Washington Football Defensive Preview

The season hasn't gone as planned for UW, but they're still pretty solid on defense.

Defense is still the strength of this team, and although Washington has had an uncharacteristically rough start to the season, most of the finger-pointing is aimed at their struggles on offense. On one hand, two of those opposing offenses were facing a big talent disparity (Montana and Arkansas State), but on the other hand, the Washington defense also held on for most of the Michigan game. Of course, the UW defense spent long stretches of time on the field due to a number of 3-and-outs by their offense, and they were definitely worn down by the second half. Michigan had a strong offensive line and Washington struggled to stop the run, especially without their star linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui— one of the best linebackers in the conference—who is out with a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in the spring. After three straight weeks of 4-2-5 defenses, Cal will face UW’s unique variant of the nickel defense, the 2-4-5. UW fits their scheme to their players, and UW has typically had an embarrassment of riches in the secondary (and still do), but UW has shaken it up a bit and has also shown 3-4 and 3-3-5 sets at times to fit their personnel. UW’s defensive game plan has been to stop the run and force opponents into obvious passing situations, which is their specialty. However, UW has been struggling with the former, and so it will be important for the Cal offense to be able to pick up yards on the ground.

Defensive line

The defensive line this year has been underwhelming, to say the least. This is not a unit that has done very much to pressure quarterbacks or stuff the opposing run game so far this season. I even tried looking at my 2020 highlights to see if I could fluff this section out, but I still couldn’t find anything. The vast majority of pressure on opposing quarterbacks has come on zone or corner blitzes. Washington has only managed 4 sacks so far in 3 games, and only one of those sacks was by a defensive lineman (and 3 of the 4 sacks were on Arkansas State, who was hopelessly outmatched).

So anyway, here’s a TFL by a defensive lineman:

In short, this is not a unit to write home about.

Linebackers

This was originally going to be the Zion Tupuola-Fetui section, because I was convinced last year that he and inside linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio were future stars, and I took a huge number of “ZTF” highlights from their 2020 season. ZTF is a disruptive force at the line of scrimmage and terrorized opposing quarterbacks last year, but he is expected to be out for 6-10 months after rupturing his Achilles tendon last April, and UW is really hoping he can return in the beginning of that timeframe instead of the end. In his place, freshman OLB Cooper McDonald has been starting. McDonald picked up a sack against Montana.

On the other side of the line is the redshirt senior Ryan Bowman. Perhaps as a result of increased attention due to the loss of ZTF, but Bowman has had a quiet season so far— no sacks or TFLs registered, and a number of missed tackles. Bowman is pretty big for a linebacker, but he still has good speed:

At inside linebacker are Jackson Sirmon (yes, son of Peter Sirmon) and Edefuan Ulofoshio. Sirmon is a reliable tackler, but he’s been a bit lacking in pass coverage so far this year. Ulofoshio, a former walk-on, is the remaining star at linebacker. Ulofoshio might not have elite athleticism, but he has great football instincts and will be all over the field for UW. Ulofoshio is fast but also has the strength to shed blocks, does a great job at following the ball carrier, and does not get fooled by play fakes. Besides his good instincts for the ball, he’s just an all-around talent: good in coverage, good at blitzing, good at tackling, good at shedding blocks, and good at finding the ball.

Secondary

Finally, we get to the real meat of the defense. UW has two NFL-caliber corners in Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon, although unfortunately for UW, McDuffie left the Arkansas State game with an injury on a punt return, and may be questionable for the game (I can’t find any news or updates). McDuffie has the speed, explosiveness, and cover skills to be a very high NFL draft pick.

Kyler Gordon is similarly talented, with size, speed, and explosiveness, although he has a bit more room to grow technique-wise. McDuffie has allowed only 2 catches on 10 targets, while Gordon has allowed 3 catches on 8 targets. The two of them make up the strongest corner-duo in the Pac-12.

The nickelback is the undersized-but-explosive (saying that word a lot here) QB Brendan Radley-Hiles. Radley-Hiles is a transfer from Oklahoma, who once showed up on the wrong end of my TCU highlights in the year of the Cheez-It (I believe he was the victim of a nasty stiff arm by the backup QB Michael Collins). On the last TV broadcast, I thought at one point they said that Brendan Radley-Hiles’ nickname was “Boo Radley,” which doesn’t make much sense because that’s a literary reference and I am pretty sure UW fans can’t read. (It turns out I misheard, his nickname is actually “Bookie.”)

It’s pretty clear why Radley-Hiles has moved to nickel: it’s where he can cause the most disruption.

Here he is blowing up a screen:

Radley-Hiles has been a force in the pass rush:

And just in general, Radley-Hiles is flying all over the field. He’s another player to keep an eye on.

The safeties, Alex Cook and Cameron Williams, haven’t really been tested so far this season.

That could be because teams found it much easier to run against UW (Michigan had 56 rushes for 343 yards and just 15 pass attempts, for instance). The only QB to test the UW secondary was Arkansas State—perhaps because they found themselves facing a huge deficit early—and doing so required NFL-level throws from a QB that could not make NFL throws. Their secondary poses a number of challenges: lots of corner blitzes, good defense on screen passes, confusing coverages (e.g. faking press man coverage then switching to zone after the snap to blow up predictable crossing routes on 3rd downs), and so on.  

Conclusion

It’s probably best to run the gosh darn ball. That said, if Ole Miss Garbers shows up, then Cal has a much better passing attack than any of UW’s other opponents so far. I expect we’ll see Garbers scramble a lot more this game, but if he does manage to torch the UW secondary, that would be a very big deal (but don’t bet on it).

Go Bears.