Eric Briscoe: Huskies' Leader Of The Pack

While the University of Washington football team's defense is inevitably compared with the Purple Reign of 1984, as it closes in on setting an NCAA record for fewest yards allowed per rushing attempt, it remains nonetheless rather faceless.

It has no spokesman, as the Purple Reign had in Tim Meamber, no wildman the likes of Jim Rodgers, no cinch All-American like Ron Holmes, no story quite as confounding as that of Reggie Rogers. Its best-known player, injured linebacker James Clifford, doesn't even play.

But there is something special about this team other than just its ability to numb offenses.

Although the players do a lot of savage tackling, there is little dancing and finger-pointing afterward. There was no Miami vice - that senseless degradation of your opponent - during or after the Oregon game, just a strong statement hanging in the air about which team was better.

``I guess more than anything,'' said Jim Lambright, UW defensive coordinator, ``these guys enjoy their success. They do a really good job of being excited about each other. Any one of the 11 on the field could make the next big play, and they know that.

``This is a classy group, on and off the field.''

Meet Eric Briscoe. Finally, a leader is emerging to the public, even if the members of the team have known it all along. A quiet but forceful leader.

``Eric Briscoe is probably the most influential player on the defense,'' said cornerback Dana Hall. ``He's a captain, he's been around for five years and he makes big plays. He inspires us.''

In 1984, it was difficult to take your eyes off the two inside linebackers, Meamber and Joe Kelly. They often activated the trap.

But in 1990, it is from the strong-safety position - or rover, as the Huskies so appropriately call it - that the defense hinges.

Instead of sitting there Saturday and watching what the other team does with the ball against the Huskies, watch what Briscoe does to the other team. You have to know who the opposing quarterback is.

The strong safety at times was the largest of the defensive backs, selected for

his ability to cover 235-pound tight ends man-for-man.

But much of that has changed now with teams often taking the tight end out for an extra wide receiver. And it's changed for the Huskies as they've begun blitzing so much, often putting 10 players on the line before the ball is snapped.

Briscoe might look as if he's playing a wide receiver man-for-man when actually his assignment is that of a heat-seeking missile, tracking on the quarterback as free safety Tommie Smith rushes over to defend the player Briscoe appeared to be covering.

``The position almost demands that you make big plays,'' Lambright said. ``It is really at the center of what we are doing, a player who is involved in coverage, in stopping the run and blitzing the quarterback. Plus, his ability to disguise what he is doing is tremendously important to the defense.''

In essence, the position demands 4.5-second 40-yard speed to run with wide receivers, 200 pounds of hard body to take on linemen and fullbacks leading the sweep, and the assassin mentality of a defensive end when the blitz is called.

``There were times when I wondered if a human being could be expected to do all those things,'' said Briscoe, a soft-talking senior from Fort Lee, N.J. ``You're both a linebacker and a cornerback. It's a challenge, but it's also a lot of fun.''

Briscoe has intercepted passes in each of the past four games. His total of five equals the UW 1989 season high by Eugene Burkhalter. Briscoe was the Pac-10 defensive player of the week. But it wasn't always that way.

``Going into my senior year in high school,'' Briscoe said, ``I just wanted to be recruited by somebody, anybody. I thought I might end up at a Division II school.''

He has an aunt in Kent and spent the ninth grade going to school here. On a subsequent visit, he and his aunt visited the Huskies and talked football. He almost forgot about it when the Huskies came calling during his senior year.

Briscoe visited Duke, Penn State, Iowa and Washington. He hadn't forgotten his year in the Northwest.

But reality hit that first fall when he ran 4.9 in the 40-yard dash, good for a lineman but disastrous for a cornerback. He was moved to linebacker, but at 185 pounds, that wasn't the answer either.

``I really struggled. I didn't know where I was going to end up,'' he said. ``But I worked hard and never quit competing. I actually learned how to run, and I spent a lot of hours in the weight room. I got up to 200 pounds and down to 4.5.''

For a guy who came so far, literally and figuratively, to play for the Huskies, it was especially meaningful when the team selected him as one of its four captains.

``That was the greatest honor I could receive,'' he said. ``I feel like they're looking up to me as a sort of big-brother type. I'm not one to talk a lot, but I try to create things with my play instead. I really like the unity on this defense. This is definitely fun.''

Briscoe grew up across the Hudson River from New York City, but he avoided problems the way he does offensive linemen. He was a good student in high school and is a good student at the university, majoring in ethnic studies. He calls himself ``rather laid-back.''

He narrowed his school choices to Iowa or Washington.

``I liked the facilities at Iowa, but as laid-back as I was, I still didn't want to be in the middle of nowhere,'' he said. ``There was nothing at Iowa compared to what Seattle had to offer.''

Especially the opportunity - and challenge - of being the leader of what might be the best defense in college football.

Blaine Newnham's column usually is published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in the Sports section of The Times.