Young 'Backers Focus on Fundamentals

Garret Gilliland (US PRESSWIRE)

The football gods may have granted the Washington Husky football team a gridiron Sabbath after a big road win against Utah, but this doesn't mean the team is going to rest on its laurels.

"We're pretty beat up. It may not have showed that totally on Saturday, but we are pretty banged up," said head coach Steve Sarkisian during his Monday press conference.

Though the Husky coaching staff will stress moderation for those with nicks and bruises, the off week will be productive in other ways. "For right now," said Sarkisian, "this week is really about us, about getting healthy, about getting our young players better, and then come next week we'll get ready to go." 

One of the most important groups that need to get better is the linebackers, a position that has been widely criticized throughout the season. Take standout senior Cort Dennison out of the mix in the middle, and everyone else who has recorded a tackle from the linebacker spot this year is a sophomore or below. That means that, while talented, they still have a long road ahead of them before they're consistently executing the defense as it should be.

"They're young, they need all the reps they can get. Those guys are a work in progress themselves and every day they get better," said UW Defensive Coordinator Nick Holt.

Youthful and fresh, the players have a chance during the week off to forget about preparing a specific game-plan to stop an opponent and to get back to basics. Linebackers coach Mike Cox said, "This week's just about ourselves and getting better ourselves and doing our own job better. That's the emphasis of the week."

That emphasis extends to the veterans and even the coaching staff, but it's especially important for guys such as redshirt freshman Jamaal Kearse, who made his first career start against Utah with John Timu out with an injury. Kearse needs as much time as he can get to assimilate into his position and the defense. A standout already on special teams – he returned a fumble for a touchdown on the opening kickoff of the game last Saturday and has already had several big hits in coverage – the converted wide receiver and safety is still learning what it takes to play linebacker.

"He gets here, and for the first year of this is trying to find his way through, and I think he just started to figure it out and what it meant and how to play physical and still use his athleticism," said Sarkisian.

According to his position coach, the best way to learn is through repetition. "Things happen a lot faster the closer to the ball you are," said Cox. "The more snaps he plays, the thing he'll get better at is recognizing a little faster and the split-second decisions he's gotta make. And the more he plays the better he's going to get."

Garret Gilliland, a true sophomore, has racked up 14 tackles and forced a fumble but has also found himself out of position at times.

"Everybody's got work to do in their own areas, and for Garret it's [about] finding consistency," said Sarkisian. "Because when he's really consistent and doing things right, he can be even a better player."

Gilliland is relishing the opportunity to practice without the burden of a new scheme, allowing him to work on consistency by getting back to basic fundamentals taught in fall camp.

"We're just focusing on our defense and our adjustments, our alignments and what not," he said. "So I think it's a big chance for me to just take a step back and kind of relax and figure out what I've been doing wrong and just hopefully correct it for next week."

With the team at 4-1 and heading into the meat of its Pac 12 schedule, Gilliland understands that the young ‘backers are going to find themselves being relied on more and more.

"You can't just take days off; you've got to get better every day in order to do good in this conference. And right now we have a good opportunity to step ahead."

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