When the search for UW’s next defensive coordinator abruptly concluded on Feb. 1, coach Jimmy Lake said “we did an exhaustive process. We interviewed numerous people around the country at different levels — college, NFL — and we had the best defensive coordinator right here on our staff. That’s Bob Gregory.”

That Bob Gregory?

The same Bob Gregory who last served as a defensive coordinator in 2009, when he left California to coach linebackers at Boise State? The same Bob Gregory whose special-teams units notably struggled last season? The same Bob Gregory who has assumed scapegoat status — whether warranted or not — for many full-throated Washington football fans?

Wide receiver Ja’Lynn Polk (23) passes during UW Huskies spring practice at the east practice field on Friday, April 9, 2021. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Observations from the UW Huskies’ second practice of the spring

The very same. And, after UW’s second spring practice Friday, Gregory — whose predecessor, Pete Kwiatkowski, accepted the same position at Texas — met the media for the first time as UW’s defensive coordinator.

Unsurprisingly, he was asked whether he had immediate interest in the position.

“I’m like 92 years old, so I’m good with whatever,” said Gregory, who in reality is only 57. “I’ve been coaching a long time. Coach K and I have been together for a long time. I think it was about 12, 13 years we were together. So I certainly miss him as a friend. I didn’t want him to go. So whatever way coach Lake wanted to go, I’m totally good with.”

Advertising

Of course, Lake ultimately opted to go with consistency — with the same system that allowed UW to top the Pac-12 in total defense and scoring defense for four consecutive seasons, from 2015 to 2018. And yet, that same system surrendered 161.25 rushing yards per game and 4.54 yards per carry last season — the worst totals since Lake and Gregory arrived in Seattle in 2014. Plus, excluding a 44-27 win over hapless Arizona, those numbers inflated further to 191 rushing yards per game and 4.94 yards per carry.

Gregory’s tenure may ultimately hinge on the Huskies’ ability to consistently plug the run.

“We’ve got to talk about it. There’s no doubt,” Gregory said of UW’s underwhelming run defense. “I think it was around 200 yards we gave up last year — which, we’re not going to win a lot of games if we give up 200 yards rushing. So talking about it, putting more emphasis on how we’re taking on blocks, striking blockers better, getting another guy up in the box to stop the run.

“It’s a philosophy. It’s a mentality. It’s teaching it more, spending more time on it, being more aggressive with it, getting another guy in the box scheme-wise. So it’s a little bit of everything.”  

He added: “Everybody wants to rush the passer. You’ve got to earn the right to rush the passer on third down. So we’ve got to be good on first and second down or we’re not going to get to third down.”

But, when UW does get to third down, that will be Ikaika Malloe’s area of expertise. In the wake of Kwiatkowski’s departure, Malloe — the program’s co-defensive coordinator — shifted positions from the defensive line to outside linebackers, which allowed Lake to promote quality control coach Rip Rowan to tutor the UW defensive linemen.

Advertising

“Obviously with my goal to eventually become a coordinator, that just helps my development in terms of not only being able to speak coverage-wise but to be able to coach it and not just be solely a front guy,” Malloe said of the move. “We had coach Rip Rowan already on staff, and we knew we would not take a step back with that defensive line. He ran meetings for me last year. That’s how good this coach is, and he’s bringing new ideas to the table that actually are things I think helps all of us defensively. So it was a move coach Lake agreed upon, and for my development, that’s the right move.”

And, despite junior Laiatu Latu’s medical retirement, Malloe now gets to develop an intriguing horde of Husky pass rushers. The group is led by second-team All-American Zion Tupuola-Fetui as well as sixth-year senior Ryan Bowman.

Analysis: what to expect of UW’s outside linebackers without Laiatu Latu

But that’s just the beginning.

“I think I’m sitting in an ideal situation that coach K has left here,” Malloe said. “We are three-deep for sure, and actually we can get to four-deep with (redshirt freshman Jordan) Lolohea coming up and then (Texas A&M senior transfer) Jeremiah Martin entering the picture.

“That’s what you want. Those guys understand that competitiveness in my room is being able to teach somebody so they know just as much as you, and then going out to the field and beating them. That’s Zion’s job now. Zion needs to teach Jeremiah everything he knows so Jeremiah’s getting better, and now go on the field and prove why he’s better than Jeremiah.”

Beyond the transcendent Tupuola-Fetui, here are Malloe’s early evaluations of some of UW’s other outside linebackers.

Advertising

On Bowman, who missed UW’s final two games in 2020: “His leadership in that group, I can’t even explain how important that is — from the time we broke in practice to him demanding, ‘Let’s go get some lunch. Let’s watch film together. Let’s get better before we get back on the field.’ That to me is a true leader. He had a really good day today, and he didn’t even get a chance to watch film for himself. He was concerned about the group. Ryan is huge for us.”

On the 6-3, 265-pound Martin, who made 11 tackles with zero sacks in three seasons at Texas A&M: “He’s doing awesome. He’s a really, really smart kid. Obviously he’s gifted. He’s very athletic, very powerful. He’s learned both positions already, strong and weak (outside linebacker). So he’s definitely come here to compete, and that’s what we expect out of him.”

On redshirt freshman Sav’ell Smalls, a former five-star recruit who totaled seven tackles last season: “Sav’ell had to get used to not only the speed but the offensive guys that are 350 pounds and moving just as fast as him and they’re really good at technique. So he went from being a powerhouse rusher to now having to use technique, now having to attack joints and whatnot. I think he is a student of the game. He’s up in my office almost every day, so that’s very encouraging. He’s only going to get better. What your expectations of him are, it’ll come to fruition.”

On 6-4, 255-pound sophomore Bralen Trice, who did not play in his first two seasons at UW: “Without putting so much pressure on him, Bralen will be probably better than Joe Tryon. He’s very long. He’s athletic. He can drop in space. He can do all those intangibles, and he’s physical enough. He does want to put his hat and eyes on you. So as he progresses, you will see him taking about the same path as Joe Tryon did.”

If that happens, Trice will make Malloe — and Gregory — look good.