CHRISTIAN CAPLE

UW Huskies Practice Notebook: Why 2 veteran players stayed

Apr 7, 2024, 10:10 AM

UW Huskies Carson Bruener...

Bucky Irving of the Oregon Ducks is tackled by Carson Bruener of the Washington Huskies on Oct. 14, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Redmond High School won 13 games from 2016-19, the period covering UW Huskies linebacker Carson Bruener’s matriculation. The star defender could have been forgiven for transferring to one of the area’s power programs, especially with an eye toward his college recruitment.

But his father, Mark, the former UW and NFL tight end, told him: “If you’re good enough, they’re going to find you.” Plus, Carson saw high-school football less as a means to an end, and more as an opportunity to compete alongside the same friends he’d played with for years.

Caple: Young UW Huskies players to watch as spring progresses

Staying put, he once said, was “something I wouldn’t change for the world.”

Maybe that helps explain, at least partially, why Bruener says he never considered leaving Washington upon coach Kalen DeBoer’s January departure for Alabama. After taking first-team linebacker reps for the third consecutive spring practice, Bruener spoke with reporters on Saturday afternoon for the first time since the coaching change.

“Everyone talks about it, like, ‘what if I did this, what if I went and got more money?’” Bruener said, referring to transfer-related NIL inducements. “I don’t (care) about the money, to be honest. This is my home. This is my team. This is my program. I’m a local kid. It’s a family school for me. I personally didn’t even consider entering the portal. I didn’t consider even talking to any other school, none of that.”

Instead, Bruener said, he met with new head coach Jedd Fisch as soon as possible, to “try to kind of figure out what his goals and his ambitions with this program (are).” Also, Bruener wanted to give Fisch his own perspective on the culture he had seen established in the locker room throughout the past four seasons.

“I feel like that’s what helped us kind of gain that trust with each other, and also with the other coaching staff,” Bruener said. “… I told him right off the bat, ‘I’m here. I’m here to stay. I don’t care about the money, I don’t care about anything else. I just want to be a Dawg.’”

He wasn’t alone. During those tumultuous weeks that saw many players enter the portal — some wound up leaving, others ultimately chose to stay — sixth-year senior defensive back Kam Fabiculanan was among the first to publicly pledge his commitment to playing his senior season at Washington.

Fabiculanan said he approached Fisch early and told him: “I’m committing to you. I want to be the first one to be a part of the team, because I believe that keeping the tradition here — keeping the winning tradition here — is the standard, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

That decision, Fabiculanan said, came after much prayer and discussion with his family.

“I love this community,” he said. “I love everything about Washington.”

They didn’t keep everybody. The list of outgoing defensive transfers included starters like cornerback Jabbar Muhammad (Oregon), defensive back Mishael Powell (Miami), safety Asa Turner (Florida) and linebacker Ethan Barr (UCF, after he had transferred to UW from Vanderbilt).

But Bruener is accompanied by returning starter and fellow senior Alphonzo Tuputala at linebacker. Fabiculanan often lines up next to fifth-year junior Makell Esteen at safety. Transfers like d-tackle Sebastian Valdez, cornerback Ephesians Prysock and edge rusher Isaiah Ward could assume big roles, but the Huskies also count 32 scholarship players on their defense who either played for the team last season, or were recruited by DeBoer in the 2024 class.

“We tried to convince everybody to stay, but everyone lives their own life; everyone chooses their own journey,” said Bruener, who finished third on the team last season with 86 tackles. “So for those that we really got to stay, we all just went to each other like, ‘all right, we’ve got to buy in. Whatever they ask of us, we’ve just got to give it back (with) that same energy.’”

As the Huskies navigate their first spring with Fisch in charge, Bruener and Fabiculanan figure to be key leaders on a defense installing a new scheme under coordinator Steve Belichick.

It’s a different scheme than what they learned under the previous staff, Fabiculanan said, but “being in three different defenses, it’s a lot of the same concepts but different terminology, all around.”

One similarity: Fabiculanan said the hybrid/rover position he’s been repping at — in addition to safety — is called the “husky,” just like under DeBoer, though the responsibilities aren’t always the same. “It just depends on what defense we’re in,” he said.

Belichick doesn’t offer any language to describe UW’s base scheme, saying “you obviously have to put something in so that we can go out here and practice and run around and do stuff, but we’re still working through a lot of stuff.” He said previously that the scheme — perhaps informed by his 12 seasons working for his dad in New England — will depend some on personnel, and what UW’s players are best at.

So far, the Huskies have mostly lined up with two interior linemen and two edge rushers, plus two inside linebackers and five defensive backs — similar to how they operated under DeBoer, Jimmy Lake and Chris Petersen — but, of course, they’ve had only three days to install their defensive playbook.

“They kind of give us a little bit more freedom — more of like a true, NFL-style defense,” Bruener said. “Steve, he’s gotten us really good on the concepts and the plays.”

There is one major difference, though unrelated to play-calling or alignment: in-helmet communication. So far, Bruener said, it’s been him wearing the helmet outfitted with the coach-to-player speaker, though they plan to start rotating it around soon. The NCAA’s rules committee recommended adding the NFL-style communication for the 2024 season, and the change likely will be approved this month.

“The first day, it was hard to kind of hear. It’s a little (muffled),” Bruener said. “We’re talking through a walkie-talkie right now. As days went on, I now know what to hear, certain calls to (listen) for on certain downs and distances. So it gets a little bit easier.”

Bruener said that huddling with the defense, then relaying the “tips and tricks” Belichick gives him through his helmet, is “just building the chemistry and the connection between the whole defense.”

It also allows for some hijinks.

“Steve pulled a joke on me the first day,” Bruener said. “I was just holding my helmet, walking around the field, and all of a sudden I just hear, ‘put on your… helmet.’ I didn’t even realize it was in there yet.”

This seems like exactly what Fisch envisioned when he took the UW job and assembled a coaching staff heavy on NFL experience (and famous fathers): there was Fisch on Saturday, standing in the middle of the practice field, chatting away with a former employer — one who happens to own six Super Bowl rings as an NFL head coach, and another two as an assistant.

Bill Belichick also dressed like he belonged at a college practice, wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt emblazoned with UW’s purple, block-W logo — and featuring two, full sleeves — plus a white-and-purple UW ballcap. From a distance, the only giveaway that this was a visiting coaching legend, and not a Huskies’ staffer, were Belichick’s Nike sneakers.

At one point, as the elder Belichick watched from behind the end zone, he was joined by former UW defensive lineman Danny Shelton, who spent two seasons with the Patriots in 2018-19 (and won a Super Bowl), and Philip Blidi, a d-line transfer from Indiana who is in town for a visit.

Fisch spent the 2020 season as quarterbacks coach under Belichick with the New England Patriots, and of course hired his son, Steve, to be his DC at Washington. Father and son spent portions of Saturday’s practice talking shop as they watched the Huskies’ defense.

Bill Belichick was a keynote speaker at UW’s annual coaching clinic this weekend. More than 300 coaches attended. Fisch mentioned previously that Bill Belichick planned to spend five days around UW’s program this spring.

“It’s cool. I’m glad he got to come out here,” Steve said of having his dad at practice. “I look up to him in so many different areas. To have him out here to lean on him, it’s been awesome.”

UW Huskies practice notes

• Saw a couple nice plays from freshman quarterback Dermaricus Davis. The one that most stood out was a strike to redshirt freshman receiver Keith Reynolds on what appeared to be a long out-route near the right sideline, in front of a defender, during 7-on-7s. Davis also kept the ball on what appeared to be a read-option play, and used his long strides to pull away for a long touchdown run of 60-plus yards.

• Rashid Williams continues to make plays. This time, it was on a route up the right sideline against Elijah Jackson, who provided tight coverage, but the redshirt freshman receiver went up and caught the throw from Will Rogers, anyway.

• Rogers also made a nice throw to Quentin Moore during an 11-on-11 period, layering a throw to him with good touch between a couple defenders.

• Freshman quarterback Demond Williams Jr. found Denzel Boston between Jackson and Esteen for a long gain, and Boston also made a tough catch against cornerback Jordan Shaw on a pass from Rogers. During the first 11-on-11 period of practice, Boston caught a quick screen from Rogers for a big gain, and on another play, Rogers did well to find him with an accurate throw while moving to his right. Boston, the third-year sophomore from Puyallup’s Emerald Ridge High School, has been a spring standout through three practices.

• Tuputala made a nice play to stuff tailback Jonah Coleman in the backfield, and Jayvon Parker blew up a running play nearly as soon as Rogers made the handoff.

• Washington’s first-team offensive line looked a bit different on Saturday, with Drew Azzopardi flipping from left tackle to right tackle, and Soane Faasolo and Elishah Jackett taking reps on the left side. The true freshmen, Paki Finau and Michael Levelle Watkins, continue to get a lot of work at guard.

• Lance Holtzclaw got some run with the No. 1 defense at edge rusher, opposite Zach Durfee.

• Sophomore tailback Tybo Rogers appeared to be absent.

This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.

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