Chris Polk, Receiving Threat

College football is all about tradition — more than a hundred and twenty years’ worth in the case of the University of Washington — so it’s notable whenever a player does something that has never happened before in school history. That was the case Saturday, when Chris Polk rushed for 144 yards and caught four passes for 100 more, becoming the first Husky to record a 100/100-game.

Hundred-yard rushing efforts have become routine for Polk, who has topped the century mark seven times in eight games this season. Saturday, he broke out of a tie with Napoleon Kaufman for the most 100-yard rushing games in Washington history with the 18th of his three-year career.

What’s new is Polk drawing upon his experience as a receiver in high school to pose just as much danger to defenses coming out of the backfield. Already this season, he has 18 catches for 249 yards. The latter number is most notable. Polk isn’t just catching screens and swing passes in the flat. He’s picking up big yardage when he catches the football. Last night, Polk went for 33 yards on a trick play with Devin Aguilar throwing the football and for 43 on a wheel route out of the backfield similar to the play that led to a 70-yard touchdown earlier this season against California. A third reception might have gone for more than 17 yards had Polk not reached the end zone.

If he continues at his current pace, Polk has a chance to make some more history with his ability as a receiver. Already, he ranks sixth in receiving yardage by a Husky running back dating back to the start of the Don James era:

Player              Year   Rec    Yds     YPC
---------------------------------------------
Greg Lewis          1989    45    350     7.8
Greg Lewis          1990    20    345    17.3
Vince Weathersby    1985    46    314     6.8
Corey Dillon        1997    18    304    16.9
Rich Alexis         2002    27    266     9.9
Chris Polk          2011    18    249    13.8

Chris Polk          2011*   27    373    13.8

Projected to a full regular season, Polk would top the list, as shown by his second line. Nobody before complete stats are available on Sports-Reference.com is known to have more receiving yardage than Lewis; Hugh McElhenny would join this list with 339 receiving yards in 1951.

Looking at yards per catch reinforces that there are two very distinct styles among receiving running backs. Vince Weathersby, UW’s all-time leader in receptions out of the backfield, mostly piled up short completions. Polk’s catches have been more robust. His projection would merely tie him for 10th in the single-season leaderboard for total catches by a running back with Alexis and two others. Braxton Cleman, for example, also had 27 catches out of the backfield in 2002, but for a total of just 138 yards.

Oddly, Greg Lewis completely changed styles between 1989 and 1990, catching less than half as many passes for nearly the same yardage. Lewis’ 1989 season and Corey Dillon in 1996 are the closest comparisons to what Polk is doing this season. As a result, Polk is on track to join them at the top of the leaderboard for Husky single-season yards from scrimmage.

Player              Year    GP    Rush    Rec     Yds
-----------------------------------------------------
Corey Dillon        1996    12    1695    304    1999
Greg Lewis          1990    11    1407    345    1752
Chris Polk          2010    13    1415    180    1595
Greg Lewis          1989    12    1197    350    1591
Napoleon Kaufman    1994    11    1390    199    1589

Chris Polk          2011     8    1016    249    1265
Chris Polk          2011*   12    1524    373    1897

Already, Polk is closing in on 1,300 yards from scrimmage. I can’t say where that ranks because this stat isn’t tracked in the Washington media guide; I had to reconstruct this list from the all-purpose yardage leaderboard, which also includes return yards (of which Polk has none this season). Still, if Polk stays healthy, he’s likely to surpass last year’s total of 1,595 yards from scrimmage and possibly pass Lewis’ 1990 season. Add in a bowl game and Polk could become the first player in Husky history ever to account for 2,000 yards of offense. He would have the benefit of an extra game on the schedule as compared to Dillon and everyone else before this decade, but that would still be an impressive feat.

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.