August 20, 2008

Can Safety Be a Strength in 2008?

The safety position is one that should be interesting this fall, as there are realistically four different players that could start - those four being 6-foot-2, 210-pound senior Jason Wells, 5-foot-11, 200-pound redshirt senior Darin Harris, 6-foot-1, 217-pound sophomore Victor Aiyewa and 6-foot-1, 205-pound sophomore Nate Williams.

"Right now, you could flip a coin and whichever two come up heads, those are probably going to be the guys who are going to be out there," explained Washington Secondary Coach J.D. Williams. "There's so much competition, that's why you grade ever single snap, because at the end of camp, whoever comes out with the most points, that's probably your starters."

The competition for a starting role has benefitted the entire safety corp in the eyes of Aiyewa, who describes the position as one filled with camaraderie.

"Yeah, I think the competition is making everyone better. We're not enemies, we all help each other out because we all know that we're all going to play," explained Aiyewa. "Some guys are better cover guys, some guys are better tackling, running stopping guys. We all learn from each other and we all are using the competition to get better."

Coach Williams discussed Washington's depth at the safety position.

"It's good to have some depth. You look at the safety position, where we have Nate Williams, have Jason Wells, Tripper hasn't played, but just life experience that he brings - he's been in front of the crowd before," expressed Coach Williams. "Compared to last year when Jason Wells played a little bit, but after that, we didn't have anyone that played. It's always good to come to the season with some type of experience."

The Huskies' secondary problems last season have been well documented. Washington ranked 104th nationally in pass defense in 2007, and struggled to defend the deep pass. However, Williams feels this season should be different.

"Stopping the deep ball has been a focus for us. We're definitely trying to stop that, because that doesn't make us look good as a secondary - it definitely hurts the team in general," explained Williams. "We've just been trying to stay on top of everything. If you're responsibility is to stay in the deep third, coach tells us 'that's your responsibility, don't worry about anything under, that's the linebackers, just stay deep'. So we've been really focusing on that and trying to eliminate those."

If healthy, you could almost certainly pencil in Wells as a starter. Last season, Wells started the Huskies' first five games, recording 24 tackles and one interception before suffering a knee injury in the USC game that sidelined him for the remainder of the season - an injury that he's still recovering from. However, Coach Williams feels confident in Wells' ability to fully heal and make an impact this season.

"Jason is doing good, just slowly working him back in. Hopefully he'll be full speed by the start of the season. I think he's ten months off the injury, and he's back practicing and everything - he's doing a great job. I think once he gets the confidence with his knee, than it's just like riding a bike - he'll be back on it and never miss a beat," explained Coach Williams. "One thing Jason does have - he's got a sharp mind back there and he'll help everybody get lined up. Now it's just a matter of getting his leg back right. But he's got the defense down."

Last season, Harris stepped in for Wells when he suffered his injury, notching 73 tackles in the process. What's even more impressive, is the fact that Harris finished fourth on the team in tackles despite not posting a single stop in the Huskies' first four games.

"Darin is as solid and steady as they go," exclaimed Coach Williams. "You're talking about a guy that's actually running with the one's right now. If I had to pick somebody right now, I'd probably say Darin - he's probably playing the best."

Aiyewa, who was one of seven true freshman to see the field last season, all on special teams, is currently recovering from a groin injury, but feels he will be ready to go soon.

"I just strained my groin a little bit. I was just running and it came from no where. I don't know how it came, but it's just sore. It was off-and-on all last week," explained Aiyewa. "I'm just trying to get back into the swing of things. It's going to be alright though. I would say about 90 percent right now."

While his injury is certainly a setback, albeit a minor one, Aiyewa has kept a positive outlook on the situation.

"I don't want to overstrain my groin, I want to give it a chance to heal. The reps that I'm taking, I'm satisfied with," said Aiyewa. "I feel like I know my playbook well and I just know how to play the position. You can learn from the sideline also, so I'm just trying to make sure my groin will be ready for the season."

Williams was also one of those seven true freshman to see the field last season, playing in all 13 games while notching 32 tackles, five pass deflections and one forced fumble in the process. For his efforts, Williams earned the Travis Spring Most Outstanding Freshman Award. Coach Williams acknowledged the tough transition for the true sophomores last season, but will count on both Aiyewa and Williams this season for leadership.

"Maturity," responded Coach Williams when asked what differences he sees in Williams and Aiyewa. "They had to grow up a little faster than you expect last year, and they handled it well. This year, you expect them to step in and be leaders in the secondary. Hopefully they'll step in and fulfill that role."

Williams has noticed some differences in the 2008 Husky secondary.

"This year we're tougher. Everybody in the secondary this year is 200-pounds plus. We're tougher than other defensive backs that we've had and we're just as fast. I think that's what sets us apart," explained Williams. "We want to go out there and we want to hit. We want to send a message across that we can cover you and we can hit you at the same time. I think that and just our mindset that we're brining into this year is the biggest difference."

Confidence - that's what Coach Williams sees in this group of ball hawking defensive backs.

"It's experience. The guys feel more confident. The guys are playing with confidence. They believe they can get it done," expressed Coach Williams. "Anytime you've got a person that believes they can get it done, they're more apt to work even that much harder."

The story of senior Tripper Johnson is an interesting one. Now 26, the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder was drafted 32nd overall in the 2000 MLB Draft by the Baltimore Orioles. Johnson spent seven seasons in the minor leagues, six with the Orioles and one with the Pittsburgh Pirates. There wasn't much interest in the free agent market for Johnson following his seventh season, so the one-time Newport High School standout contacted the University of Washington to see what his options were with regards to walking on.

"After a month or two of free agency last fall, there wasn't too much interest coming from other organizations, so I told my agent that I've always wanted to try and play football," explained Johnson. "So I contacted my old high school coach at Newport, and he contacted the current coach at Newport, Mike Miller. Mike Miller is good friends with Luke Huard that works here with the Huskies. So one thing led to the next and I had an interview with [Washington Head] Coach [Tyrone] Willingham. It went really well and I got a chance to walk on in the spring."

Johnson, who had offers from Washington and Washington State for football out of high school, hasn't been surprised by what he's experienced thus far, but did acknowledge the intensity of football compared to baseball.

"It's about what I expected. I knew it was going to be one of the hardest things I've ever done, but I didn't expect it to be this intense," explained Johnson. "Every practice, every meeting we have is very intense, very focused. Baseball is a much more laid back sport. I guess it's probably just the mentality of having a long season played over six, seven months. You kind of have to pace yourself, you can't get too excited, too hyped up. You just have to stay calm because you are going to go through a week or two of playing really bad baseball. That's one thing about football - probably the biggest difference is how intense it is."

Being upwards of eight years older than some of his Husky peers, Johnson feels his maturity has helped him and will continue to help him throughout the remainder of his time at Montlake.

"I definitely think being older and having played a professional sport helps me. I've come a long way. You learn how to treat your body right. You have to get sleep, you have to eat right. Maturity wise, it's one of those things where you can't get too high and get too low. You've just got to try to stay at an even keel," explained Johnson. "You're going to have your ups and downs. I know I'm going to make mistakes. I made a bunch of mistakes in spring and fall, but you learn from them. When I was a younger athlete, those mistakes really got under my skin. But being an older athlete, being through those life experiences of having those ups and downs, I can recover and just kind of forget about them."

Coach Williams is happy with Johnson's progress thus far.

"He came in and just let his natural ability flow," expressed Coach Williams. "He's got some ability, now it's just a matter of picking up the defenses and everything. He's a smart kid, so I'm pleased with his progress right now."

Speaking with various defensive players, it's apparent that everyone enjoys new Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell, and the safeties are no different.

"Just the way that he is, the way that he coaches us, his mindset - it just makes everything more fun. If you have fun out there, most likely you're going to win games. Just the way he is with us, he's more of a hands on coach," explained Williams. "Today was a perfect example. I kind of leaned into one of the coverage's and he stopped the whole walk through and ran from across the field and showed me exactly what he wanted. I think it helps me a lot and I think it helps a lot of the other players too, because we can see exactly what he wants, not just hear it and try to visualize it. He'll run out there and show us exactly what he wants. I think that's what he brings, just a whole positive mindset and a winning mindset to the team."

"Coach Donatell makes it more fun. He has a better way of interacting with the players," expressed Aiyewa. "The players love to play for Coach Donatell. He's just a great guy."

Coach Williams has enjoyed coaching alongside Donatell, who also spent many years as a secondary coach in the NFL.

"Just bouncing things off each other, it's great, it's great to have Ed back there," exclaimed Coach Williams. "There's times where I can do more individualized coaching, where Ed takes the corners one day and I can work with the safeties more. Whenever I need him, just call him and he'll coach them up too. It's good to have him back there."

However, Donatell isn't the only coach who could be described as a player's coach.

"It's kind of like having an older brother. Coach Williams is a younger guy, a younger coach, so he can relate to what we're going through right now besides football," explained Aiyewa. "He tries to interact with us on a football basis and outside a football basis, so it's nice to have a younger coach to coach you."

With big bodies, relative experience and coaches whom they love to play for, can the Husky secondary become a strength this season after a lackluster 2007 campaign? Time will tell.

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