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Husky Football Blog

The latest news and analysis on the Montlake Dawgs.

January 9, 2012 at 1:27 PM

So why did Nick Holt fail at UW?

It’s been 10 days now since Nick Holt was fired as Washington’s defensive coordinator, eight days since Justin Wilcox was hired as his replacement.

At some point, the school will hold a press conference to formally introduce Wilcox and also allow UW coach Steve Sarkisian to say whatever he will about the decision.

Until then, it’s left for fans and others to try to get at a nagging question — what went wrong under Holt?

Wilcox is being accurately portrayed as one of the rising stars of college coaching, an up-and-comer who has had success as a defensive coordinator at two major programs — Boise State and Tennessee.

But then, Holt also came to UW highly regarded, something that may be easy to forget now.

When Holt was introduced amid much fanfare in January of 2009, he was coming off a three-year run as defensive coordinator at USC that statistically was one of the best ever in the history of the Pac-10/12.

The Trojans led the conference in total defense and scoring defense each of Holt’s three years as coordinator, from 2006-2008, improving markedly in total defense each season — the Trojans allowed just 221.8 yards per game in 2008, the lowest total in the conference since 1971 (the 1991 Huskies allowed 237.1 yards per game).

It’s easy to say now that that was due to USC’s incredible talent (no doubt, there’s lots of merit to that) and that Pete Carroll was really the defensive coordinator (lots of truth to that as well, probably, as Carroll held both roles at USC for a while before Holt came on board).

Still, when Holt came to UW, much was made in touting his hire of USC’s immediate improvement in his time with the Trojans.

The 2005 Trojans had one of the greatest offenses in college football history but a somewhat suspect defense, allowing 360 yards per game, the main reason it ended up losing the national title to Texas (recall that’s the year the Trojans gave up 42 points to Fresno State and needed the “Bush Push” to beat Notre Dame in a high-scoring affair, etc.). Carroll served that season as both head coach and defensive coordinator.

Holt arrived as DC the next year after a two-season stint as head coach at Idaho, and USC’s defensive numbers were suddenly the best they ever were under Carroll.

When Holt and Sarkisian left in 2009 — but with Carroll remaining for what turned out to be his last season — USC’s defense went right back to being good but hardly record-setting, allowing 340.9 yards per game.

Again, other valid reasons could be made for the post-Holt dropoff at USC, notably the loss of some significant players.

But in 2009, when UW’s defense showed vast improvement from the debacle of 2008, all of this was being used as proof of what a good hire Holt was at Washington.

UW felt comfortable enough in the direction of the defense — and worried enough that Holt might have tempting offers to leave — that it gave him a one-year contract extension prior to the 2010 season.

Less than 15 months later, Holt was fired.

So what happened? Did Holt suddenly lose it? Did he never have it to begin with?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer (I say unfortunately because it’s human nature to always desire an easy answer to everything, because then a problem is easily fixable. But in something as complicated as college football, there’s rarely a one-size-fits-all solution to significant issues).

At least, there’s no easy answer from what I can discern or from people I have talked to.

Holt generally cited as the main reason for the struggles of the defense this year the overall youth and lack of ability to replace some of the big-time playmakers of the 2009 and 2010 teams such as linebackers Donald Butler and Mason Foster — a habit that irritated some fans who remembered when Tyrone Willingham often took much the same tact.

And while it may seem like a copout for Holt to constantly point to personnel (he did so again, unprompted, during his final press conference at the Alamo Bowl), few objective observers would argue that the talent on hand is that of any of the top teams in the conference.

One problem with that argument, though, is that by year three, the current coaching staff should have begun to assemble some of the pieces needed to upgrade the talent — maybe some of the youngsters on hand will begin to do that in future years, but it obviously won’t come quickly enough to save Holt.

Schemes, development of players and gameplanning are the other obvious areas to examine.

The record shows that Holt was able to scheme and gameplan well enough when he was at USC (as well as at previous stops as a defensive assistant at Idaho and Louisville). And sure, Carroll obviously helped a lot, but you had to assume Holt had some say in it and brought what he knew with him to UW.

At times, the schemes worked just fine here — a year ago, everybody was pretty excited about the direction of the defense following the 19-7 Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska that some were calling the best performance by a Husky defense in a big game since maybe the Don James era.

Even this year there were some bright moments defensively.

And some of UW’s stats in conference-only games — maybe the best way to really compare with the rest of the Pac-12 — aren’t as bad as you might think. UW finished fifth in run defense at 146 per game and was seventh in pass defense.

UW allowed 32 touchdowns in Pac-12 play — Stanford, which led the conference in total defense, allowed 26. Certainly, there’s a difference there, but again, not as much as you’d probably think.

Even the numbers concerning what was perceived to be UW’s biggest defensive failing this year — rushing the passer — aren’t as stark as you might imagine. Again, in conference games only, UW had 19 sacks to rank seventh. Oregon led the conference with 35, but no one else had more than 25, and UW’s 145 yards in opponent yards lost due to sacks is better than all but five teams.

I bring up some of these numbers to point out that it’s easy to assume Holt looked at what he had personnel-wise, looked at some of the stats and some of the performances (such as Utah this year, or even Oregon, which while you could make a lot of reasons for why the Ducks didn’t put up the huge numbers they normally do in that game, the stats were what they were) and thought he was doing okay.

Even for about 20 minutes in the Baylor game it seemed to be working, during the stretch when the Huskies outscored the Bears 35-3 and seemed to be in control. But obviously, by the end of the Baylor game — just like by the end of the season — it wasn’t working anymore.

I’ve talked to some people more knowledgeable than me about all of this (admittedly, a large subset) and no one says it was strictly “this” or strictly “that” that caused UW’s problems.

Unlike the last DC to get fired at UW — Kent Baer in 2007 — Holt tried lots of different schemes and wasn’t afraid to alter things quite a bit from week to week (Baer pretty much just rolled out the same 11 guys in the same 11 spots every week). As one guy said, it’s hard to necessarily say it was this or that particular scheme that wasn’t working, but seeing Terrance Ganaway run 89 yards down the middle of the field with no UW defender in sight indicated something was amiss.

Maybe the team had begun to lose confidence, either in itself or in the coaches. Or maybe Holt’s style had begun to wear on his players (though truth be told, his intense manner is pretty much mirrored by everyone else on the 2011 staff, though apparently the exact opposite of Wilcox).

Sarkisian also made clear he didn’t think it was Holt’s fault alone, also firing safeties coach Jeff Mills and linebackers coach Mike Cox.

Somewhere in all of that lies the real problem and solution. UW fans (and Sarkisian) have to hope now that Wilcox can find each quickly.

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