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Young defensive backs take bigger roles for UW

You should see Keith Taylor, said defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake. He comes Lake’s office everyday, sits, finds out how he can better.

And you should see those freshmen defensive backs — Dominique Hampton, Julius Irvin and Kyler Gordon — at practice. They give Washington’s receivers all kinds of trouble. That’s why Lake lights up when he talks about them. He’s excited to see what they become.

The Huskies’ talented defensive backs room was no secret before the season. It was widely considered one of the best in the country. Still is. But more recently, the depth has come to the forefront.

Taylor, a sophomore, has started the past two games at cornerback in place of Jordan Miller, who was injured against Oregon. Nickel corner Myles Bryant didn’t play in Saturdays’ 27-23 victory over Stanford, so sophomore Elijah Molden stepped in. And when safety JoJo McIntosh was ejected for targeting the second quarter, it was another sophomore, Brandon McKinney, who filled his role.

There wasn’t a drop off, Lake said, and that’s no surprise.

Molden had seven tackles and two pass breakups against the Cardinal, his best performance of the season. Taylor had five tackles and a pass breakup. McKinney had five tackles.

Even the three freshman got in on the action, mostly on kickoff coverage. Gordon had two tackles, while Hampton and Irvin each recorded one. Lake even used Gordon in a substitution package on third down.

“Executed perfectly,” Lake said. “Still have to go watch the tape but we’re excited about all three of those freshmen. They all had tackles on kickoff. Speed. They’re aggressive. They’re exactly what we want and it’s going to be fun to watch those guys continue to blossom.”

It was Gordon’s second game of the season while Hampton and Irvin were making their debut. Thanks to college football’s new rule, freshmen can play in four games and still redshirt.

“They’re hungry to go out there and make plays,” Lake said.

The group of sophomores — Taylor, Molden and McKinney — have played in every game this season. More recently, they’ve been asked to take on bigger roles.

And they haven’t missed a step.

“Coach Lake always preaches carrying the flag,” Taylor said. “Whoever goes down, next man up. Just play regular, really.”

Stanford, with its 6-foot-3 star receiver and tight ends between 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7, isn’t an easy assignment for any defensive back. There is no one on UW’s team that can model that height.

“We knew what was coming, that back shoulder stuff with a big target,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “Keith Taylor has been doing a great job, he really has. He’s come a long ways and he’s a long corner making plays.”

Taylor said there’s no difference for him on game day whether he’s starting or not. He doesn’t get nervous because he trusts in his technique.

“We want team players,” Lake said. “It’s all about the team. I’m so proud of him. … With that mindset that, ‘Hey, I’m going to get ready to go in there when it’s my opportunity and I’m going to make plays.’ And he’s done that for the last month.”

Petersen said Molden played well in the loss to Cal last week, and he didn’t miss a beat starting in place of Bryant on Saturday. Like Taylor, Bryant said earlier in the week that Molden has a willingness to learn.

“As a freshman, we put him out there in a couple packages and you could tell he wasn’t too comfortable,” Bryant said. “But I think this year he basically came into his own and he’s more confident out there. He knows the defense inside-and-out and he’s just making plays.”

Taylor, Molden and McKinney could start for any secondary in the country, Lake said.

Against Stanford, they did.

“Right now, they got pushed to be starters,” he said. “Elijah Molden and Keith Taylor in the beginning of the game and Brandon McKinney had to finish the game. … High confidence in all three of those guys.”

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