Despite an overwhelming amount of talent, the Huskies have vastly underachieved on defense through the season’s first two games. Hawaii completely ran roughshod over the squad in the first quarter and totaled 28 first downs while FCS powerhouse Eastern Washington rolled up 52 points and over 500 total yards. This is largely the same defensive unit that held Boise State to six points and Arizona to 13 last year among other good showings. So what’s wrong?
After watching the tapes of the first two games, I believe the majority of the problems lie with coaching. Sure tackling has been inconsistent and the pass rush at times has been non-existent, but again, it stems from coaching.
The bottom line is I don’t think new Washington head coach Chris Petersen is getting the most out of the personnel he has on the roster. Against Eastern Washington Saturday, Cory Littleton, Travis Feeney and Elijah Qualls combined to play perhaps 15 snaps on defense. Feeney saw somewhere between 8-12, Littleton 2-3 while Qualls didn’t play a single down.
That’s a problem. Littleton and Feeney are two veteran defenders who were key contributors on a pretty good unit last year. Yet, under Petersen and defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski they’re sitting on the bench? One issue, at least in Littleton’s case, is a change of positions. Since the new staff took over, the junior Littleton has practiced exclusively with the linebackers after playing all of last season as a defensive end, essentially in the spot that fifth-year senior Andrew Hudson currently employs. While I agree that linebacker is ultimately where the 6-foot-3 229-pound Littleton is best suited, why leave a guy who finished second on team with 10 tackles-for-loss and five sacks in ’13 on the pine when Hudson has notched 10 tackles, none for loss and zero sacks in two games? I like Hudson, the man is a warrior and a valuable asset to the defense, but Littleton is better.
Another immediate upgrade would be finding a way to leave Feeney on the field for 90 percent of the defensive snaps. Whether you play him at LB or Buck End, Feeney needs to be on the field. And I get it, because the team is so susceptible against the pass, teams are spreading you out with four, sometimes five wide receivers and the nickel defense is required. Heck, Eastern Washington took nearly every snap with at least three wide receivers on the field. What the coaches need to come to realize is that Feeney is their best, most technically sound linebacker. He is equally adept at playing the run and dropping in coverage, and with his length and speed, is a dominant pass rusher in blitz packages. I would take John Timu off the field (perhaps Shaq Thompson for a handful of plays, too, especially considering his potential offensive usage) in nickel and play Feeney alongside Thompson. If you really want to get creative, I would start moving Thompson to safety in practice and see how that takes. He’s a logical fit for safety at next level. However, it’s probably much too late for that to be looked at despite how much better it would make the defense (because it would allow you to employ more linebackers, which is where the team is currently the deepest).
Finally, there’s Qualls. In no more than a dozen snaps against Hawaii, the nose tackle and Danny Shelton’s backup, was absolutely tremendous. The redshirt freshman had three tackles including one for loss. There isn’t much of a dropoff from Shelton, the most dominant interior lineman in the nation through two games, to Qualls. That’s saying something. The problem is that the team is getting next to zero production from the other interior position where Evan Hudson plays the three technique. Supposedly his length at 6-foot-6 is beneficial. Well, so far it’s helped Hudson to five tackles in two games, just 0.5 behind the line of scrimmage. His backup, junior Taniela Tupou, has two more in nearly a quarter of the snaps. Personally, I would move Qualls to the three technique beside Shelton for a game and see how it plays.
As a coach you need to be able to adapt. Clearly, the defense is weak in a few areas and strong in others. You can’t leave three of your best players sitting on the bench while teams roll up 400 and 500-plus yards on you. You simply can’t do it if you want to win games and hold onto your job. Feeney, Littleton and Qualls are all better than what is currently being run out on the field for a large majority of the team’s snaps and that is a major reason the defense has fallen to 114th in the country.