, redshirt freshman, 6-2, 200, Chandler, Arizona

James Smith, redshirt freshman, 6-1, 200, Los Angeles

Cornerback

Kyler Gordon, junior, 6-0, 190, Mukilteo

Elijah Jackson, redshirt freshman, 6-1, 190, Carson, California

Kasen Kinchen, redshirt freshman, 5-10, 185, Lake Stevens

Nickelback

Brendan Radley-Hiles, senior, 5-9, 175, Inglewood, California

Kamren Fabiculanan, sophomore, 6-1, 185, Camarillo, California

***

Lake just dropped a Kevin King comparison.

So it’s only right that he compares 6-1, 190-pound redshirt freshman Elijah Jackson — who picked off quarterback Patrick O’Brien in the Purple vs. Gold game on May 1 — to the aforementioned Sidney Jones.

“I’m very proud of Elijah,” Lake said following that scrimmage. “He’s an extremely hard worker. He’s very intuitive and wants to always learn the next thing. He reminds me a lot of Sidney Jones, how Sidney Jones was as a freshman. I’m very excited about his speed, his agility, the way he’s playing faster now.

“He still has to play faster, but I really believe he’ll end up being one of our next corners after those two starters — Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon. You’ll see him mixing in there in that battle to play corner or to be the third corner as well when we get into our special packages when we have three, four corners on the field.”

Besides Jackson, a pair of walk-ons and former three-star recruits — Mishael Powell and Kasen Kinchen — also impressed this spring, so much so that Powell earned starting reps when McDuffie was held out of scrimmage drills. Redshirt freshman Jacobe Covington has flashed as well, but it’s unclear whether he’ll ultimately land at cornerback or safety.

The most competitive April duel might be found at nickelback, where both Brendan Radley-Hiles and Kamren Fabiculanan made strong cases to become Elijah Molden’s successor. Still, it’s difficult to imagine “Bookie” — a three-year starter at Oklahoma — not ultimately snaring the starting spot.

“We brought Bookie in, who’s made a bunch of plays out there and he’s played a lot of football,” Lake said on May 1. “It’s been fun watching him learn our defense and go, ‘Oh, I can do this, and I can do this, and I can do this.’ It’s fun watching him just absorb what we’re teaching him and helping him make plays out there.”

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But Fabiculanan — who at 6-1 and 185 pounds has the physical frame to potentially slide back to safety — also learned from the best.  

“I remember during the season he was standing right next to Elijah Molden and asking him questions and just picking his brain and trying to see what it is that he was doing,” Brown said. “After practice he would do some extra drills with Elijah Molden.

“From my time here as a graduate assistant and now an assistant coach, I’ve noticed that the guys that tend to do really well here are the ones that pick the brains of the veterans that are doing it at the time. So that’s what has allowed for him to take those strides and those gains in terms of being really confident in what he’s doing out there.”

At cornerback and nickel, confidence is not an issue.

But it’s up to McDuffie, Gordon and Co. to be every bit as good as their coaches think that they can be.