There is not a player on the Washington Huskies’ depth chart with a more secure starting spot than Budda Baker, the sophomore free safety from Bellevue who led the team in total snaps played as a true freshman last season.
He’s one of the Huskies’ most talented players, and perhaps their most important, too. He’s as sure of a thing as UW has.
He just has no idea who’s going to start alongside him.
It could be Brian Clay, a fifth-year senior who starred last season on special teams. Or Brandon Beaver, a fourth-year junior who has taken plenty of reps with the first-team defense during training camp. Or JoJo McIntosh, a hard-hitting redshirt freshman. Or Ezekiel Turner, a big-bodied junior-college transfer. Or Trevor Walker, who started two games last season before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.
Yes, there are as many as five candidates to fill the Huskies’ strong safety spot, which is open this season because junior Kevin King, who started 12 games there in 2014, moved over to cornerback.
“We have some guys to choose from,” defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. “And what’s nice is they’re all competing together, and they’re making each other better, so we’ll see how it all pans out. They’re all playing so well right now in practice that I think eventually when we get to game time, there could be a rotation of a couple of guys, so we can see them get some game reps.”
Lake said he’s looking for a physical player who is a sure tackler, “but also very, very smart. They make a lot of calls in our defense.”
That seems to bode well for Clay, the oldest member of the secondary who is reputed for his intelligence – just last week, in fact, he missed a few practices while completing his summer course work toward a master’s degree with a focus on intercollegiate athletic leadership.
After transferring from Hawaii, then sitting out the 2013 season as a walk-on, Clay earned a scholarship last season and played a key role on the Huskies’ special-teams units.
He wasn’t a factor at safety, though. That seems likely to change this season. Clay spent Thursday’s practice working with the first-team defense, with Turner and McIntosh both sidelined by apparently minor injuries (Lake and coach Chris Petersen each said both players should be “fine.”)
“It’s awesome, because we have a lot of guys on the back end that can play this year, and no one is really solid back there,” Clay said. “Everybody’s going to have a shot to play, and we’re definitely all going to play. So I love it. It just brings out the best in us.”
Said Beaver: “We’re all competing to play, but at the end of the day, I feel like we’re all going to play.”
Petersen prefers it that way.
“I like to play a lot of guys,” he said. “I think that helps them stay motivated for practice, I think it keeps competition. You’re going to need them, you’re building depth. So, I hope so.”
The two most imposing figures in the group, McIntosh and Turner, could provide the kind of thump the Huskies lacked last season.
“We had some guys redshirting that added some size, and we brought in some guys,” Lake said. “So we feel like we have some tough guys and some smart guys that can provide that role.”
Lake said he’s even rotated Baker through the strong safety spot, “just so everyone knows that position inside and out.”
And each player has been given enough repetitions in practice that Baker said he has faith in whoever ends up starting beside him.
“At the end of the day, I know I’ll be comfortable with every single one of them,” Baker said. “All of them know the play calls, and all of them show a lot of effort.”