August 28, 2008

For Husky Defense, Only Way is Up

While most would like to forget, allow me to reminisce the 2007 Husky defense. In short, Washington's defense didn't defend much last season, ranking 103rd in total defense after giving up an average of 446.38 yards per game. The blame fell squarely on the shoulders of former Defensive Coordinator Kent Baer, who received the axe following the season. In his place, Washington Head Coach Tyrone Willingham brought in NFL veteran Ed Donatell to right all things that went wrong. Although he took over a group filled with a lot of question marks, Donatell has liked what he's seen so far.

"Our work is cut out for us, but our guys are up for the challenge," exclaimed Donatell. "We intend to play very well. The power of team is a very very powerful thing. I get a good feeling about these guys."

The first test for the new look Husky defense - the Oregon Ducks - a team that shellacked Washington last season to the tune of 25 first downs, seven touchdowns and 661 yards of total offense - all season highs. Donatell's answer - fundamentals.

"There's people that really want to have the image of the Husky defense as being stronger, there's no question of that. People aren't happy with the year they had last year - they want to do something about it," explained Donatell. "It's fundamentals. When you say we won the game, you say they tackled well. You say this team leveraged well. Those two things will come up. Those are key ingredients to our total intentions of getting the job done."

Getting the job done against the Ducks won't be easy. Oregon has taken four straight in the Rivalry and is favored to add another win to the streak. Donatell is well aware of the Ducks' potent offense, which all starts with the offensive line. However, he understands the task at hand and feels his group of defenders is ready to step up to the plate.

"We intend to block well and play with good leverage. If I see that, I'll be pretty happy. These guys challenge that. They move around a lot. You've got to find the ball against these guys, and they're fast. I haven't seen all of the [offensive] lines, but I think this rates towards the top. They've been together and they're very quick. They're a smaller line than what they've been seeing in practice, so it'll be a little bit of a tempo thing when they see this group," explained Donatell. "It's very helpful to have a couple of veteran leaders like Donald [Butler] and Daniel [Te'o-Nesheim]. We know we're racing to the finish line to get everybody ready, but these guys are willing, and when a group is willing, a lot of good things can happen. If you're willing and guys are working hard and they're excited about what's going on, good things happen."

Games are decided in the trenches. If you don't have a good offensive line, you won't move the ball. In the same token, if you don't have a good defensive line, you won't stop much. Up front, it starts with Cameron Elisara and Senio Kelemete at defensive tackle. Elisara, a redshirt sophomore, only logged a total of two tackles last season, but will be looked upon to lead a relatively young position. Kelemete, a true freshman, earned the starting position, despite missing half of Fall practices waiting to be cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse.

"I'm very pleased with Senio. He had about ten days with the team - a little bit behind getting here, but I'm very pleased with this guy. He brings an unusual quality of power and strength to our defense. This guy should be a real good Husky for a long time. He has a great attitude about working and he fits in great with the team," expressed Donatell. "I'm very pleased that he is that good. I'm very pleased to know that you've got a guy that can anchor it. He's bright, he understands. I don't see anything that can keep him back from being a good player."

Backing up Elisara and Kelemete is redshirt senior Johnie Kirton and another true freshman in Alameda Ta'amu. Kirton played tight end for three seasons before switching to defensive tackle this season. The transition has been relatively easy for the one-time high school running back.

"It's actually been pretty easy. I got recruited as a defensive lineman in high school too," explained Kirton. Having the offensive knowledge on the backside has obviously helped a lot, because I can look at a lot of the formations and I know what comes out of them. The offensive side is actually helping me a lot more than I expected on the defensive side."

Donatell has been pleased with Kirton's progression.

"I like his attitude about coming in. He's got one quarter of his whole career ahead of him," said Donatell. "He's learning a new position and he's making steps. He'll get some playing time."

Kirton signed with Washington in 2004, ultimately choosing the Huskies over Oregon. Four years later, Kirton has yet to beat Oregon, but hopes this time will be different.

"For me, it holds a little bit more weight, because I had both signing papers in front of my face and I chose Washington. At times, it hurts a little more when we lose to them, because I know [Oregon Head Coach Mike] Bellotti and them are over there kind of thinking what if you came here type thing," explained Kirton. "So for me, it holds a little bit more weight to go down there and beat them finally in my last year. I'm hoping we come out with the win."

Kirton has been helping the younger linemen like Kelemete and Ta'amu prepare for their first collegiate game.

"I tell them it's just like any other day. If you make a mistake, you've got to erase that memory and go to the next play. You can't really let the coaches get into your head when they see you do something wrong. You've got to put it behind you, say yes sir and fix it," explained Kirton. "You're not always going to make every play, make every tackle. I think they're starting to understand that it's all about the next play rather than the last couple of plays."

The transition from the high school level to the college level is arguably the toughest for linemen. Ta'amu is surprised at how well he's adjusted to Pac-10 football.

"Before camp, I thought I was going to be rolling on the field. I really thought the offensive line was going to toss me side-to-side," said Ta'amu. "But then I watched film and noticed I'm just as big as they are. It surprised me what I could do against these bigger guys. I feel that my size and my power is what helped me get in the two deep. I'm a big guy and I can hold my ground when I get double teamed - I can clog up that hole."

Ta'amu may not know what to expect from the Oregon crowd at Autzen Stadium, but he does have an idea of what must be done to slow down the potent offense of the Ducks.

"Being in college isn't going to hit me until I hit the field and hear the crowd. They say Oregon is one of the baddest crowds," expressed Ta'amu. "Coach tells us in order to slow down, you've got to get in front of the blocker's face and try to hold him down from getting to the side that he's trying to get do. Basically we have to run laterally."

Redshirt junior outside linebacker Josh Gage, a former walk-on, not only earned a scholarship for the second straight season, but has worked himself into the starting lineup thanks to steady play and a strong grasp of the defense.

"I don't know if anything drastically happened with my play. Ever since I came in, I felt like I've been pretty consistent with my knowledge of the defense and just making plays," explained Gage. "Opportunities come, and when they do, you've got to capitalize on them. Especially as a walk-on, because you don't get many. When they do, you've just got to make the most of it."

Gage has never made the trip to Eugene, but hopes to keep a cool head come Saturday.

"I have a little bit of nerves, but a lot of excitement. I'm really looking forward to it. I've never actually been to Oregon, but from what I've heard, it's pretty hostile," said Gage. "What I'll try to focus on is the game plan, and try not to get too involved with the crowd, even though I know it's going to be crazy. I'm really excited and looking forward to it."

The linebacker corp took a big hit when redshirt junior E.J. Savannah, the Huskies' leading tackler was declared academically ineligible. However, Gage feels the linebacker position will be fine this season.

"We've always been a tight group. E.J. is a great player, and anytime you lose a guy who can make those kind of plays, it's definitely a loss," said Gage. "However, it's going to be good. I think we're coming together. I think we compliment each other really well. We bring a different mix. All of us are really knowledgeable of the game, so I think that helps when you communicate really well. I think that's one of the biggest differences of our linebacker crew from the past. I think we're going to bring a lot of enthusiasm. We're a good group right now and I think there's going to be a lot of big plays coming from the linebackers. It's going to be an exciting year."

The Husky secondary left much to be desired last season, ranking 104th in the nation in pass defense. Darin Harris and Mesphin Forrester, both seniors, will start against Oregon, but the secondary as a whole, is very young. One of the youngsters looking to make some noise this season is true sophomore Victor Aiyewa. After serving on special teams as a true freshman, Aiyewa looked primed to capture the starting strong safety, but a groin injury suffered before Fall camp has slowed his progression. However, Aiyewa will play significant time for now as the backup and has the confidence a defensive back needs to be successful.

"I feel that the coaches probably feel more comfortable with Darin, because he's 100 percent. You don't want to put a guy out there who's 85, 90 percent when you've got a guy that can give you 100 percent," explained Aiyewa. "I feel comfortable. I know I'll have my chance to show what I can do. I've just got to continue to progress as the season goes. I'm really not upset. If I'm down, I'm down on myself because I'm the one that's not healthy. But I know I can perform up to any safety in the conference. I feel I'm the best at whatever I do. The groin has set me back, but it'll be a major comeback soon when I get healthy."

What's maybe the most impressive thing about Aiyewa, is the fact that he played only one year of high school football before arriving at Montlake. That should say something about his ability to excel in the future. Aiyewa has confidence in this season's defense.

"I'm looking forward to anybody who thinks they can do anything on our defense. It'll be interesting. I think we have one of the best defenses in the conference," said Aiyewa. "We play with intensity - we just love to play football. We love the game of football. It's going to be a really interesting season."

Aiyewa also has much confidence in the Husky secondary, and explained the biggest difference from last season.

"It's just a different interaction with Coach Donatell - the way he interacts with the team, we grasp the concepts. Communication - there was a lot of missed assignments last year. We picked up on the communication this year and we just love to talk," expressed Aiyewa. "Just the intensity of football, we all love to play. We're all physical and we're all ready to play. We think this is a time to change."

Will the Husky defense improve? We'll see come Saturday.

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