Continuing with our All-Decade team, here is a look at the defense.
I decided to break special teams into its own category, so that will come later, along with a couple of other All-Decade categories — this seems like a popular topic and with the Holidays at hand and not much really going on, frankly decided I’ll drag this out a little bit to give the blog some content.
So here we go with the defense:
DEFENSIVE ENDS: Daniel Te’o-Nesheim and Kai Ellis — Te’o-Nesheim, how the school career-leader in sacks, is an easy pick. Ellis won in a tough call over Greyson Gunheim, who as a four-year starter accumulated a lot more numbers than did Ellis, who only played two seasons. It’s also goofy that Ellis was technically listed as an OLB during his career, though he played what to anyone else was defensive end.
But I’d forgotten just how good a year Ellis had as a senior in 2002 — he was second-team Alll-Pac-10 and also earned honors as UW’s top lineman on either side of the ball, and also the award as top defensive lineman, as well as the Tough Husky. Gunheim also won the top DL award twice, making it a tougher call. But ultimately, I gave it to Ellis for turning it what might have been the best individual defensive performance by a UW player this decade in the 2002 Apple Cup. Everyone remembers the “backwards pass” play that ended the game. But he also had 12 tackles in that game, four for a loss, forced three fumbles and had two sacks in that game. He was also a big part of the reason that UW allowed just 97.7 yards rushing that season, the lowest total at any point since 1991.
Gunheim deserves very honorable mention, however, and is among the guys who you figure might have had a lot better career had they been at UW at a different time in the program’s history.
Manase Hopoi also deserves some mention as he was the other full-time starter at DE in 2002 and again in 2003 before being moved primarily to tackle his last two years.
DEFENSIVE TACKLES: Larry Tripplett, Terry Johnson. Tripplett, who is the last UW player to earn all-conference honors as a DT — in both 2000 and 2001 — is another really obvious choice. The other spots a tough call. I ultimately narrowed it down to Johnson and Hopoi. Hopoi was really good early in his career but had a somewhat lackluster senior season in 2005, the only year he was solely a DT. Johnson had a somewhat checkered ending to his UW career — he had the option to return for another season, which no one figured he would have ever taken. But reality is also that the UW coaches at the time didn’t really want him to pursue it, not loving his influence on the locker room.
But in terms of pure ability, Johnson has to be the choice, as the fact that he is still in the NFL makes clear. He was a key part of the 2002 DL that was so tough against the run that I referenced above, and also had one of the other key defensive plays in the 2002 Apple Cup when he sacked Jason Gesser, causing an injury that sidelined him for the rest of the game. He also had a real knack for being around the ball that no UW DL has really had since, returning an interception for a touchdown in the 2001 Holiday Bowl, another in a 2002 game against San Jose State, and recovering a fumble for a TD against Idaho in 2003.
Jerome Stevens, Jordan Reffett and Wilson Afoa also deserve mention.
LINEBACKERS: Ben Mahdavi, Marquis Cooper, Donald Butler — This was about the toughest spot on this team to decide, in part because UW hasn’t had real dominant players at LB throughout the decade — the drought for having an all-conference LB goes to 1997, the longest of any position other than fullback. Derrell Daniels was next on the list, but since it seemed to even to me, this was one spot where I let longevity play a role. Daniels was really good in 2000, but each of the others had more years in this decade as a comparable player.
Mahdavi is one guy really easy to overlook, but he was the co or leading tackler in 2001 and 2002 and the team defensive MVP both of those years, as well. Cooper was the leading tackler in 2002 (tied with Mahdavi) and 2003, and actually voted by teammates as the defensive MVP in 2002. He also had a real knack for making big plays, such as the interception for TD that clinched the 2003 Apple Cup.
Butler got the nod for the final spot over Daniels, Joe Lobendahn, Mason Foster and Scott White. He was a starter for all of two years and part of another, and his performance against USC this year ranks as among the top handful for any defensive player this decade.
SAFETY: C.J. Wallace, Greg Carothers — Wallace was a three-year starter, two-time leading tackler and the last Husky to earn all-conference honors, that coming in 2006. The other spot was a tougher call. I originally wrote in Dashon Goldson. But upon reflection, he played just two years at safety, 2004 and 2005, before moving to cornerback in 2006. And obviously, those weren’t great years for the Huskies, winning just three games combined.
Carothers wasn’t the individual talent that Goldson was, but he had a big impact on some key reasons, stepping in for Curtis Williams in 2000 and starting the final four games , then starting all of 2001 and 2002 at strong safety, before moving to linebacker as a senior. He had a big hit that forced a fumble that led to a UW touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl. And I’d forgotten what a big game he had in the 2001 Apple Cup, forcing fumbles on two straight WSU possessions in the second half that turned the game in UW’s favor.
Goldson, beginning to have the kind of NFL career that makes you wonder what might have been had he been at UW at a different time, would obviously be next. And Williams obviously deserves some very honorable mention. UPDATE — And Hakim Akbar’s name is also sitting right here on my list, just forgot to type his name as someone to mention. But he certainly deserves mention, as well, for his play in 2000.
CORNERBACK: Omare Lowe, Derrick Johnson. Another spot dominated by early-decade guys — Lowe and Johnson each started the Rose Bowl. Lowe had one of the better games by a UW defender this decade with his blocked field goal that led to one TD and interception that led to another in the memorable 2001 win over Michigan. Johnson led UW in interceptions in both 2002 and 2003 — the only UW cornerback to do that this decade — sparking wins against Oregon State (2002) and Stanford (2003) with returns for TDs. His six interceptions in 2002 are the most for any UW player this decade.
Nate Robinson might have been as talented as any player to play this spot this decade but obviously essentially played just six games in 2002. Roy Lewis and Roc Alexander deserve mention, and Desmond Trufant could be in consideration for a similar list a year from now.
NEXT — Special teams and a few other categories,