SEATTLE — About the time that all-time sack leader Daniel Te’o-Nesheim used up his eligibility and started preparing for the 2010 NFL draft, the University of Washington football team began pondering who would fill his shoes and provide a future pass rush.
One game into the season, the Huskies are still looking.
UW’s fears were realized Saturday when the young defensive ends and an aggressive blitz package failed to result in a single sack in a season-opening loss to Brigham Young University.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing,” sophomore defensive end Talia Crichton said. “But the quarterbacks kept switching, and it was hard to recognize. (The Cougars) kept doing a lot of draws and stuff. We just have to put that behind us and move forward.”
Crichton was not alone in his assessment of BYU’s offensive system being an unfair gauge as to how the Huskies might fare as pass rushers this season. Head coach Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Nick Holt both pointed toward the unique spacing of BYU’s offensive linemen, the two-quarterback system and the overabundance of three-step drops as the main reasons for UW’s lack of a pass rush.
“We’ll get more pressure,” Sarkisian said confidently on Monday. “It’s a huge point of emphasis of ours as a defense from Day 1. This is one game. This one game is not going to define the way we get after the quarterback. We’ll get there.”
Statistically, it’s difficult to predict how the Huskies will get their sacks this season, and who will provide them.
The team had 30 sacks last season — the total ranked fifth in the Pac-10 and 41st in the nation — but Te’o-Nesheim had 11 of them on his own. Fellow seniors Darrion Jones, Donald Butler, Joshua Gage and Trenton Tuiasosopo combined for another 5 ½ sacks last season, while the combined total of the Huskies’ returning players is just 13.
This year’s starting defensive ends — Crichton and 6-foot-6 junior Everette Thompson — have combined for two career sacks at UW, both by Thompson.
“We praise all the things (Te’o-Nesheim) did and accomplished here, but we don’t try to replace him,” said Thompson, who, like Crichton, has cut off his trademark ponytail since last season. “You can’t replace Daniel Te’o-Nesheim; we just try to do us. That’s all you can do on the field.”
Said Crichton: “We just try to get more pressure all together, as a whole D-line. Obviously, we don’t have Daniel, so we don’t have that much manpower in one person, so we have to spread the wealth. Everybody has to do their own job; everybody has to work as one.”
Defensive line coach Johnny Nansen has been impressed with the improvement of both Thompson and Crichton but is quick to admit that they’ve still got a long way to go to be compared to Te’o-Nesheim.
“It’s hard to replace a kid like that,” Nansen said of UW’s all-time sack leader, who had 30 sacks at the school before being selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the third round of the April NFL draft. “(Te’o-Nesheim was) a hard worker, a good leader. He’s got a lot of game experience under his belt.”
The first game of the post-DTN era didn’t seem to provide much hope. But despite the lack of pass rush, and the goose egg in the sack column, the Huskies did see some glimmers. Sarkisian praised Crichton for his improvement since the 2009 season, when the then-freshman played in nine games but was overpowered at times.
“I would have loved for him to come out there with two sacks or so,” Sarkisian said Monday of Crichton’s performance against BYU, “but from where he was last year to where he was this year, and the way he played in this game against the run and in some of our zone-drop stuff, I thought he did a nice job.”
Crichton put an emphasis on building strength in his legs, and he’s also worked hard on his pass-rush moves.
The offseason work hasn’t paid off in sacks yet, but there is no panic among the coaches.
“We didn’t rush the passer great” against BYU, Holt said, “but that wasn’t why we lost.”
Holt acknowledged that he might have tried a little too hard to generate pressure in Saturday’s loss, and on Tuesday he took the blame for BYU’s 48-yard touchdown in the third quarter that ended up being the game-winner. On that third-and-10 play, Holt called for a blitz that the Cougars exposed for a dump-pass into a wide-open middle of the field.
“We were a little too aggressive, and we didn’t execute it correctly,” he said. “But it was something that we didn’t need to do, or I didn’t need to call.”
So without that extra aggression, and without Te’o-Nesheim, how do the Huskies generate pressure on the opposing quarterback?
To hear them tell it, a few games against more conventional teams might provide the tonic. Saturday’s opponent, Syracuse, should be a better gauge because the Orange feature an offense similar to the one the Huskies run.
“We’re just trying to do things right right now,” Thompson said. “And the sacks will come.”
As for whether the Huskies can approach last year’s sack total of 30, it’s still way too early to tell.
“We’re going to try to match it,” Nansen said. “Obviously, the goal is to try to be better than that. So we’re going to just continue to work and get better.”
Backup running back Johri Fogerson sat out Tuesday’s practice due to a sore hamstring. … Middle linebacker Cort Dennison hasn’t missed any practice time this week, but he said the soreness in his troublesome left knee is likely to linger. “It’s a nagging thing, but I’ll be alright,” he said Tuesday. “It’ll probably be a whole year thing, but I’ll be alright.” … True to Sarkisian’s word, the Huskies have been mixing freshmen Erik Kohler and Colin Porter in with the No. 1 offensive line. Kohler could see action at either guard or tackle this Saturday, while Porter may get a few snaps at guard.