SEATTLE — The number of adjectives used to describe the defensive performances in last year’s Alamo Bowl is almost as plentiful as the 1,397 yards given up by the University of Washington and Baylor, and yet Huskies safety Justin Glenn needed only one to describe how he felt in the aftermath of that game.
“Frustrated,” the UW senior said this week as the Huskies prepared to take the field for the first time since allowing 777 yards in a 67-56 loss to Baylor on Dec. 29. “Especially a game like that. You never want to come out on the losing end of a game like that, a heavyweight bout.
“Man, it was tough. But we knew, as a defense, we just had to learn from it and use it as a stepping stone into the next year. So I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
The Huskies spent all offseason learning a new defense, adjusting to new roles and trying to forget the Alamo.
But perhaps the most notable thing UW’s defense has done since getting humiliated by Robert Griffin III and Co. eight months ago occurred on the practice field. Miraculously, almost unthinkably, the Huskies defense has dominated the UW offense.
“Our defense is awesome,” junior running back Jesse Callier said earlier this week. “I’m not going to lie: our defense, they really get after it. I see a huge change. I’m not just trying to blow anybody’s head up; I see our defense as really awesome. They’re all active, passionate about it. They just love it now.”
Just how much the UW defense has improved will be on display for all to see tonight, when the Huskies play host to San Diego State at their temporary home at CenturyLink Field. And, boy, is UW ready.
“I definitely think that everybody’s ready for a new look,” sophomore defensive tackle Danny Shelton said. “We’re ready to try out our new toy.”
With new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, three other defensive assistants brought in from other programs, and a scheme with so many wrinkles that the official depth chart lists 12 defensive starters — a tactic the 2011 defense would have been wise to use in the Alamo Bowl — the Huskies have certainly been proactive on that side of the ball. Projected starters such as defensive lineman Andrew Hudson, end/linebacker Josh Shirley and middle linebacker John Timu find themselves in new roles, while cornerback Tre Watson, a Central Washington transfer, safety-turned linebacker Travis Feeney and freshman safety/nickel linebacker Shaq Thompson provide fresh blood.
The results have been encouraging, and UW’s stars on the other side of the ball have noticed a difference.
“They look like they’re having fun all over again,” quarterback Keith Price said. “… I see a different type of swagger. They’re out there talking trash to us every day.”
Strong safety Sean Parker said UW’s defensive success on the practice field will help when the games begin tonight.
“It definitely breeds confidence,” Parker said. “As a defense, we’ve all got to play together. That confidence helps us bond together, play fast and just be successful.”
The biggest difference on this year’s unit, he added, is speed.
“I feel like this defense, we pride ourselves on being aggressive,” Parker said. “And our speed helps us a lot.”
Despite all the success and swagger under UW’s new defensive staff, the man who runs the defense said he’s not sure what to expect when the Huskies begin play tonight.
“Anybody’s like that, the first game — any year,” Wilcox said. “You want to see: OK, how are these guys going to react when it’s (reporters) out here watching as opposed to (67,000 fans).”
Throughout head coach Steve Sarkisian’s three-year tenure at UW, the only thing that has held the Huskies back from being a top-25 mainstay and putting themselves in serious discussions among Pacific-12 Conference contenders has been a consistent defense.
They’re hoping this is the year they finally get it right on that side of the ball.
“We want to put out on display all this hard work we’ve been putting in,” Glenn said, “and let America see that.”