By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Nate Williams doesn’t care what you think.
Say what you want. Take your shots. Poke all the holes you can in the University of Washington’s defense.
Williams, the Huskies’ senior safety and most vocal leader, won’t be listening.
“I don’t really care what anyone, outside of us, has to say about our team,” he said last week. “No one out there knows the hard work we put in, waking up in the winter at 6 a.m., running our laps. No one really knows what’s going on.
“All that talk about the (Huskies’) offense being great? Cool; they are a great squad. But the talk about there being a question mark on our side of the ball? No one really knows what’s going on, outside of our locker room.”
What’s going on nationally is an all-out assault on the Huskies’ D.
Athlon’s college football preview gushed about UW’s offense but added that “continuing defensive shortcomings likely will keep this team from making a huge turnaround.” The Sporting News, when listing contenders for this year’s Pac-10 title, wrote: “With its spotty defense, Washington would seem to have no chance.”
It’s enough to scuff the confidence of any defense, and yet those Huskies who listen to the talk seem to genuinely enjoy the challenge of trying to measure up to Jake Locker and Co. on the other side of the football.
“I love hearing it,” junior cornerback Quinton Richardson said, “because that just makes it that much better for the defense, knowing that the offense is getting so much publicity and love. That means our defense is making them that much better — that’s how I see it.”
Senior linebacker Mason Foster, who’s one of several vocal leaders on this year’s defense, said the Huskies’ offense deserves all the praise it has been getting.
“With guys like Jake Locker and Jermaine Kearse and Chris Polk, they’re going to get a lot of attention regardless,” he said. “You know, offense sells tickets. As a defense, we’ve got to get the ball back for those guys and let them light up the scoreboard.”
The questions about UW’s defense are warranted, especially after a season that saw them rank eighth in the Pac-10 and 79th in the country while giving up 389.5 yards per game. The two top players from that defense — linebacker Donald Butler and all-time sack leader Daniel Te’o-Nesheim — are now in the NFL, so the Huskies will need to find new playmakers.
But this is one of the more experienced defenses in recent UW memory, with 16 players who have started at least one game at the college level. Foster, safety Nate Williams, defensive tackle Cameron Elisara and junior linebacker Cort Dennison have stepped in to fill the leadership void, while players like Richardson, defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu and defensive end Talia Crichton appear to have made big leaps since the end of the 2009 season.
“I’m excited about the opportunity that this season affords us,” defensive coordinator Nick Holt said last week. “I think we might be pretty good; I really do. I think all our guys have gotten better. They know the system a little better, we’ve got more depth, I think we run better; we’re a faster team.
“Hopefully it can equate to us playing a lot better defense, and I think we can.”
The big keys to UW’s defensive improvement could come in some of the first-time starters, like converted safety Victor Aiyewa at outside linebacker and redshirt freshman Will Shamburger at free safety.
But just as important will be the performance of a rebuilt defensive line that could have a rotation as deep as 10 players.
“In order for our defense to make a name for some stars, it all starts up front,” Ta’amu said. “It’s the same for the offense: you don’t have a Jake Locker unless you have a line.”
While the players on UW’s defense might be familiar ones to Husky fans, there aren’t many household names on the unit.
“I love it,” Richardson said when it was pointed out to him that the UW defense is operating in the offense’s shadow. “That way, teams underestimate us and we come out and win games.”
Most of the defensive players are like Williams, in that they try to shut out the national talk
“We don’t listen to that kind of stuff,” Dennison said. “We know how good we can be. We’re going to just let our play out on the field do our talking.”
Apparently, the Huskies have already made a statement that the UW coaching staff has heard loud and clear.
When head coach Steve Sarkisian was told Friday that there’s a national perception about the Huskies lacking a defense, he chuckled.
“Yeah, well, those people haven’t come to practice,” he said. “Our defense has been getting after it pretty good.”
None of the current Huskies have been on a defense that ranked in the top half of the Pac-10 in yards allowed, so it would be a huge step in the right direction if the UW defense was just mediocre this year.
But none of this year’s defensive players are setting their goals that low.
“I know what our unit is capable of doing,” Williams said. “We have a great coaching staff, and they know what we’re capable of doing. They hold us to the highest expectation — higher than we hold ourselves personally. So that’s really what pushes us further and further.”
And as for how far people think the Huskies defense can go this year?
Don’t bother telling Williams. He doesn’t really care what you think.