A whole lot of Huskies performed in front of the fans at Washington’s Spring Preview on Saturday.
D.J. Beavers wasn’t one of them.
A UW spokesperson confirmed following the scrimmage that Beavers — a 6-foot-1, 211-pound senior linebacker from Culver City, Calif. — will medically retire due to an accumulation of injuries. Beavers will graduate from UW after completing one final course this fall.
Most recently, the former Crespi Carmelite High School standout suffered a leg injury during Washington’s Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State on New Year’s Day. He played in just five games in each of his final two seasons because of injuries and finished with 69 tackles, two forced fumbles, two tackles for loss and an interception in his UW career.
Beavers’ status was uncertain throughout the spring and he was not present for any of the Huskies’ practices.
“Such a tough football player,” Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said of Beavers on Saturday. “He was just snake-bitten. It seemed like every spring football, every training camp, every three games he was getting injured. Just unfortunate for the guy.
“This is how it happens sometimes. This is a physical, fierce game that we play, and sometimes it doesn’t roll right for certain guys.”
Beavers’ sudden (but not unexpected) retirement also leaves a void on the second level of the Husky defense. Senior Brandon Wellington — who made 28 tackles and two tackles for loss in 10 games last fall — is an overwhelming favorite to start at inside linebacker this fall. But who will start beside him?
Senior Kyler Manu was the consistent answer throughout the spring, despite having only registered 12 total tackles in four seasons on campus. Redshirt freshmen Jackson Sirmon, Edefuan Ulofoshio and M.J. Tafisi and true freshmen Josh Calvert, Miki Ah You, Daniel Heimuli and Alphonzo Tuputala will all compete in August.
That’s a lot of eligible bodies with very little actual experience. Without departed standouts Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett — and now, D.J. Beavers — it’s time for someone new to step in and separate from the pack.
Taylor wins best hands
First, a little backstory.
A year ago, Washington’s defensive backs entered the Spring Preview with two players — cornerback Keith Taylor and nickelback Elijah Molden — tied with the team-lead for interceptions in April’s previous 14 practices. The player who tops the team in picks wins the “Best Hands Award” and is presented not only with his teammates’ envy and admiration but also with a football and a seat on Lake’s boat during an upcoming summer outing.
So, long story short, Molden made a pick during last year’s Spring Preview and walked away with the award. But this time around, Taylor and redshirt freshman cornerback Kyler Gordon were tied with five picks apiece at the start of Saturday’s spring scrimmage.
Then Taylor jumped in front of a pass that redshirt freshman quarterback Jacob Sirmon lofted towards the sideline during a 7-on-7 drill. He caught the ball and high-stepped like Deion Sanders in the opposite direction.
“You should have seen the smile on his face when (head coach Chris Petersen) blew the practice and the whole scrimmage was over,” Lake said. “He was smiling ear to ear.”
But should he have been? After all, a redirected pass that Gordon dived for during Wednesday’s practice was originally ruled an interception. It was only afterwards — when three camera angles were available and all 12 Husky DBs voted, turning in an 8 to 4 decision — that the pass was ultimately deemed incomplete. On Saturday, Lake went as far as to call it a “huge controversy.”
Still, one thing is clear. Taylor — who did not notch an interception in his first two seasons at UW — has continued to work on improving his hands.
And that work is paying off.
“To his credit, he didn’t come here having great hands,” Lake said. “He’s done a lot of ball drills with (assistant defensive backs coach Will) Harris, myself, after practice on the JUGS machine.
“If you go back to his true freshman year against Rutgers, when we were winning, he was right in position and he let the ball go over his head. He’s come a long way since those days. He made a lot of plays on the football last year in his starts and when he came in on third down.
“So for him to have the most interceptions in the room, now he just needs to carry that over into the season, which I’m very confident that he will.”
The Molden-Bryant battle
Elijah Molden sat next to Hunter Bryant while both were being interviewed following Saturday’s scrimmage.
Maybe that’s fitting. The nickelback and tight end spend a lot of time together, whether they like it or not.
That was the case again on Saturday, when Washington quarterback Jacob Eason lofted a deep ball towards his most tantalizing target sprinting down the right sideline. Molden — who is four inches shorter and 51 pounds lighter than Bryant — claimed inside position and leaped to bat the ball down.
Bryant shouldn’t be denied too often this season. The 6-2, 241-pound junior turned in possibly his most impressive spring, after fully recovering from a knee injury that shortened each of his previous two seasons.
Molden, meanwhile, was named to the All-Pac-12 second team last season after producing 29 tackles and five passes defended while starting just two of 14 games. He is already a proven contributor.
And the best may still be to come.
“I feel like this is going to be my breakout year,” Molden said. “They’ve taught me so much and I have so many weapons that I can use physically and mentally. Now I just have to put it on the field and play, really.”
Fairly often, he puts all those weapons on the field against Bryant. It’s strength against strength.
And on Saturday, Molden was stronger.
“(Bryant’s) been battling injuries and he hasn’t been 100 percent, but this spring is the first time he was 100 percent in a while,” Molden said. “He is just as much of a receiving threat as anyone in the Pac-12.
“So when I’m lining up against him I have to adjust the way I play, just like I would to any other player.”
A Bellevue native’s big day
At 5-11 and 209 pounds, Isaiah Gilchrist looks too big to play nickel. The junior and Bellevue native shouldn’t be able to hang with speedier slot receivers.
And yet, from the nickel position, Gilchrist — who has also practiced at safety and cornerback this spring — produced a pair of interceptions on Saturday.
“I enjoy the challenge of trying to guard slots who are probably quicker than I am,” Gilchrist said. “But as long as I have good feet it’s not too bad. It’s all technique.”
Still, that technique has only taken Gilchrist so far in his first two seasons at UW. The former Bellevue High School standout has produced just eight tackles in 11 career games, while primarily practicing at safety.
Regardless of the position, Gilchrist needs to prove he can sustain his spring surge in the summer and the fall.
“He’s always flashed for us,” Lake said. “He’s such a smart player. He’s able to play all those positions. Then today he played physical. He made plays on the football. He was getting interceptions, scoring.
“Now he needs to carry that into the weight room here in the next few months and then take that energy and that focus he had today into training camp and keep getting our attention.”
Added Gilchrist: “I’m ready to go wherever helps the defense. I’m just making sure I learn all the different positions I can so I’m as versatile as possible. So when they need me, I can go wherever.”
— Junior safety Brandon McKinney found himself in perfect position during a 7-on-7 drill early in Saturday’s practice, intercepting a Jake Haener overthrow before sprinting emphatically into the end zone. Once there, he imitated the leaping crane kick made famous in “The Karate Kid.”
“I mean, I just like ‘The Karate Kid,” McKinney said of the celebration. “I don’t know. I just threw that out there. It was in my back pocket.”
— It looked like Washington starting defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike and linebacker Brandon Wellington both did not scrimmage on Saturday for precautionary reasons. There were no obvious injuries during the scrimmage. In Wellington’s place, redshirt freshman linebacker M.J. Tafisi tied for the team-lead with seven tackles. Senior defensive lineman Josiah Bronson also pulled out an impressive inside spin move that led to a sack of Jake Haener.
— The following players were either out or limited during Saturday’s Spring Preview: wide receivers Aaron Fuller, Quinten Pounds, Ty Jones and Fatu Sua-Godinet, running back Jamyn Patu, defensive lineman Jacob Bandes, inside linebackers Miki Ah You and Ben Hines, outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui, defensive linemen Levi Onwuzurike and Sama Paama, safety Julius Irvin and offensive linemen Nick Harris and Troy Fautanu.
— Defensive back Myles Bryant and wide receiver Trey Lowe fielded punts on Saturday.
— Former Washington tight end Will Dissly and right tackle Kaleb McGary attended the Spring Preview. McGary was selected by the Atlanta Falcons in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday.