Washington expects no dropoff on defense despite high-caliber departures

Defensive backs Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Kevin King are all gone. Washington is confident its defense won't slip.
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SEATTLE — Jake Browning stopped short of rolling his eyes, though it was clear from his facial expression that he did not appreciate the question. To the casual college football observer the query made perfect sense, given what the Washington football team has lost in the last four months: Is it easier for Browning, the Huskies’ returning quarterback and a 2017 Heisman Trophy candidate, to throw the ball this spring?

Uh, that would be an emphatic no.

Gone are three-fourths of the Huskies’ lethal secondary, with each player expected to be taken early in this week’s NFL draft. Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Kevin King helped UW lead college football in takeaways last season (33) and topped the Pac-12 in interceptions (19) while leading Washington, a former powerhouse in college football, to its first playoff appearance. Overall, the Huskies ranked 12th nationally in total defense. Then those three defensive backs headed for the pros, and everyone assumed the Huskies’ offense would have to carry most of the load while the defense readjusted this spring.

Browning isn’t buying that narrative.

A freshman in name only, Washington's Taylor Rapp is key to the Huskies' defense

“I think because draft day is coming up, and we’re gonna have a lot of guys get drafted—which, rightfully so, because we had some really good players leave with Budda, Sid, Kevin, John Ross, Elijah (Qualls), Joe Mathis. People are saying, ‘Oh wow, those guys can really play!’ Well, they could play last year (2015), too. And in the secondary, it’s next man up. Yeah, Byron Murphy was on the scout team last year (2016) but he went up against John Ross every day.”

That was likely no fun for Murphy. Ross is one of the best receivers available this year, a burner known for leaving defensive backs in the dust as he accelerates toward the end zone. But Browning isn’t the only one who expects something big out of the defense.

Myles Gaskin, the Huskies’ leading returning rusher, understands that with everything the UW offense brings back, there will be an expectation for Browning and company to carry UW early in the 2017 season. But he also rejects the idea that the defense is going to take a step back.

“I want to talk about the defense,” he says, interrupting an SI.com reporter’s question about the pressure on the offense. “Those guys (who left) did a lot, but I think the defense also gained some great players with Jordan Miller and Byron Murphy. Kevin and Syd set the example for those two, they should be able to push forward and just go, right away. And Taylor Rapp, he’s the man!”

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That he is. A local product from Bellingham, Wash., Rapp hoped to contribute as a true freshman, figuring it would come on special teams. He did a lot more. Rapp earned Pac-12 defensive freshman of year and freshman All-America honors after recording 53 tackles and a team-high four interceptions in 2016, starting 10 of 14 games. Most importantly, he’s shown the next great young defensive back the path forward in Seattle.

Talk to anyone on the UW roster this year, and Murphy’s name is bound to come up. A 5’ 11”, 170-pounder from Scottsdale, Ariz., Murphy spent the 2016 season redshirting, being named UW’s defensive scout squad MVP and earning the Ultimate “Loco Perros” award, given out for work in the weight room. The freshman, who is a nephew of former Arizona and NBA standout Mike Bibby, led the team in interceptions this spring and provided a few highlights in last Saturday’s spring game. (Because he’s a freshman, Murphy was not permitted to speak with the media this spring, per team policy.)

It’s likely just a preview of what’s to come, even if there was some disagreement about what type of player Murphy was coming out of high school, and just what he could be.

Scout.com ranked Murphy the 111th overall player in the 2016 class, behind three other UW signees: linebacker Camilo Eifler (94), athlete Brandon Wellington (100) and defensive end Levi Onwuzurike (101). But there was a significant discrepancy among the recruiting ranking services when it came to Murphy. Rivals had Murphy listed as the No. 40 overall prospect, which made him the highest rated recruit to ever commit to UW coach Chris Petersen. ESPN.com said he was the No. 187 overall player in the country. 247sports.com had him No. 97 overall. Rapp, meanwhile, wasn’t even ranked by Scout.com, so take every recruiting service ranking with a shaker full of salt.

Aside from the praise and confidence of his current teammates, Murphy also has the support from former Huskies.

King, who is likely to be drafted in the first round Thursday after an impressive combine performance that helped him shoot up draft boards, has high expectations for the 2017 UW defense, too.

“Jojo McIntosh, Taylor, Jordan Miller and Byron, they’re all going to be really good,” King says. “Because they had great examples, but they also have the intangibles: They move well, know how to play the ball, and they just know what good defensive backs look like. There’s no doubt that group, they’re going to surprise some people.”

Just don’t expect Browning and Gaskin to be on that list.