2009 Washington Preview - Defense
Washington LB Mason Foster
Washington LB Mason Foster
Posted May 29, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Washington Husky Defense

Washington Huskies

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Washington Preview | 2009 UW Offense
- 2009 UW Defense | 2009 UW Depth Chart
- 2008 UW Preview | 2007 UW Preview | 2006 UW Preview 

What you need to know: After allowing more points and more yards than any defense in school history, the return of nine starters is being viewed as a mixed blessing. Absolutely nothing went right a year ago, but new coordinator Nick Holt does inherit some decent talent, especially in the front seven, where DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and linebackers E.J. Savannah and Mason Foster are all-star caliber. Schematically, Holt’s defense will look similar to the one he coached at USC, which means it’ll be run out of a 4-3 base set. While there’s no shortage of items on the to-do list, the top priority will be to find the mix in a defensive backfield that was completely overmatched last fall and still had two unresolved positions coming out of spring.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Mason Foster, 105
Sacks: Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, 8
Interceptions: Several at 1

Star of the defense: Senior DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB Quinton Richardson
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Alameda Ta’amu
Best pro prospect: Te’o-Nesheim
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Te’o-Nesheim 2) Savannah 3) Junior LB Mason Foster
Strength of the defense: The linebackers
Weakness of the defense: The pass defense, run defense, pass rush, creating turnovers

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Senior Daniel Te’o-Nesheim wasn’t supposed to be this good when he left Hawaii for the mainland. So much for high school rankings. Now entering his fourth season as a starter, he’s evolved into one of the league’s best pass rushers and an All-Pac-10 second teamer. For the second straight year, he provided the spark up front, posting 65 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and a team-best eight sacks. A solid 6-4, 263-pounder, he uses his hands well and has the whistle-to-whistle intensity to wear down his man.

With Te’o-Nesheim drawing plenty of attention, Husky coaches hope 6-2, 245-pound senior Darrion Jones can take advantage from the other side. A former linebacker, he has the speed needed to get into the backfield, but hasn’t produced, making just 17 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss as a nine-game starter. He’ll need to build on a strong spring in order to keep one of the kids from stealing his job.

On the inside, the Huskies boast a pair of complimentary players, 6-3, 289-pound junior Cameron Elisara and 6-2, 348-pound sophomore Alameda Ta’amu. Elisara is more of a three-tech tackle, with the quickness, instincts, and motor to slice through blockers and disrupt plays behind the line. A good blend of strength, desire, and burst, he had 24 tackles as a sophomore, earning seven starts.

Ta’amu, on the other hand, is a prototypical space-eater, a two-gap tackle, who can hold his ground and clog running lanes. An extremely powerful player, he has the potential to be a dominant run defender, especially if he can improve his conditioning and stamina. Too good to keep off the field as a rookie, he started five games a year ago and chipped in 21 tackles.

Projected Top Reserves: If Jones leaves an opening at defensive end, 6-6, 255-pound sophomore Everette Thompson is going to bust through. A prized recruit from 2008, he made his presence felt in 11 games, notching 18 tackles, five tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks. Considering his size, he moves extremely well, covering ground like a pass-catching tight end.

The most versatile of the reserves is 6-4, 260-pound junior De’Shon Matthews, a former defensive end, who’s now lining up behind Elisara at tackle. He has a huge wingspan to apply a punch to offensive linemen and the quick feet to get penetration. He played sparingly a year ago, but did earn his first letter.

Watch Out For…the emergence of Ta’amu. Washington has been searching for a plugger like him for years, only to come up short. Tackles this big, who can also move, usually wind up playing on Sundays, which is why the new staff is so geeked about his potential.
Strength: The ends. With Te’o-Nesheim bearing the torch and Thompson gaining quickly, the Huskies have a nice mix of experience and youth at the position. If Jones can play as well as he did in April, allowing Thompson to develop at a modest pace, the defense will have a solid rotation on the outside.
Weakness: More help for Te’o-Nesheim. No. 66 did all he could to help the team last year, but it’s about time he gets more support. Despite his efforts and constant pressure, the Huskies had just two other sacks from defensive linemen in 2008 and finished 117th nationally against the run.
Outlook: The optimist will tell you that everyone returns from a year ago. Of course, that was the same crew that got mauled up front on a weekly basis. Washington needs to be more than a one-man gang in the trenches if it has any hope of improving on last year’s dreadful results in all phases. It’s incumbent upon every lineman to raise the level of his ability this fall.
Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters: The linebackers were already good, but they became Washington’s most talented unit when 6-1, 230-pound senior E.J. Savannah was cleared to play this season. He left the team and sat out all of 2008 after delivering a terrific, borderline All-Pac-10 campaign a year earlier. Highly instinctive and quick from sideline-to-sideline, he gives the defense another playmaker at one of the outside spots.

Savannah’s absence last fall created a massive opportunity for 6-1, 229-pound junior Mason Foster, who filled it like an old pro. Using a similar formula of explosive athleticism and keen instincts, he went from backup to leading tackler overnight, finishing with 105 stops and a dozen tackles behind the line. A true playmaker, he’ll be given the green light to blitz and make plays everywhere on the field.  

Holding down the middle will be 6-1, 242-pound senior Donald Butler, who has started 15 games over the last two seasons and has three letters. As healthy as he’d been in a long time, he stepped up and made 69 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and two sacks. A solid tackler when filling the lanes, he’ll be even more productive flanked by all-star-caliber players, like Savannah and Butler.   

Projected Top Reserves: In sixth-year senior Trenton Tuiasosopo, the Huskies boast one of the steadiest backup linebackers in the Pac-10. A seven-game starter in the middle last year, he had a career-high 71 tackles and three passes defended. At 6-2 and 243 pounds, he’s the unit’s strongest player, doing his best work on running plays.

Behind Savannah on the outside will be 6-2, 226-pound senior Josh Gage, a self-made former walk-on, who earned four starts and made 17 stops a year ago. An ace on special teams and a try-hard guy, he brings leadership and a contagious attitude to this group.

Watch Out For… the Huskies to at least toy with the idea with the 3-4. The linebackers are sound. The line is a concern. That could be a recipe for pairing up Tuiasosopo with Butler as inside linebackers, thus getting the team’s 11 best players on the field.
Strength: Lateral speed. Savannah and Foster, in particular, have the quickness to string out plays and keep opposing backs from getting around tackle. Savannah was terrific in 2007. Foster was equally good in 2008. Put the two on the field at the same time, and the Huskies have one of the top dozen or so best outside linebacker tandems in the country.
Weakness: Backups on the outside. Everything is fine if the starters play all 12 games, but what happens if Savannah has issues again or one of the two get injured? Gage is a nice player to have on the B team, but as a starter, he can be exposed.
Outlook: If everyone is available throughout the year, the Huskies will lean on this group as the foundation of its defense and the team. The top four players are rock solid, combining the ability to stuff the run with a knack for the big play. With so many plays getting past the first line of defense, all three starters could rack up at least 75 tackles and a half-dozen behind the line.
Rating: 8


Projected Starters: On offense, the Huskies are most concerned about the line. On defense, it’s the secondary. It’s an on-going problem that the program has labored to solve throughout this decade. First, the good news. Junior SS Nate Williams is back to follow up on his All-Pac-10 honorable mention season. One of the few bright spots, he started all 12 games, making 76 tackles and breaking up five passes. A tremendous all-around athlete at 6-0 and 207 pounds, he’ll punish opponents in the open field and has above average cover skills.

The only other sure-thing starter among the defensive backs is 6-0, 200-pound sophomore Quinton Richardson, who returns for his second year as a full-time cornerback. Built more like a safety, he flashed enough speed and athleticism to be used at corner, making 32 tackles and breaking up a team-high seven passes. He was lost at times in 2008, but the staff feels he has the right physical package to persevere.

From here, things get real cloudy. At the other cornerback spot, four players left spring with a realistic shot at winning the job in August. If you have four corners, you probably have none. The most experienced of the group is 5-10, 180-pound junior Matt Mosley, who has started three games in each of the last two seasons and had a career-high 15 tackles in 2008. He had some moments last fall, but also showed enough leaks in pass defense to be again fighting to hold his job.

The situation at free safety is nearly as muddled. Sophomore Johri Fogerson moved from tailback before the season, and wound up starting three games and making 23 tackles. Although the 6-2, 190-pounder is  better prepared and healthier for the assignment this fall, he’s still a liability when the ball is in the air and only has a soft hold on this job. 

Projected Top Reserves: Running neck-and-neck with Fogerson at free safety is 5-11, 198-pound redshirt freshman Greg Walker, a hard-hitting defender, who used last year to add muscle, and enjoyed a promising spring.

At strong safety, the coaching staff really likes the play of 6-1, 209-pound junior Victor Aiyewa, but only if he can remain healthy. A terrific physical specimen, he was only able to suit up for five games, but had 17 tackles and showed a knack for getting to the ball and wrapping up on tackles.

Of the slew of players vying for the corner spot opposite Richardson, 5-9, 178-pound junior Vonzell McDowell stands out because of his experience. A letterwinner in each of the last two seasons, he has 32 career tackles and four starts. However, his size and cover ability are concerns, putting 5-11, 185-pound redshirt freshman Justin Glenn and 6-0, 176-pound Anthony Gobern on equal footing as the season approaches.

Watch Out For… the return of senior Jason Wells. Maybe. A starter at safety in 2006 and 2007, Wells has missed almost the last two seasons with a knee injury. While not quite 100%, he’s headed in that direction, and hopes to compete for playing once the season begins. The Huskies can use his veteran presence.
Strength: Depth. If there’s one positive thing you can say about the Husky secondary, it’s that it has a bunch of players who’ve seen the field. Largely out of necessity, a whopping 10 different players have earned letters, including 6-2, 218-pound sophomore Alvin Logan, who was a starting wide receiver last season.
Weakness: Pass defense. You can take your pick here because Washington does little right when the ball is in the air. A year ago, the Huskies were 115th nationally in pass efficiency defense, picking off just seven passes and an unacceptable 8.1 yards per attempt.
Outlook: One of these days, Washington is going to get this right. Unfortunately, that day won’t come anytime soon. Too often, the Huskies are overmatched, lacking the cover corners to shut down even average receivers. Unless the pass rush makes like infinitely easier than a year ago, the secondary will be easy pickings for many opposing quarterbacks.
Rating: 5.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: After enjoying a degree of stability over the last couple of years, Washington is forced to break in a pair of new kickers this fall. If sophomore Erik Folk can stay healthy, which hasn’t happened over the last two seasons, he’ll be the front-runner at placekicker. He’s shown ample leg strength, but his accuracy, especially outside 40 yards, has come into question, and his back needs to hold up.

The situation is less certain at punter, where sophomore Kiel Rasp held a post-spring edge over junior Andrew Lutton in the battle of the walk-ons. Neither player padlocked the job in April, increasing the probability that Will Mahan will soar past both players when he arrives in the summer. A transfer from Bakersfield (Calif.) Community College, he’s more of a finesse punter than a rocket launcher.

The Huskies will be leaning on a quartet of sophomores, Jordan Polk, Devin Aguilar, Quinton Richardson, and Cody Bruns to spark one of the nation’s most feeble return games.

Watch Out For
… more regulars to be used in order to shore up the coverage and return teams. The Huskies were awful in both areas a year ago, prompting the staff to employ more starters on special teams. Injury liability aside, it makes sense because the team looked slow and overmatched here in 2008.

Strength: Covering kickoffs. It’s a reach, but it’s also one of the few things Washington did really well last season. The Huskies yielded just 19.7 yards a return, which was good 37th nationally and No. 2 in the Pac-10.
Weakness: The return game. Go ahead and fill in covering punts, which was just as hideous last fall. The Huskies were 105th in the country on punt returns and 113th on kickoffs, a double-whammy that did no favors for an already struggling offense.
Outlook: A microcosm for the program as a whole, the special teams has shortcomings everywhere and question marks at punter and placekicker that need to be answered this summer. Unless things change dramatically over the next few months, Washington will need to compensate for one of the nation’s worst units among the BCS schools.
Rating: 5