Quantifying Nick Holt

The most discussed man in Seattle this week is University of Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt. This tends to happen when a top-25 team gives up 65 points — tied for the most allowed by a Husky team since 1921 — and surrenders 446 rushing yards, a Stanford school record. A columnist for The Daily, the UW student paper, responded by calling Holt the defense’s problem. Seattle Times columnists Jerry Brewer and Steve Kelley were more measured in their analysis, but it’s clear that the pressure is on Holt from the outside.

Against this backdrop, Holt addressed the media on Tuesday and spoke up in his defense’s defense, insisting that the unit had improved since his arrival in 2009.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said, “Yeah, yeah, I do. I do.”

Now, I suppose that claim has to be clarified. If Holt means the defense is better now than in 2008, he’s right, though that’s not exactly an accomplishment given how poorly the Huskies played on both sides of the ball in 2008. If Holt is comparing this year’s defense to his first Washington team, 2009, the numbers don’t come close to backing up that assessment.

FootballOutsiders.com uses a pair of ratings to evaluate NCAA teams. FEI, the Fremeau Efficiency Index, uses drive performance to rate offenses and defenses. Looking at FEI over the last three seasons, there is little ambiguity about where the Huskies’ improvement has come.

Year    Off Rk    Def Rk
-------------------------
2009   .070 47   .007 62
2010  -.048 68   .108 77
2011   .640  5   .483 104

By FEI, Washington’s offense has been one of the nation’s best. The defense has been among the worst in the country. As bad as this year has been, however, the problem goes back much further. Using FootballOutsiders’ play-by-play-based college metric, S&P, shows how bad the Husky defense has been for years. S&P goes back further than FEI, all the way to 2005. That year, the first of the Ty Willingham era, was the last time Washington boasted one of the nation’s top 50 defenses.

Year    S&P Rk   Ru   Ps
------------------------
2005  108.1 38   14   56
2006   99.0 56   65   40
2007  100.2 61   65   62
2008   88.6 99  110   73
2009   95.5 71   58   76
2010   97.0 67   82   58
2011   91.3 88   74   86

In part, this history gives me pause about the “Fire Holt” bandwagon. Just four years ago, Husky fans were all convinced that defensive coordinator Kent Baer was holding the team back. Certainly, that was true of the defense in general, which was nearly as imbalanced compared to the team’s 12th-raked offense as this year. However, when Baer was fired and replaced by NFL veteran Ed Donatell, we found out just how much worse things could get during the 0-12 season. And remarkably, the defense has never been better in three years under Holt than it was in the worst of Baer’s three years at the helm. So I guess we all owe Kent Baer an apology.

Is this an issue of talent? To try to answer that question, I went back and reconstructed Washington’s most frequently used defensive lineup going back through 2006 and pulled each player’s recruting rating (from two to five stars) on Scout.com. This is an imperfect method, obviously. Scout rated future NFL linebackers Donald Butler and Mason Foster as just two-star recruits, which seems silly in hindsight. Nonetheless, this gives a decent gauge of the Huskies’ defensive talent over that span.

         2006  2007  2008  2009  2010  2011
-------------------------------------------
4-star     3     1     2     2     2     4
3-star     3     5     6     4     6     6
2-star     5     5     3     5     3     1
-------------------------------------------
Total     31    29    32    30    32    36

By this measure, this year’s defense is the most talented Washington has had in the past six years, featuring just a single two-star recruit (middle linebacker Cort Dennison). Overall, though, defensive talent is clearly lacking. The Huskies have started just nine four-star players in the last six years combined, mostly on the defensive line. Several linebackers and safeties have exceeded expectations and gone on to play in the NFL, but cornerback has long been a major weakness. Dashon Goldson is the only four-star recruit that has lined up at corner for Washington in that span, and the team has struggled to find a counterpart for Desmond Trufant in recent seasons. Greg Ducre may ultimately be the answer, but for now the sophomore is too inexperienced to face the elite passing attacks on the Huskies’ schedule.

In contrast, the Washington offense currently starts five four-star recruits, including three on the offensive line (Jermaine Kearse, Senio Kelemete, Erik Kohler, Chris Polk and Colin Porter) plus five-star true freshman tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Just one offensive starter (left guard Colin Tanigawa) was a two-star recruit. For whatever reason, the Huskies have attracted a much higher caliber of talent on the offensive side of the football.

The effect is that when Washington does come up with a talented defender, he’s often forced into the lineup ahead of schedule, something Holt lamented to the media. Times reporter Bob Condotta crunched the numbers and found that, compared to other Pac-12 defenses, the Huskies are in fact “a little on the young side, with four senior starters and six upper classmen. But the Huskies aren’t necessarily a whole lot younger than a lot of other teams in the conference.”

Holt’s argument also doesn’t hold up as to why this year’s Washington defense is playing worse than its predecessors. This year’s unit isn’t substantially younger than last year’s, or any since the Baer era.

         2005  2006  2007  2008  2009  2010  2011
-------------------------------------------------
Senior     3     5     5     2     3     3     3
Junior     4     3     2     3     3     4     2
Soph.      4     2     4     3     3     3     5
Fresh.     0     1     0     2     2     1     1
-------------------------------------------------
Total     21    23    23    15    18    20    18

(Note that my numbers don’t quite match up with Condotta’s this year because we used slightly different lineups.)

Reviewing the data, I don’t think Holt is necessarily the problem. However, there’s also a distinct lack of evidence that he is the solution, and that’s a problem in and of itself. Holt’s reputation was built during his time as defensive coordinator at USC. The Trojans ranked second and third in the nation in defensive S&P during 2007 and 2008, Holt’s last two seasons. But Pete Carroll handled a significant amount of the defensive responsibilities, and it’s disconcerting that Idaho got better on defense (going from 101st in the nation to 88th) after Holt resigned as head coach in Moscow. There’s little reason to believe that Holt should be one of the nation’s highest-paid defensive coordinators.

I’m also troubled that Holt keeps talking about staying the course and pointing out a few big plays as hurting the Washington defense. The Huskies have struggled to stop legitimate BCS offenses (and one from the Big Sky) all season long. Unless the system changes, don’t expect the results to get any better.

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13 thoughts on “Quantifying Nick Holt

  1. Numbers can vary; Holt was clear when talking about youth that he’d like to red shirt more players. A redshirt Freshman is arguably a bigger, stronger (not arguably) older player. Was that taken into consideration. Andrew Luck is a “junior” but this is his 4th year in the program … makes a difference.

  2. Recruiting rank as measure of talent?

    Silly? Yes (as you admit).

    Decent guage? Of course not (just ask two-star recruit Steve Emtman)!

    Better guage: also look at number of players placed on NFL rosters.

    • Recruiting ratings are a perfectly valid way of evaluating talent in aggregate.

      Does JaMarcus Russell prove it’s bad to be a first-round pick? Does Tom Brady prove that sixth-round picks are more valuable than first-round picks? Obviously no.

      But in general the best teams tend to be the best recruiters.

  3. Great article, Kevin. Just a thought, but it would be interesting to weight the Scout ratings over the years by class… this is a little arbitrary, but you could weight the classes in 0.5 increments (freshman 0.5, soph 1.0, jr 1.5, senior 2.0). I would be curious to see how the overall combined talent/experience grades compare over the years to find if the fact that there is more “talent” is mitigated by the fact that the high-end talent is younger.

  4. Great article! Reasoned individuals can argue around the edges about exactly *how* much talent the Dawgs possess on the defensive side of the ball. But, I can’t find believe a reasoned argument that would suggest the Dawgs have the 88th or 104th or even the 50th worst talent level in the country. The defense is dramatically under-performing by any measure.

  5. Just one thought that jumps out at me. I believe I read (but cannot recall with great detail, so perhaps I am mistaken) that USC’s defense stats / ranking got worse the year following Holt’s departure – when Carroll was still at the helm. Assuming I am recalling that correctly, don’t you think that is interesting, if not relevant, information – especially given your comment about what happened at Idaho after Holt left?

  6. GAME. SET. MATCH. I’d already figured out that Kent Baer was a better DC than Holt. But your statistical history says it all. With Holt “there’s no there, there” and never has been. Any USC diehard will tell you Pete Carrol ran their defense, not Holt. Why do people think he left? But FACTS mean nothing to the Holt apologists. They love his bald head, and his whole fake tough guy persona. Meanwhile, Husky Football’s lopsided revival continues…with simplistic defensive schemes.

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