If there was a trademark of theNick Holt stewardship of the defense at Washington, it would be his players’ too-frequent habit of tackling in the fashion of kittens batting at Christmas tree ornaments.
The object of tackling is, of course, rendering the opponent momentarily inert, not offering a gentle stare below a thought bubble that says, “ . . . so shiny . . .”
Apparently coach Steve Sarkisian noticed too, because he fired Holt and hired Justin Wilcox, with whom he shared this little epiphany:
“If we are going to be able to defend the run, you have to practice tackling,” he said this week. “You can't just expect to show up on Saturdays and become a really good tackling team.”
Doesn’t sound like a light-bulb moment. Seems like showing a carpenter how to use a saw. Whatever the reasons for the slow uptake, Wilcox’s guys finally appeared to have nailed the principle because a week ago they certainly nailed the Stanford Cardinal.
A year after giving up 446 rushing yards to Stanford, the Cardinal in the rematch had 65. Stanford normally would get 65 yards on the Huskies by having quarterback Andrew Luck fall forward three times. But Luck has graduated, Stanford is not as good and Washington is better.
Enough so that the 17-13 win has evoked the teensiest hope among some in the Montlake mob that a second consecutive upset is possible, this one against the Oregon Ducks Saturday in Eugene.
That’s a stretch. But stretching is good. For the Huskies, tackling is better.
“We've changed a little bit of an emphasis,” Sarkisian said. “You go back to training camp, and we've made it a point to have really physical practices.”
That means actually tackling in practice, “going live” in the argot of football. Seems obvious, but so too is the risk – injuries.
“We all know it’s a risk, going all out and tackling each other,” said Danny Shelton, the star defensive tackle. “But it’s the only way we’re gonna get better. I think the coaches are being smart in taking care of people and working around it.”
But Shelton bore obvious witness to the perils – a cast on a broken right hand or pinkie finger, the specifics of which are no longer disclosed by the UW, short of WikiLeaks. The injury happened in practice prior to the Stanford game, meaning Shelton had his entire hand casted, club-like, in order to play.
This week the club was modified to allow freedom for a thumb and two fingers. Still a nuisance.
“It’s a little distracting,” he said. “I have to keep it out of my head. I need my hands to play off blockers, so I’m trying a new, three-fingers-out cast. We’ll see what happens.”
If the Huskies track such practice-injury histories, they aren’t sharing the stats. But they’ve had a more than the usual amount of season-enders four games into the schedule, although some have been the non-contact variety. Sarkisian isn’t second-guessing the virtues of practicing tackling.
“We've done it, maybe at the expense of getting a few more bumps and bruises and a few guys getting banged up,” he said. “But the end result is I think we're better for it as a football team.''
He saw no falloff in Shelton’s production despite the injury.
“He's got a sore hand but, he's a D-lineman. Get used to it, buddy,” Sarkisian said, laughing. “He probably has two sore hands this week, I don't know. I thought Danny had a nice game. Whenever you play a power-running football team like Stanford, taking care of the middle core of your defense is critical. I thought Danny did that.”
Shelton said Wilcox in spring added a new drill called “six seconds of hell.” A D-lineman has six seconds to fight his way through three offensive linemen to get to ball four yards behind line of scrimmage.
“It’s a pretty crazy drill -- one of my favorites too,” he said. “We started it in spring, improved it, did it in fall camp, and really re-emphasized it in Stanford week. Our speedy guys just had to get down and grind.”
Saturday, however, six seconds of hell refers to the average length of an Oregon scoring drive. The Ducks’ offense is the opposite of Stanford’s power game – Jetsons vs. Flintstones. No grinding, just running.
Shelton said the coaches have “something up their sleeves” for Oregon. But in terms of training, the best preparation as been emulation. The Huskies offense has used Oregon's penchant for the no-huddle or muddle-huddle tempo more extensively than before, in part to give its own defense practice time against it.
“The coaches have done a great job (showing in practice) the no-huddle a lot during fall camp,” Shelton said. “It’s really helped us on our conditioning.
Sarkisian said improved depth this season will allow earlier and more frequent substitution against Oregon, to compensate for the inevitable weariness that ensues chasing the University of Nike’s fast-twitch billboards.
“We know we’re going to be tired, but we have backups ready to come in,” Shelton said. “We’ll get a water break and get back in.”
Regardless of offensive style, there come numerous moments when a defender has to man up on his target, which for the last eight years in series – all Oregon wins – have been more whiff than whack.
“It's like anything,” Sarkisian. “If you want to be a good free throw shooter, you've got to practice free throws.”
He meant tackling, not losing to the hated rival. The Huskies have had too much of one, not enough of another.