By Christian Caple The News Tribune
SEATTLE — With the Fight Hunger Bowl trophy in tow, the Washington Huskies made their way home from San Francisco last December knowing an offseason of change awaited them.
Chris Petersen had been hired to replace Steve Sarkisian as head coach. A few assistants had already left to join Sarkisian at USC. And it was no secret that a few more, including defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, were on their way out the door as soon as they arrived back in Seattle.
Say this for Wilcox, though: he didn’t mail it in. Third-year sophomore free safety Brandon Beaver points to a conversation they had on the flight back home as what he hopes will prove to be a turning point in his football career.
“He was letting me know that the only thing I was missing the whole time was just to be focused about everything,” said Beaver, who made his first career start in the Fight Hunger Bowl as a redshirt freshman. “He said he was pushing for me to play the whole season last year, I just wasn’t focused right. It kind of was true. So just get my focus right, play like I know how to play, and make my plays.”
Someone has to. And so far, Beaver has been a fall camp standout among a group of defensive backs who seem to possess the requisite talent to compete at the Pac-12 level, but for the most part lack any kind of significant game experience.
The exception is fourth-year junior cornerback Marcus Peters, a second-team all-conference selection in 2013 and the unquestioned leader of UW’s defensive backfield.
The other three positions are up for grabs. Beaver and sophomore Trevor Walker have worked together quite a bit at the safety positions with the No. 1 offense throughout camp, though sophomore Kevin King and touted freshman Budda Baker have been given their opportunities, too. Redshirt freshman Jermaine Kelly takes quite a few reps with the first unit at the cornerback spot opposite Peters, but Travell Dixon and freshman Naijiel Hale are also competing at that position. And defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake has said four or five true freshmen could see the field at some point this season.
All seem to be skilled. But Beaver’s bowl-game start, plus the two games King started as a freshman, comprise 100 percent of that group’s starting experience.
“There’s really no tandem that’s together right now,” Lake said. “It’s kind of mix and match. But those four guys I am pleased with. They’re very, very smart, all four of them. We just have to progress. We’ve been putting in more defenses, and they have to be ready for our gameplan vs. Hawaii here.”
Since the beginning of spring practices, Beaver has been the Huskies’ most productive defensive back in terms of creating turnovers. But Walker has been steady, too, and followed a strong spring performance with a fall camp good enough to keep him with the No. 1 defense.
The biggest difference between now and spring, Walker said, is “just knowing the defense in and out. Knowing what the offense is doing. Knowing third-down situations, first-and-long, second and long, just different situations like that, having a feel for what’s going to come.”
To that end, Peters’ experience is a blessing. He’s been around long enough to identify certain offensive looks, and is smart enough to know how to best communicate strategy on the field.
“Marcus is nice to have out there,” Lake said, “because he is a veteran guy. Very, very instinctive football player, very, very smart, and he can relay a lot of the information I’m saying in the classroom and on the field. He can relay that all on the football field while I’m on the sidelines.”
“He sees a lot of stuff before it happens,” Beaver said. “He lets us know, and it helps us make plays.”
Beaver thinks that final chat with Wilcox will help even more in the long-run.
“He was telling me whoever comes, he said he was going to be watching me,” Beaver said. “So whoever comes, he’s going to know if I’m focused or not by if I’m playing or not. So I just took it to heart. I appreciate the talk we had. It made me a better football player.”