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HOW BAD WAS THE WASHINGTON DEFENSE IN 2011? SECOND TO last in the conference in scrimmage yards allowed per game (453.3) and points per game (35.9) and at the bottom in third-down conversion percentage (49.2)—that's how bad. Two days after the Huskies' clash with Baylor in the Alamo Bowl last Dec. 29, a tackling-optional affair that ended with Washington yielding a school-record 777 yards in a 67--56 defeat, coach Steve Sarkisian axed assistants Mike Cox (linebackers) and Jeff Mills (safeties) and defensive coordinator Nick Holt.
Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was 2,100 miles away from the fallout, prepping for a recruiting trip, when Sarkisian surprised him with a phone call late on New Year's Eve. Wilcox, 35, consulted with football mentors (including his father, Dave, a Hall of Fame linebacker with the 49ers) on whether to abandon a marquee job directing a defense that he had transformed into a top 30 outfit in just two seasons for another extreme-makeover project. The next morning he was at an 11 o'clock recruiting meeting—in Seattle.
Two weeks later Tosh Lupoi, then a 30-year-old line coach and ace recruiter at Cal, was lining up what one recruiting expert called a "class of the ages" when he switched polos mid-spiel. Several major prospects withdrew verbal commitments with the Bears, including Shaq Thompson, one of the nation's top-rated safeties, who now headlines the Huskies' top 25 recruiting haul. The move of senior Nate Fellner from the deep secondary to linebacker suggests that Wilcox is making room for Thompson in a new-look scheme that will incorporate 3--4 and 4--3 principles.
On the other side of the ball quarterback Keith Price is healthy and 15 pounds heavier after playing through a raft of injuries in 2011, but his line—banged up for most of the off-season—threatens to undo his progress. And as with the Huskies' D, he and his offensive teammates are breaking in a new coach: coordinator Eric Kiesau, another Cal transplant.
On a staff whose average age is under 38, creativity and flexibility are crucial. "We're a long way from where we need to be, but the guys have done a nice job of competing and working hard," Wilcox says of his new players. "That's what we've got to continue to build on." Time will tell if this new foundation is indeed a solid one.
COACH Steve Sarkisian (4th year) 19--19 (14--13 in Pac-12)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Eric Kiesau
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Justin Wilcox