The Washington Huskies have a depth problem in the middle of their defense.
That’s what happens when Ben Burr-Kirven — the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year — runs out of eligibility. It’s what happens when senior D.J. Beavers medically retires. It’s what happens when would-be starter Milo Eifler transfers to Illinois. It’s what happens when five-star prospect Ale Kaho signs with UW, then bolts to Alabama. It’s what happens when you don’t sign any inside linebackers in the 2017 class. It’s what happens when early enrollee Josh Calvert suffers a season-ending injury in fall camp.
And when all of those things happen, you get an unfortunate hole in the middle of the Husky defense.
“It’s interesting, because we’ve got two old guys and a bunch of young guys,” UW coach Chris Petersen said Monday of the depth at inside linebacker. “That kind of happens through attrition, and guys don’t make it here, DJ Beavers medically retiring and all those things. That’s part of the game. A lot of times you look at positions, and you’re always a year or two in advance when you’re trying to build your group. Each coach is responsible for their group and what it looks like.
“Every now and again you get thrown a curveball where it’s like, ‘This guy didn’t make it. This guy got medically retired. This guy isn’t quite as good as we thought.’ Whatever it is, you can get yourself in a (difficult) position depth-wise.”
Indeed, these 5-4 Huskies find themselves in a difficult position. Seniors Brandon Wellington and Kyler Manu have not dazzled in their first seasons as full-time starters. Redshirt freshmen contributors Jackson Sirmon and M.J. Tafisi (who is still recovering from a significant stinger against Arizona) have produced inconsistent results in relief. Four scholarship freshmen — Calvert, Daniel Heimuli, Miki Ah You and Alphonzo Tuputala — are redshirting the season. Position group Bob Gregory said last week that redshirt sophomore Ariel Ngata, who slid from the outside to inside spot in the middle of the season, is “doing OK. He needs to take another step. He’s not completely comfortable in there, but he’s getting better.”
The next in line — at least, last week — was 6-0, 231-pound walk-on Edefuan Ulofoshio. The redshirt freshman played significant snaps on the second level in the 33-28 loss to Utah — most notably forcing a third-quarter fumble, and failing to slow running back Zack Moss on a 9-yard touchdown catch. He finished with two tackles and the forced fumble in defeat, and has a total of 11 tackles this season.
But might there be something to build on? Unfortunately for Husky fans, there aren’t too many other options.
“He seems to make plays, is why he’s earned (more playing time),” Petersen said of Ulofoshio. “He’s still a young player. He’s still learning that position, inside (linebacker). In high school, he was kind of on the outside. When you put him in there, he seems to kind of do some things — make plays. He was one of the guys that caused a fumble. He’s caused a fumble on a kickoff (last season).
“We’re just trying to force the issue a little bit and see if he can do more.”
Eason’s ‘learning opportunities’
UW junior quarterback Jacob Eason completed 29 of 52 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns against perhaps the Pac-12’s premier defense last weekend.
He also threw a pair of third-quarter interceptions — one in the red zone, and another that was returned for a 39-yard score.
So how much should fall on the 6-6, 227-pounder’s broad shoulders?
“It’s never going to come down to any one guy,” Petersen said. “The quarterback’s got the ball in his hands every play, and it’s a difficult position. There’s a couple of throws, obviously, he’d love to have back. But even with all that being said, we still had some other chances to get things done. We’re talking about in the fourth quarter, on both sides of the ball. I kind of go back, and I think he’s learning every game. He’s played well in a lot of ’em and there’s some learning opportunities that you just can’t get except for in the game.”
In nine games this season, Eason has completed 65.3% of his passes, throwing for 2,297 yards with 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. There have been a whole lot of highlights … and some learning opportunities, too.
Here’s one, for example: when pressured, Eason has a tendency to spin backwards out of the pocket, simultaneously digging a more damning hole.
“We don’t get much of that in practice,” Petersen said of Eason’s spinning pocket escapes. “We’re trying to emphasize him staying in the pocket. That’s your game — step up, not out. So we’ll keep working on that.”
- Despite ascending freshman Puka Nacua’s broken foot, three other Washington wide receivers have begun to emerge. Redshirt sophomore Terrell Bynum caught 13 passes for 111 yards against Utah and Oregon. Redshirt junior Jordan Chin has registered one reception in each of the past three games, with the past two going for touchdowns. And redshirt freshman Marquis Spiker made the first two catches of his young career in his past two games, hauling in a 20-yard reception against Oregon and a 21-yard grab on third-and-17 against Utah. “He’s been practicing better. That’s really what it is,” Petersen said of Spiker. “Then we put him in the game and he’s been able to attack the ball. That’s one thing we really like about him. He’s a rangy guy that can attack the ball and if you get (it) around him, he’s got pretty sticky hands.”
- Petersen acknowledged that “we have to figure out a way to be a better finishing team in the fourth quarter, without question. It’s not want-to. It’s execution, it’s confidence, it’s belief. We’re doing everything in our power in practice to try to recreate some of those situations.” When pressed further on the issue, Petersen said, “You can’t give somebody confidence. You have to go out and earn it. We can only coach ’em how we coach ’em and get ’em dialed in, in the meetings and everybody’s locked in. We’re playing good football teams that have played better than us. But you’ve got to go out and earn it.”