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Washington Football Defensive Preview
Not the elite defense of years past, but still around FBS average.
Since 2015, Washington has had one of the best defenses in the conference, posting a top 3 defense in the conference every year with one exception— last year, when they slipped to 4th in points allowed (but still 3rd of 12 in yards allowed, although to be fair, they had fired their head coach). Previous head coaches Chris Petersen and Jimmy Lake sent a long list of defensive players to the NFL. In just one year under new head coach Kalen DeBoer, it seems they’ve flipped the script on priorities this year, with an elite offense and middle of the Pac defense.
That said, they still have plenty of defensive talent all over the field. UW has transitioned from the 2-4-5/3-4 schemes of the past to a (more traditional?) 4-2-5 scheme.
The biggest benefactors of the new defensive scheme have been the defensive ends, Bralen Trice and Jeremiah Martin. UW has already generated more sacks this season through 7 games than they did through 12 games last season. In all of 2021, Jeremiah Martin had 1 sack and Bralen Trice had 2. This year, Martin is up to 5 and Trice sits at 4.5 sacks. It seems that there is a renewed focus on generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season.
Bralen Trice has been quietly having a solid season while flying a bit under the radar. He has a very quick first step, causing opposing offensive tackles to have to react to him:
Trice also possesses a solid bull rush move, frequently knocking offensive linemen back:
One knock against Trice is that his speed can be sometimes used against him, as opposing offensive tackles will steer him past the quarterback, causing him to overpursue. Relatedly, he hasn’t done a great job of making tackles on the edge.
DE Jeremiah Martin also looks to have improved since last season. Here Martin splits a double team for sack on one of the Pac-12’s most slippery quarterbacks:
Here Martin strips Stanford QB Tanner McKee:
The defensive end listed second on the depth chart was at one point considered to be (and still may be) a very high NFL draft pick: Zion Tupuola-Fetui, more commonly referred to as “ZTF.” Although he’s listed as a backup, he’s still played in a significant number of snaps this season. In an abbreviated 2020 season, ZTF posted an absurd 7 sacks in just 3 games. Unfortunately, he suffered an Achilles tear prior to the 2021 to miss the start of the season, and had another injury after he returned for a premature end to it, so the 2021 season was pretty much a wash. This year, ZTF is looking to get back on NFL radars by regaining his 2020 form.
In 2020, ZTF showed a ton of speed and explosiveness, as well as a wide variety of pass rush moves and counters in order to terrorize quarterbacks. ZTF looks to still be working on regaining some of that explosiveness that he’s lost since his Achilles injury, but he’s still a very dangerous pass rusher.
This was an interesting pass rush move, I’m not sure what this is called:
Even though ZTF was known for his speed as a pass rusher, he still has excellent power. Check out this bull rush move:
The big space eater on the interior is DT Tuli Letuligasenoa, who does a great job at getting initial push to disrupt running backs in the backfield. Here he keeps his head up to knock down a pass:
And here is probably the most impressive “doesn’t look impressive” clip in the whole article. DT Tuli Letuligasenoa stuffs UCLA RB Zach Charbonnet:
Let me tell you, no one stuffs Charbonnet. The guy is basically a locomotive in the backfield, and it’s rare to see him get stuffed like this—usually his negative run plays are something like someone dove into the backfield and got a hand in to trip him. Usually if Charbonnet is running at someone, they’re moving backwards, especially in short yardage situations. Interior defensive lineman is one of those positions that can go unappreciated by fans, but let me tell you, Letuligasenoa is making an impact there, even if it doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.
Another player finding his way into the backfield is the backup DT Voi Tunuufi. Here he is on a creative pressure for a sack before QB Jayden de Laura has time to react:
I think the defensive line is probably the strength of the defense (in contrast to prior years when Washington was known as a “DB U”), and it’s clear they’ll be making an impact against a porous Cal offensive line on Saturday.
UW’s leading tackler in 2021 is the linebacker Jackson Sirmon, who… now plays for the Bears. The second leading tackler, though, was Carson Bruener, although “Carson Bruiser” might be a better name given the violent hits he’s laid on opponents. (Yesterday’s cover image of QB Michael Penix Jr’s shocked face was actually a reaction to a Bruener hit on a kick returner). I like Bruener a lot as a linebacker, and he shows really good instincts for the ball and doesn’t hesitate:
(I should probably note that Bruener is actually the backup, I just happen to like him better than starting LB Cam Bright, a transfer from Pitt.)
UW also had another NFL-caliber linebacker, Edefuan Ulofoshio, but like many UW players (what is with this trend?) he’s out with a serious injury and slated to return in late October. In his place is the sophomore Alphonzo Tuputala, who also had an Achilles tear in 2021.
Alphonzo Tuputala is described as someone who “likes to hit”:
Tuputala is an effective pass rusher, and is currently tied for 3rd on the team in sacks (behind defensive ends Martin and Trice):
The other backup linebacker is the UAB transfer Kristopher Moll. I’m not as much of a fan of Moll— he plays overaggressively with a tendency to overpursue on the run, often opting for a hit instead of the tackle:
That’s just one of those things that bugs me, when players give up an easy tackle because they’re trying too hard to make a play. It makes sense when you have a high-powered offense to try and steal an extra possession or two, but UW has not been particularly good at forcing turnovers this year:
UW only has two fumble recoveries in 7 games, for instance. UW has a lot of missed tackles as a result, but after last week’s loss to Colorado (who has even more missed tackles), I’m not sure how much of a factor that will be.
Simply put, the secondary has been the biggest on the defense. UW had an elite secondary year after year, but this group went from 1st in the conference in passing yards allowed in 2021 (143.3 yards allowed/game) to 10th in the conference in 2022 (258.3 yards allowed/game). For context, they’re just 0.4 yards ahead of the 11th ranked team... Cal.
The most obvious reason is the loss of NFL 1st round CB Trent McDuffie and 2nd round CB Kyler Gordon.
To replace them, they went out and got UC Davis transfer cornerback Jordan Perryman. I actually watched all 12 of UC Davis’s games from the 2021 season for my UC Davis preview this year. To put it nicely, I was less than impressed with Jordan Perryman, and I’m still not sure what they saw in him. Most of UW’s corners are redshirt freshmen and sophomores, so I suppose the one advantage he has is experience as a senior.
Being a physical corner is usually a good thing, but you’re supposed to be subtle about it:
You can put “ankle breaker” on Arizona WR Dorian Singer’s resume:
The rest of the corners struggle from similar coverage issues. Really, I watch these games to try and find highlights. Here’s CB Julius Irvin with a nice break on the ball for a pass breakup:
But like Perryman, he also looked outmatched at times against the Pac-12 receivers:
The redshirt freshman CB Davon Banks has given up more TDs than any other player on the roster (it probably would have been CB Mishael Powell, but he’s been out with an injury):
The safeties are at least a bit better, as UW returns some experience there. Although the safeties aren’t particularly great in run support, they generally do a good job of keeping the play in front of them to avoid giving up too many big plays. S Asa Turner is trying to take the next step and get on NFL radars this year, after a spotty injury history in previous seasons. Here he makes a nice play on the ball:
Someone who’s looked good so far in limited snaps is the redshirt freshman safety Makell Esteen. The very first snap of his career resulted in an interception:
Here’s Cameron Williams getting beat deep by a Portland State receiver:
The current starting safeties, Alex Cook and Kamren Fabiculanan, haven’t been especially impressive either:
In the hybrid LB/S position (which UW calls the “Husky”) is Dominique Hampton, although Hampton is currently listed as questionable with an undisclosed injury. Hampton was probably selected for the role as one of the surest tacklers of the secondary (in addition to his size).
He’s also shown some good coverage skills at times:
I actually think Asa Turner would do well in the hybrid LB/S role, but I’m not sure why he’s not on the depth chart for this one. Asa Turner returned from injury last week to play safety alongside Alex Cook, while Kamren Fabiculanan slid over to the “Husky” position in Hampton’s absence. Expect to see some mix of these players in the secondary on Saturday.
Washington has a strong defensive line which should pose matchup troubles for Cal, but there will be opportunities downfield if Plummer is given time to throw. UW isn’t exceptional at stopping the run, but they’re probably good enough at disrupting the the run at the point of attack that it shouldn’t matter. It’s hard for me to say anything definitive here, because there are so many parallels between the UW defense and Colorado’s defense (missed tackles, etc), it’s just that UW’s defense is an upgraded version of that (Colorado’s defense with more talent becomes an average defense). I would think that Cal’s offense should be able to take advantage of that, but after last week, I can’t be sure of anything anymore.
Go Bears. See you Saturday.
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