SEATTLE — Cruel as it may sound, when Nick Holt took over as defensive coordinator of the University of Washington football team nine months ago, he essentially was being asked to make a Mercedes Benz out of spare parts found in a junkyard.
So it comes as no surprise that the 47-year-old former USC assistant has already called on seven different starting lineups in the Huskies’ seven games this season. Only four players have started all seven games on that side of the ball.
Holt has been tinkering all season long, and he still hasn’t quite built the automobile that runs like a dream.
Nineteen different players have started on defense this season — and, if the Huskies were suddenly given 19 new scholarships to use before the end of the year, Holt may well start 19 more.
The Huskies’ biggest problem at this point in the Steve Sarkisian era is that there are only so many options. That’s why when Holt was asked this week whether he’s run out of combinations, he only laughed long and hard before giving off a look that said: You got that right.
“We’ll keep rotating guys,” said Holt, whose defense ranks 106th in the nation in yards allowed per game (424.6). “When you watch these guys practice, they practice hard. And some of these guys deserve to get in the game. So that’s why we’re trying to play a lot of the kids, because they care and they’re doing a nice job.”
To Holt’s credit, he has found a way to keep the Huskies in all but one game this season despite a lack of the kind of talent he needs to compete at the Pacific-10 Conference level. Senior defensive end Daniel T’eo-Nesheim and linebackers Donald Butler and Mason Foster have proven to be the only playmakers on the unit this year, while the only defender on the roster with realistic NFL aspirations might be freshman cornerback Desmond Trufant.
The UW is particularly undersized up front, where its biggest player (348-pound Alameda Ta’amu) has been out of shape at times, and all the other interior linemen are in the 270-and-below range. The incoming recruiting class has some potential, mainly in 285-pound Lakes High School product Sione Potoae, but it’s a safe bet that the UW is still looking for plenty more size at the D-tackle position.
The Huskies are probably still looking for help all over the defense. The list of UW recruits on Rivals.com includes only five defensive players among the 18-man class.
At defensive back, the Huskies have been so underwhelmed with the production this season that they’ve started nine different players at the four positions. Holt summed up the cornerback position last week when he said: “Other than Trufant, they’re all the same to me.”
The only position that’s seen any kind of stability has been linebacker, where Butler and Foster have started all seven games and E.J. Savannah has started all but one despite various injuries. But even that position has been inconsistent at times this season, and Foster is the only starting linebacker who has eligibility remaining beyond 2009.
Butler said that the constant moving of parts around him has been somewhat distracting at times.
“Guys communicate differently,” the senior said. “Some guys don’t, some guys do. After you play with each other awhile, you get used to each other.”
Sarkisian said that the Huskies would prefer to have the same 11 starters every week, but he added that the shuffling of starting lineups could benefit the team in the long run.
“In time, by rolling guys through there, there are huge benefits for us,” he said. “But there are some downsides to it that we’ve suffered through.”
So when will the Huskies finally settle on a lineup?
“When we play and practice with consistency,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve got some good football players on this team that deserve equal opportunities when they earn them. And we’re going to give them those opportunities.”
The flu bug didn’t just take out the UW basketball team; it’s also staggered a few people in the football program. Sarkisian came down with a bug the day before Saturday’s loss to Arizona State but coached in the game. “I’m just kind of getting over it now,” he told reporters on Thursday afternoon. “So stand back.” Running back Curtis Shaw missed a day of practice earlier this week due to illness, while receiver Anthony Boyles continues to be sidelined by a virus. … The Huskies’ schedule doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. Eleventh-ranked Oregon marks the eighth consecutive opponent with a record of .500 or better. The Huskies’ opponents have a combined record of 37-13. UW has already faced three of the Pac-10’s top five teams, while Oregon will be the fourth. … Sarkisian did not rule anyone out of Saturday’s game, but it looks like Boyles and starting defensive tackle Cameron Elisara (shoulder) are unlikely to play.