Overview of Washington Huskies defense begins with shutdown cornerbacks

Byron Murphy (1) and Jordan Miller (23) give the Huskies one of the top cornerback tandems in the nation. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Some of the best news of fall camp for the Washington defense? Senior cornerback Jordan Miller will be back, and back up to speed, when the No. 6 Huskies open against No. 9 Auburn on Sept. 1 in Atlanta.

UW co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said the 6-foot-1 Miller has had an “awesome” camp in his return from a broken ankle last October.

“Really so proud of that young man,” Lake said. “Man, he’s as tough as they get. He attacked his rehab. He’s been making plays day by day. … We started him off slow and kind of took the foot off the gas pedal a little bit and he’s been able to handle it. I’m very excited about him. So proud that he came back and he’s ready to roll.”

With sophomore Byron Murphy at left corner and Miller’s return on the right side, the Huskies might have the best cornerback tandem in the Pac-12, and maybe the best in the country.

“He’s my close friend and when we’re on the field together it’s just a natural thing,” Murphy said. “When I first got here, it was me and Jordan at the corners and I just felt a connection we had on the field. I played on that left side and he played on the right side and I just felt more comfortable. Now he’s back and it’s even better. We’ve got all our guys back and it’s great.”

A look at how the rest of the Huskies’ defensive depth chart has shaped up in fall camp:

DEFENSIVE LINE

Tackle

Jaylen Johnson, sr., 6-3, 294

Jason Scrempos, jr., 6-6, 292

Jarryn Bush, so., 6-1, 257*

Mosiah Nasili-Liu, fr., 6-2, 281

Nose tackle

Greg Gaines, sr., 6-2, 313

Shane Bowman, sr., 6-4, 288

Tuli Letuligasenoa, fr., 6-1, 338

Sam Taimani, fr., 6-2, 320

Tackle

Levi Onwuzurike, so., 6-3, 283

Josiah Bronson, jr., 6-3, 292*

Jared Pulu, jr., 6-4, 283

John Clark, jr., 6-4, 275*

Draco Bynum, fr., 6-4, 258

*walk-on

OUTLOOK: When Greg Gaines is healthy — and indications are he will be for Auburn — the D-line is in good shape. Jaylen Johnson is motivated for his senior season, and sophomore Levi Onwuzurike will be counted on for regular snaps. It will be interesting to see when freshmen Tuli Letuligasenoaand Sam Taimani might be game-ready; the Huskies could use their heft inside. “As a whole, our chemistry is really good right now,” D-line coach Ikaika Malloe said. The freshmen, he said, are “open to coaching. From Day 1, they all have the typical high-school bull rush and just overpower people. That’s what they came from. And now they’re dealing with elite athletes and they need to learn technique, and to see Tuli try to ‘hump’ somebody or (Taimani) try to hold and pull somebody is really refreshing. Those guys are learning techniques from the veterans and apply those in practice.”

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: A fifth-year senior, Shane Bowman got a lot of snaps with the No. 1 defense with Gaines sidelined earlier this month. A seldom-used reserve the past few years, he changed his diet this offseason, shedding 15 pounds, and now figures to be a regular part of the rotation. “His mindset has completely flipped,” said sophomore outside linebacker Ryan Bowman, Shane’s brother. “I’ve never seen a guy more devoted and locked in than he is this year. I’m expecting a lot of big things from him.”

LINEBACKERS

Outside (Buck)

Ryan Bowman, so., 6-0, 263

Ariel Ngata, rs-fr., 6-2, 213

Joe Tryon, rs-fr., 6-5, 262

Zion Tupuola-Fetui, fr., 6-2, 250

Inside (MIKE)

Ben Burr-Kirven, sr., 6-0, 221

DJ Beavers, jr., 6-1, 220

Jake Wambaugh, sr., 6-2, 220*

Jackson Sirmon, fr., 6-2, 229

Ben Hines, fr., 5-9, 224*

Inside (WILL)

Tevis Bartlett, sr., 6-2, 238

Kyler Manu, jr., 6-1, 232

Matt Preston, sr., 6-2, 235*

MJ Tafisi, fr., 6-2, 224

Brandon Wellington, jr., 6-0, 224

Outside (SAM)

Benning Potoa’e, jr., 6-3, 275

Amandre Williams, so., 6-2, 234

Myles Rice, so., 6-3, 246

Jeffrey Ulofoshio, fr., 6-0, 222*

OUTLOOK: As a redshirt freshman, Ryan Bowman had his breakout in 2017, leading the team with 5.5 sacks. The Huskies will need more of that — much more of that — from him and Benning Potoa’e this season. Look for both on the field together during passing downs. “I made a lot of good plays last year using my feet, but I’ve got to use my hands a lot more and be more of a technician with that,” Bowman said. Inside, the Huskies will rely on Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett, and junior DJ Beavers has made his presence felt in his return from various injuries. Junior Brandon Wellington is ahead of schedule in his return from a torn ACL late last season, but might still need a few more weeks to get up to full speed.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: Redshirt freshman Ariel Ngata is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster. Coming off shoulder surgery last winter, Ngata might not see a lot of action in his first collegiate game against Auburn, but by midseason he could be a valuable pass-rushing option off the edge.

SECONDARY

Cornerback

Byron Murphy, so., 5-11, 182

Julius Irvin, fr., 6-1, 177

Dominique Hampton, fr., 6-2, 197

Sean Vergara, sr., 6-2, 182*

Cornerback

Jordan Miller, sr., 6-1, 181

Keith Taylor, so., 6-2, 200

Kyler Gordon, fr., 5-11, 177

Zechariah Brown, rs-fr., 5-10, 184*

Nickel

Myles Bryant, jr., 5-8, 182

Elijah Molden, so., 5-11, 190

Dustin Bush, jr., 5-9, 178*

Angelo Sarchi, 5-10, 197*

Safety

Taylor Rapp, jr., 6-0, 200

Austin Joyner, jr., 5-11, 200

Isaiah Gilchrist, so., 5-11, 202

Safety

JoJo McIntosh, sr., 6-1, 205

Brandon McKinney, so., 6-0, 201

OUTLOOK: Count ’em up: The Huskies might have 10 future NFL players in their secondary right now — and, heck, maybe even more than that. Junior Myles Bryant, a 5-foot-8 former walk-on, might not at first glance be an obvious future pro, but from the outside he might be the most underappreciated player on the UW roster. “That guy right there,” Lake said, “he’s our toughest guy on defense. He can handle everything. He is one of the leaders in our room and he works at it before practice, after practice, in the meeting room. He probably watches more tape than anybody in the defensive-back room, and all he is is a warrior once he hits the field in practice and in games. I can’t say enough about that young man.”

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: Second-year sophomore Elijah Molden has been everywhere since spring ball, when he won the defensive backs’ “Best Hands” trophy, and he was again at the top of the leaderboard in interceptions through the first 10 days of fall camp. “He’s smart, he can play a number of different positions. He’s forcing his way onto the football field even though he has really good players sitting right there in front of him,” Lake said. “Really excited about him and you’re going to see him out there playing, for sure.”

As for the three freshman defensive backs? Julius Irvin, Kyler Gordon andDom Hampton all look capable of helping the Huskies this season, and their path to playing time will likely begin on special teams (as was the case for Molden, Brandon McKinney and Keith Taylor as freshmen last year). “Athletically, with their speed, all that, they’re ready to roll,” Lake said. “It’s just more of (when) live bullets are coming at them, how do they react? Can they get a check? Can they get a check after a check and get the call and still play proper technique? So that process is still going on and we’ll make decisions (about playing time) on that down the road.” The NCAA’s new redshirt rule — which allows players to participate in up to four games and still redshirt — will certainly be a factor for those three, and many others throughout the roster.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker

Peyton Henry, rs-fr., 5-11, 191*

Van Soderberg, so., 6-0, 198

Dylan Williams, fr., 5-9, 150*

Punter

Joel Whitford, jr., 6-3, 224

Race Porter, so., 6-1, 178*

Holder

Race Porter, so., 6-1, 178*

Snapper

A.J. Carty, jr., 6-2, 239

Luke Lane, so., 6-0, 207*

Punt returner

Aaron Fuller, 5-10, 190

Byron Murphy, 5-11, 185

Kick returner

Salvon Ahmed, 5-11, 191

Sean McGrew, 5-7, 174

OUTLOOK: The Huskies have a number of options in the return game. Aaron Fuller will be the primary punt returner, with Byron Murphy in the mix, too. The bet here is Salvon Ahmed gets the first chance to return kickoffs; SeanMcGrew has experience in that role, as does Chico McClatcher.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: Barring a stunning reversal before Sept. 1, Peyton Henry will be the primary kicker against Auburn. Henry, a left-footed redshirt freshman, was 9-for-9 on field goals during the final practice open to the media last week, and that came a day after he closed practice with a perfect 51-yard field goal. He’s believed to be the Huskies’ first left-footed kicker since Rick Smidt in 1961.