Young Huskies secondary faces steeper curve
After allowing 52 points and seven touchdowns against Eastern Washington, UW faces Illinois minus suspended Marcus Peters.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Illinois @ UW, 1 p.m., Ch. 13
Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. threw the ball to the perfect spot. Receiver Cory Mitchell made a perfect play to catch the pass and keep his left foot in the end zone.
The 22-yard touchdown pass, on a fourth-down play, helped the Eagles take a 45-44 lead over Washington late in the third quarter. The catch was confirmed after an official review.
Against even the most experienced cornerbacks, it would’ve been a difficult play to defend. At least, that’s how the Huskies see it after escaping with a 59-52 victory over EWU last Saturday.
“I don’t think Desmond Trufant or Richard Sherman could’ve done anything about that play,” UW receiver Jaydon Mickens said.
Upon further review, UW coaches said there was one thing true freshman cornerback Sidney Jones could have done better on the fourth-down play. Jones, in his collegiate debut, was lined up against Mitchell alone in man coverage, on the far right of the defense.
Jones appeared to be in good-enough position at the end of the play. He trailed Mitchell by just a couple of feet, and he leaped at almost the exact moment Mitchell leaped. Jones’ right hand came within a couple of inches of swatting the ball before it settled on Mitchell’s body.
The tail end of the play wasn’t the issue, though. The corrective action coaches are showing Jones this week has to do with his approach at the beginning of the play. The main problem, UW defensive-backs coach Jimmy Lake said, was that Mitchell got a free release — that is, Jones didn’t “press” the receiver at the line of scrimmage.
“Any time you let a receiver do all of his jukes at the beginning of the route,” Lake said, “it’s going to make it a lot harder down the stretch (for the cornerback).”
That play was one of many examples in which Adams’ “pinpoint accurate” throws, as UW coach Chris Petersen described them, burned the Huskies’ young defensive secondary.
That secondary has already featured four true freshmen, one redshirt freshman and three sophomores this season, and the learning curve for most of them is steep, to be sure. The challenge this week for the UW defense is even steeper with Marcus Peters — UW’s best and most experienced defensive back — suspended for the Illinois game Saturday.
None of UW’s defensive backs were made available for interviews Tuesday. Even after Saturday’s humbling performance, UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said it hasn’t been difficult to remain positive with the young defensive backs this week.
“Because they’re giving great effort and their ears are wide open and they’re trying to get better, so that’s all you can ask as a coach,” he said. “If they weren’t giving great effort and trying to get better, then you have issues.”
In hindsight, Kwiatkowski said he probably should have called for more zone coverage against EWU and less man-to-man.
“I’ve got to do a better job getting those (young) guys some help,” Kwiatkowski said. “(But) you can’t max drop all the time (into coverage). They do have to hold up at some point. It is what it is. You’ve just got to change up the looks, and those guys have to just keep plugging away and not get discouraged.”
Petersen said Monday he would have liked to see more pressure on the quarterback, too. Senior “buck” end Hau’oli Kikaha agreed.
“Our front seven has to show up consistently,” Kikaha said. “If that’s our strength, we need to be able to make it a lot easier on those guys in the back end, you know? Unfortunately, we didn’t make it too easy on them.”
The fourth-down touchdown play notwithstanding, Lake said he was encouraged by Jones’ debut. Jones and senior reserve Travell Dixon were the UW corners to finish the game against EWU, and they are candidates to start against Illinois.
“I was very, very proud of Sidney,” Lake said. “Talk about performing under a stressful circumstance: He came in and he played lights out. He played real physical against the run; he played tight coverage; he played nice man coverage. …
“But he can’t rest on that. He’s got to correct the mistakes he did make and also look at the mistakes the other guys did make and make sure he doesn’t make the same mistakes.”