SEATTLE — Maintaining Washington’s place as one of the best secondaries in college football was the easy part for Jojo McIntosh, Taylor Rapp and Ezekiel Turner.
Understanding their new roles within the group was the real challenge for the trio. UW lost three players to the NFL and faced questions about a potential decline.
And when the season started, the Huskies lost their two starting cornerbacks to long-term injuries. Such changes prompted McIntosh, Rapp and Turner to become better leaders and set an example for their younger teammates to follow.
It’s how UW (10-2) was able to navigate the regular season, reach the Fiesta Bowl and develop a secondary which could be even better in 2018.
“We just really took the next step knowing that we lost three guys in the first two rounds, and it was amazing,” McIntosh said. “Everybody was talking about the drop off and that ‘the secondary won’t be as good as last year’ or ‘the secondary can’t do it again.’
“They say that every year … we continue just to prove everybody wrong and that’s what we did.”
McIntosh has a point. UW was 123rd out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision programs against the pass in Chris Petersen’s first season.
A year later, the Huskies were 68th. In 2016, they finished 15th in passing defense and allowed 182.9 yards per game.
UW is currently 19th nationally and is allowing 185.1 yards with one game left to play.
Huskies defensive backs coach and co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake had to figure out how to move on after losing safety Budda Baker plus cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Kevin King in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
McIntosh, Rapp and Turner — who are all safeties — entered 2017 with 65 games of combined experience to soften the blow of losing Baker.
The plan to replace Jones and King took a hit when Jordan Miller and Byron Murphy went down with long-term injuries at different points in the year.
UW filled the voids with Myles Bryant and former Marysville Pilchuck standout Austin Joyner. Bryant and Joyner each had at least 10 games of experience but were never the team’s primary corners.
Having youth at a key position like cornerback meant the role of experienced players like McIntosh, Rapp and Turner were even more crucial.
“Last year, I was just a young guy. I was just out there trying not to mess up a lot and trying to just fill my role,” said Rapp, who is a sophomore. “This year, I had to step up as a leader. You have older guys like Jojo and Zeke as the biggest leaders in the secondary. But this year, I had to take a step and emerge as a leader.”
Rapp was also having to manage expectations after a stellar first season. He was a freshman All-American who was the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. The Bellingham native was a All-Pac-12 selection and was a Pac-12 All-Academic member.
“Coach Pete talks about it all the time: Don’t listen to the outside noise,” Rapp said. “I think as a secondary, we knew what we had in the secondary. We knew we had something special going on. We’re like, ‘Let everyone talk about how there’s going to be a big drop-off.’ We knew what we had going on.”
Turner, who is a senior, said the discussion about the “drop-off” actually motivated UW’s secondary to be better.
He said the way Bryant and Joyner were able to perform reinforced how the team’s defensive backs step up to the challenge.
“We just tried to make sure everybody is on the same page,” Turner said. “From the corners, to the nickels to safeties and just making sure all the younger guys are on the same page. They have the same mindset as us. It’s just going to work everyday, not getting lackadaisical and just staying on top of it.”
What McIntosh, Rapp and Turner have done this year could lay a strong foundation for the future.
Turner is the only one of UW’s 16 scholarship or non-scholarship defensive backs who will not return for next season.
UW will add three-star prospect Dominique Hampton, who at 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, gives the Huskies some size at cornerback.
All of those factors could make the secondary one of UW’s strongest assets.
“You kind of want to leave that mindset when new guys come in, you want to drill into them how we do things around here,” Turner said. “Then when you leave, you want to know what you’re leaving behind is stable.”