Steve Sarkisian may be an offensively-minded coach, but even he knows that 777 yards is reason for an overhaul.
Washington's loss in the Alamo Bowl last season crystallized a fault that had become all too apparent during the Huskies' 2011 campaign. The 67-point, 777-yard shellacking at the hands of Robert Griffin III and the Baylor Bears was enough to warrant a complete regime change on the defensive side of the ball, prompting Sarkisian to fire his fifth-year former USC colleague, defensive coordinator Nick Holt. Sark brought in highly-touted coordinator Justin Wilcox from Tennessee in hopes that he could institute the type of culture change necessary to reverse Washington's lackluster performance.
If the spring game was any indication, this culture may very well be succeeding. The defense put on a dominant performance, holding the offense to only two scoring drives in 15 tries, only 20 rushing yards and stifling preseason Heisman candidate Keith Price to a rather pedestrian stat line. In a creatively-scored contest in which defenses were awarded three points for defensive stops, the unit won in an overwhelming fashion, taking the game 36-10 and surprising both coaches and fans with its rapid makeover from last year.
So why exactly did the Huskies look so tough on April 28? A couple of reasons.
To begin with, Wilcox's newly-installed defense provides an added emphasis on the 3-4 formation, maximizing the depth chart's effectiveness by limiting the need for experienced lineman, which the Huskies lack. By providing more spots on the field for playmaking position players in the back end of the field, where Washington has considerably more depth, and by using a scheme which takes full advantage of their strengths by minimizing their weaknesses, the Huskies' defense had enough explosiveness to compete with the normally potent Keith Price-led offense.
The change in defensive scheme was helped by new coach Peter Sirmon, who left Tennessee with Wilcox to become the new linebackers coach for the Huskies. Arguably the most important position group in a 3-4 defense, Washington's improved play at the position during spring can be attributed to Sirmon's arrival. While the corps is young, they have shown considerable improvement, particularly sophomore John Timu, who has been "constantly cited by coaches for his work ethic and attitude" during the spring.
Unfortunately for Huskies fans, while the defense may have looked like a dominant unit during the spring game, it's also important to keep a perspective on the performance. The offense was hampered by several line injuries, leaving them depleted for the spring game and forcing the altered rule-set installed for the game. In addition, Sarkisian opted to run a rather sparse offensive look, favoring simple and cautious play-calling not meant to fool the defense with trickery or flash.
However, the spring game should provide a nice boost of confidence to fans still scarred by the dreadful performance in the Alamo Bowl. With Wilcox at the helm, the Huskies appear to have a defensive mind able to adapt their defense to the needs of the talent base, as well as institute the mentality necessary to push the Huskies into the top echelon of the Pac-12. Turning around a defense ranked 11 out of 12 in only one year is never an easy task, but Wilcox, Sirmon and Sarkisian appear to be headed down the correct path going into a crucial 2012 season.