SEATTLE – Every assessment of Washington’s young pass-rushers is accompanied by an obvious stipulation.
One that is repeated often.
“They’re still learning — a lot,” said defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, asked Tuesday to evaluate the progress of freshman defensive linemen Marcus Farria and Joe “JoJo” Mathis.
“Physically, they’ve got some good tools,” Wilcox continued. “They’ve still got growing to do, physically and obviously mentally in terms of the game. But they play hard, they’re active guys and can be difficult to block at times.”
That’s why Farria and Mathis were named by coach Steve Sarkisian earlier this week as young players he’d like to continue working into the mix on the defensive line, a conclusion reached after watching and studying during UW’s bye week.
Both have played off and on this year — Mathis in seven games, Farria in four — with Farria, a 6-foot-5, 235-pounder from Peoria, Ariz., filling the stat sheet with 1.5 sacks against California on Oct. 26. He has 2.5 sacks this season.
And Mathis, a 6-4, 250-pound defensive end from Upland, Calif., was one of a few younger players who stood out while receiving extra repetitions during the Huskies’ bye week practice.
“They’re coming along here as we anticipated,” said defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi. “They’re lining up correctly more often. We’ve seen JoJo turn it on as far as the desire and want-to to play. It’s showing up in practice a lot more. As anyone in our group turns up more in practice, we play them more on Saturdays.”
As true freshmen, Mathis and Farria are unavailable for interviews. But Danny Shelton, UW’s junior nose tackle, said both players have caught his attention recently, particularly during team meetings.
They struggled earlier this season, Shelton said. And while each still has a lot to learn, there’s a reason why Sarkisian wants to see more of them.
“They’re freshmen. They’re going to mess up,” Shelton said. “I’ve noticed that they’ve actually shown improvement. They understand what they’re doing. It doesn’t take Coach a long time to have them answer a question.”
If they help the Huskies force more turnovers, they’ll probably see the field plenty. That has been an emphasis of Wilcox recently, with UW recording just four takeaways in its past four games.
It’s likely not a coincidence that the Huskies won just one of those.
“We’ve got to do a better job of forcing the ball out,” Wilcox said. “Sometimes you’re going to get them off a mistake the offense makes, but there’s got to be more times that we’re forcing it, whether it’s a tipped ball or we’re stripping it from the offense.”
The Huskies have forced 11 turnovers this season — eight interceptions and three fumble recoveries — and have given the ball away only nine times, but Wilcox wants the margin to be higher than that.
Playing more physical would help.
“That’s the obvious one, where you knock the ball loose,” Wilcox said. “In the pass game, a lot of the time it’s anticipation, it’s seeing routes, it’s affecting the quarterback so he can’t set his feet. So it’s usually a number of things.”
He would also like his players to tackle better. That issue was most glaring in a 53-24 loss to Arizona State, though the Huskies also missed a handful of chances to drop California ball carriers for lost yardage in a 41-17 victory.
Improving tackling fundamentals might seem tricky when also focusing on knocking the ball loose. But Wilcox said there are ways to ensure that both of those skills are properly taught.
“You work on strip tackles, where you secure it and you try to force the ball out, and second man in,” Wilcox said. “You work those type of drills.”email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @ChristianCaple