Exactly one of the Washington football team’s defensive backs has played in more than four games for the Huskies. That would be fourth-year junior Marcus Peters. But the group’s lack of experience hasn’t prevented the secondary from impressing as the UW enters its third week of training camp.
“The DBs are getting it,” senior linebacker John Timu said. “I think they’re leading the turnover battle as far as just the defense. So I think they have the concepts, now they just have to keep it going, repetition wise. It’s hard to rep a game rep. We talked about it in our meeting, the game reps are hard. We just have to practice hard so games will be easy.”
When the Huskies take the field Aug. 30 against Hawai‘i for the season opener, they will do so with three new starters in the secondary. As position battles rage on behind the closed doors of the team’s training camp (practices are closed to media for the remainder of camp, with the exception of a 20-minute stretching period each Monday), five true freshmen have emerged as strong contenders for major playing time.
Budda Baker, Darren Gardenhire, Naijiel Hale, Sidney Jones, and JoJo McIntosh have all impressed defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake with their willingness to compete in practice and ability to learn the system quickly. The Huskies signed seven defensive backs in last year’s recruiting class, knowing that they would have major holes to fill, which has given Lake what he thinks is the youngest defensive back group he’s ever had.
As expected with such a young group, Lake said there is “still a ways to go” until the UW’s first game. But soon the lights will turn on in Hawaii and the young pups will have to take the field, ready or not.
“We knew that coming in and we prepared for it, so we can’t use that as an excuse,” Lake said of having so many freshmen vying for significant playing time. “We’ll prepare for it and then we’ll start playing a couple games, and then guess what, you’re veterans now. You guys are going to have to be the ones that we lean on.”
Key freshmen in the secondary:
S Budda Baker
Baker, a standout at Bellevue High School, hasn’t lost a football game since he was in middle school. A three-time 3A state champion in football and a multi-time state champion in track as well, Baker’s speed and athleticism has already turned heads in the short time he’s been at the UW, as he’s worked his way into a potential nickel role for the Huskies.
“It’s been awesome watching him compete, fly around out there,” Lake said. “He’s just got to continue to learn the defense so he can be a step ahead of the offense. As soon as we catch that up with his speed, he’s going to be special.”
S JoJo McIntosh
McIntosh wasted no time getting acquainted to college football, as he grabbed an interception on the very first day of training camp. He didn’t slow down from there, getting another pick the following day. The 6-foot, 191-pound safety earned Los Angeles Daily News All-Area honors in his senior year of high school at Chaminade Prep.
CB Darren Gardenhire
Gardenhire also grabbed an interception in his first day of camp, returning a pass from freshman quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels for a would-be touchdown. At Cabrillo High School in Long Beach, Calif., Gardenhire was named the Moore League Defensive Player of the Year and first-team all-league after his senior year.
CB Naijiel Hale
After winning a state championship and a national title last year with St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, Calif., Hale has already worked his way into the second team defense with the Huskies. As a senior at Bosco, Hale collected 70 tackles and played in the U.S. Army All-American game after helping the Braves to a 16-0 record.
CB Sidney Jones
A do-it-all athlete in high school, Jones played receiver, running back, cornerback, and free safety, and added kick and punt returns on top just for good measure. He showed off his athleticism early in camp by snagging a one-handed interception during the first week.
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