That’s the word Joe Tryon used to describe Washington’s pass rush — or lack thereof — in his redshirt freshman season last fall. The Husky defense managed just 24 sacks in 14 games, its lowest total in a decade. It ranked 118th nationally in tackles for loss per game (4.57) and 100th in sacks per game (1.71). Its four primary outside linebackers — Benning Potoa’e, Ryan Bowman, Ariel Ngata and Tryon, all of whom return in 2019 — managed a grand total of three sacks combined, two fewer than junior safety Taylor Rapp.
The underperforming pass rush was a glaring weakness in an otherwise elite defense. Chris Petersen knows it. Jimmy Lake knows it. Pete Kwiatkowski knows it.
Joe Tryon knows it, and he’s not afraid to say it.
“In the outside backer room, we all joke around about how little sacks we got,” Tryon said. “It’s motivation this year because I don’t even know how many we had last year, but it was a pitiful amount.
“I’m motivated to get that up there. I know me and all the other dudes are trying to get to the quarterback. That’s our main job, trying to get to the quarterback.”
When it comes to corralling the quarterback, Tryon might loom large — literally. The 6-foot-5 Renton product is 266 pounds of finely chiseled fury. He plows through blocking sleds like they’re made of papier-mâché. Tryon took advantage of his limited opportunities last season, producing 20 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack in 12 games.
This spring, he’s lining up as a starter at outside linebacker. And for anybody who saw him ascend, that shouldn’t be a surprise.
“The one thing Joe did last year, he wasn’t a starter. He got a little bit of reps early on in the season,” said Kwiatkowski, UW’s co-defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach. “But the guy showed up to every practice, was continually getting better, (provided) great effort … and his role changed.
“When he got his opportunities he made plays, so he got more opportunities. The more opportunities he got, the more plays he made. That’s how it works. By the end of the year he was one of the better players, so he’s going to play a lot.”
But who will play alongside him? Bowman — a junior who underwhelmed with 4.5 tackles for loss and one sack last season after leading the team with 5.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss in 2017 — also is receiving starting reps at outside linebacker. A fifth-year senior and former four-star recruit, Potoa’e has shifted to the defensive line after struggling to wreak consistent havoc on the second level. Ngata — a 6-3, 216-pound sophomore — could be in line to make a leap after contributing 11 tackles in 12 games last season. And don’t forget about four-star freshman Laiatu Latu, who will enroll at UW this summer.
There are many eligible faces and few surefire solutions. But that’s what the spring is for.
“Yeah, that’s always a great question,” said Lake, UW’s defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach, when asked how the pass rush could be improved. “We’re going to see how that progresses here in the spring.
“I’m looking at our goals for the last like five years in the spring. It’s always, ‘Get more turnovers. Get pressure on the quarterback.’ That’s what we want to do. I think it still remains to be seen. We’ve got to see how we attack the offensive linemen, how we’re rushing off the quarterback. We’ve got some new guys in new spots, doing some new things.
“We’ve got great coaches that I know are going to teach them great techniques. Now we’ve just got to see who that next guy is going to be who’s going to terrorize the quarterback.”
Early enrollees stand out early in spring
On Wednesday, it was Josh Calvert. Friday, it was Cameron Williams.
A pair of UW early enrollees wasted little time making positive first impressions.
Calvert — a 6-2, 221-pound inside linebacker and former four-star recruit — snagged the first interception of spring practice, jumping a Jake Haener pass across the middle and returning it untouched for a touchdown. Two days later, Williams — a 6-0, 185-pound safety — outjumped junior tight end Hunter Bryant to bat down a jump ball and prevent a long reception.
The Huskies have obvious holes at both linebacker and safety. And while it’s far too early to speculate about playing time, Calvert and Williams are doing their part.
“In the first practice, Josh had a really good interception for a touchdown,” Lake said. “I think he’s picking the defense up. There’s a lot (to pick up). Coach (Bob) Gregory’s doing a really good job with him. There’s a lot on his plate at the position he plays.
“And then Cam is playing safety for us right now. You can see him picking it up, making calls and even directing traffic, because you’ve got to be able to direct traffic a lot back there and tell his corners what they’re doing. He’s been able to do that the first couple days. But every single day there’s going to be some more defenses coming (into the playbook) and he’s going to have to keep up.
“He’s been in there watching and grinding tape. I just love his effort right now and his want-to to learn the defense.”
Julius Irvin’s versatility shines through
Julius Irvin played cornerback in four games during his redshirt season last fall. He has practiced with the safeties thus far in the spring.
It’s not a position switch, per se. As so many Dawg DBs before him, he seems capable of seamlessly switching spots.
“We’re able to move guys around – play nickel, play corner, play safety,” Lake explained. “Kevin King played all the positions for us. I see Julius in the same mold. We could have him at corner. We could have him at nickel, or we could have him at either one of our safety spots. He’s that athletic. He’s that smart.
“We have to have guys that are able to move around and do that because of how many DBs we play with and because injuries obviously happen in football. So we need guys to be able to move around.
“Myles Bryant started five games for us at corner two years ago. He’s also played safety for us. He’s also played nickel. That’s just one example. Elijah Molden has played our money position, he’s played nickel and he’s played corner. They have to know multiple positions.”
With junior Keith Taylor and Molden holding down the starting corner spots and redshirt freshmen Kyler Gordon and Dominic Hampton also competing at that position, it makes sense for Irvin — who is currently limited with an arm/shoulder injury — to set up camp at safety.
But according to Lake, at least, the 6-1, 183-pound defensive back has the versatility to shine at several spots.
Lake cooks up another recruit
Jimmy Lake is always recruiting — even inside the program.
For proof, look no further than sophomore converted wide receiver Alex Cook, who slid to the suddenly-thin safety position this spring.
“I’m always looking at the other side of the ball, trying to pluck guys,” Lake said with an unapologetic grin. “I got John Ross one year. I’ve pulled guys over. You name it. So I’m always recruiting and I recruited Alex Cook over.”
Granted, Cook is no stranger to the defensive backfield. The 6-1, 202-pound sophomore was actually named a Sacramento Bee all-metro defensive back at Sacramento (Calif.) Sheldon High School in 2016. He first appeared on Lake’s radar long before this offseason.
“We offered him on both sides of the ball, really, when we first offered him,” Lake said. “His first visit here, he was with me. We had offered him a scholarship and loved his tape at safety and we loved his athleticism at wide receiver.
“But I love his want-to, his toughness. He was a tough player coming out of high school. That’s not going to change. Now we’ve just got to learn how to do things on the defensive side of the ball and hopefully we’ll see him shine here in the next couple weeks.”
Given that UW touts just two players — juniors Brandon McKinney and Isaiah Gilchrist — with collegiate experience at the safety position, Cook has an immediate opportunity to make an impact. After catching just one pass last season, the Sacramento native — who appeared beside early enrollee freshman Cam Williams with the second team last week — is looking to make a new start at safety.
“He’s doing fine right now,” Lake said. “It’s only two days. He’s working at it, and we’re just going to see how he ends up at the end of spring football.”