Well, the good news is that there is nowhere to go but up for the Huskies defense. The Huskies hit rock bottom hard in the Alamo Bowl, so it came as no surprise when Steve Sarkisian almost immediately cleaned house with the defensive coaching staff. The highly animated and highly paid Nick Holt was an easy target for blame and whether or not he was the culprit for the Huskies defensive struggles isn't clear, but a change clearly needed to be made.
New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox does not have an incredibly impressive resume but has been solid everywhere he has been and seems to have a ton of respect in the coaching community. The hope is that Wilcox can come in with new schemes that better serve the team's talent (or lack thereof) and move away from the bend but don't break defense that dominated the Nick Holt era. I know that all Husky fans are hoping to see cornerbacks that don't give 12 yard cushions and linebackers that attack ball carriers as opposed to blockers.
Unfortunately, Wilcox inherits a defense that isn't overflowing with talent or experience. It is scary to think that the Huskies had the worst defense in the history of the program last season and graduated their two best players from last season in Alameda Ta'amu and Cort Dennison. There aren't really any budding superstars returning on defense and there isn't really anyone expected to fill the shoes of Ta'amu and Dennison.
However, there are some intriguing battles and changes that will be crucial for the Huskies to make progress on in the few weeks of spring practice.
The graduation of Ta'amu leaves a 330 pound gap in the middle of the Huskies defensive line. While Ta'amu had a painfully disappointing senior season, his size and experience will be sorely missed. Danny Shelton was thrown into the fire last season as a freshman to results that were mixed at best, but Shelton's size and strength can't be questioned and he will be expected to anchor the D-Line, but it is the other defensive tackle spot that is the question mark heading into spring. Another massive Polynesian, Semisi Tokolahi looked like he was coming into his own in 2010 until a catastrophic leg injury took him down and it will be interesting to see if he ever fully recovers and becomes the player he looked like he was going to be. If Tokolahi cannot fully recover, expect junior Sione Potoa'e, a highly heralded recruit who has never seemed to put on enough weight, and JC transfer Josh Banks to compete for the open spot. Ideally, I think a combo of Shelton and a "living up to expectations" Potoa'e would be best combination with Shelton stuffing the middle and Potoa'e serving as a more mobile pass rusher.
The lack of talent at linebacker is alarming. It seemed that Dennison was the only one that ever made a tackle last season and unfortunately the Huskies will have to do without his steady leadership and tackling in 2012. I expect the new staff to really keep an open mind when choosing who will start in this unit, the only problem is that there isn't anyone who has really set themselves apart at all and Sarkisian's staff has been unable to bring in a difference making linebacker in any of their recruiting classes. Junior Princeton Fuimaono has flashed the ability to be a playmaker but is inconsistent and is undersized. Wilcox and new linebackers coach Peter Sirmon have a very tough task in getting this unit to be competitive in the Pac-12.
There has been much speculation about what type of defense Wilcox will run at Washington with many expecting to see a 3-4. No matter what Wilcox instills, spring will be huge to see which players thrive in his system and coaching and which wilt. Expect to see some guys who have seen a lot of time in recent years to fade away and expect to see some guys come out of nowhere and take flight with Wilcox at the helm. Change isn't always a good thing, but when you are coming off being the worst defense in school history it definitely is.
Overall, Wilcox and his staff actually does have some really good talent and experience to work with within the defensive backfield and up front. Also, incoming freshman Shaquille Thompson will not be available for spring practice but looks to be the kind of player that can step up and be a difference maker immediately while also being a leader that turns around the identity of the defense. In the meantime, Wilcox will have a couple weeks this spring to see who else will best help the Husky defense do a complete 180.