UCLA Bruins sophomore left cornerback KENNY WASHINGTON (# 13) moves in to assist his teammates as USC Trojans fullback BILL SANGSTER (# 27), also a sophomore, is tackled short of the goal line during the heart-stopping Pacific Coast Conference game played in front of 75,000 spectators at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on December 4, 1937.
Several months ago, this blog took its best shot at explaining why the UCLA BRUINS of the late 1930s did not deploy their most dangerous runner, KENNY WASHINGTON, as their regular punt return man in any of the All-America left halfback’s three varsity seasons for the Westwood warriors.
The conclusion reached by this blog is that the UCLA coaches of that time period, in part due to the frequent number of fake punt plays that many college teams of the pre-World War II era were prone to attempt, obviously must have always thought it was simply better to position the speedy Washington, who just so happened to be a highly efficient tackler with very reliable hands to match, much closer to the actual line of scrimmage as compared to where the punt returner would typically be stationed in any normal kicking situation.
But, forget about punt returns. This particular blog piece here is focused on basic defensive strategies and tactics. Specifically, the positional placement of the dynamic Washington in the UCLA Bruins defensive backfield.
Nowadays, the way the contemporary game of football is played (and has been played for quite a number of decades), the defensive back who displays a great deal of speed combined with the consistent ability to effectively “cover” an opposing pass receiver at all times is traditionally stationed at one of the two the cornerback positions. Meanwhile, the defensive backs who demonstrate superior play-diagnosing instincts and pass-catching skills or the penchant to be the most punishing tacklers are, generally speaking, assigned to the free safety and strong safety positions, respectively. Naturally, quickness is also very important to the two safeties, who line up in the center of the field and can be called upon to be responsible for vast amounts of territory on any given play.
Of course, during the late 1930s, most collegiate teams (including all of those in the Pacific Coast Conference) ran the pigskin far more often than they risked putting it in the air, so the urgent need for “cover corners” was not anywhere near what it can now — almost eighty years later — oftentimes be. Realistically, defensive backfield players who could shed a block and make a solid tackle were much more in demand back in the day when Washington was headlining for the UCLA Bruins. Given the ground-oriented nature of the gridiron game at that point in time, it should come as no surprise that all regular defensive alignments of the pre-World War II era only ever utilized three defensive backs (two cornerbacks and just one safety) as compared to the four defensive backs which have been standard operating procedure in football for decades now.
STANDARD CARLISLE SINGLE WING OFFENSE vs 6-2-2-1 DEFENSE
Blue Square = offensive center, Blue Circles = other offensive players ……… Yellow Triangles = defensive linemen, Yellow Squares = defensive linebackers, Yellow Circles = defensive backs
From the moment that Kenny Washington in began scrimmaging with UCLA’s first-string varsity in the spring of 1937, the highly touted freshman out of Lincoln High School in Los Angeles was considerably bigger than the other defensive backfield candidates and was certainly among the very fastest, as well. The requisite ball-hawking instincts and pass catching skills normally required of a safety were also not a problem, as the 195-pounder promptly displayed in the Bruins’ annual Blue & Gold intra-squad spring game that year. Indeed, midway through the opening quarter, Washington initiated the scoring by intercepting a pass and running 60 yards for the first touchdown of the afternoon … (UCLA’s promising newcomer later tossed a pair of touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to cap off a 19-0 victory for the Blue team).
Interesting enough, the post-game report in the newspaper indicated that Washington was playing at the safety position during the Blue & Gold tussle in the spring of 1937. However, by the time the official NCAA season came around later that fall, the new UCLA first-string left halfback was occupying the left cornerback position for the Bruins on the defensive side of the football. From the contemporary perspective of an analyst in the 21st century, it may seem a bit odd that UCLA head coach BILL SPAULDING did not deploy Washington in the center of the field at safety but there appears to have been sound reasoning at the heart of this particular strategy.
Aside from the fact that passing the football simply just wasn’t very prevalent during the Single Wing era of the late 1930s, it must also be prominently remembered that the overwhelming majority of college football teams at that time used an “unbalanced line” (i.e., the two guards both line up on the same side of the offensive center to create an overload) when in possession of the pigskin. Furthermore, for whatever reason (perhaps because the majority of all players passing the football were right-handed?), the ‘strong side’ of the unbalanced line tended to be to the right of the offensive center far more often than not. And, for what should be obvious reasons, a good percentage of all rushing plays were directed towards the strong side of the unbalanced line.
Consequently, the left cornerback of the Single Wing era oftentimes stationed himself much closer to the line of scrimmage as compared to his counterpart over on the right side of the defensive formation.
UCLA Bruins left cornerback KENNY WASHINGTON (# 13) watches as the USC Trojans ball-carrier is thwarted in his attempt to score a touchdown on a short yardage “dive” play during the pulsating Pacific Coast Conference clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on December 4, 1937.
The positioning of Kenny Washington at left cornerback took full advantage of the backfield player’s tremendous size and superior tackling abilities. Tipping the scales at 195 pounds, the Bruins standout actually weighed the exact same amount as the two players, EARL “Tex” HARRIS and WOODY STRODE, who started at the left end position on the line of scrimmage for UCLA in 1937 and 1939, respectively. What’s more, Washington also weighed just five pounds less than JOE L. BROWN, the player who began the 1938 NCAA campaign as the Bruins’ starter at left defensive end, and was twenty pounds heavier than DON MACPHERSON, the player who closed out that very same season as UCLA’s first-string on the left end of the line.
In other words, when UCLA’s opponents ran the ball to its strong side of the line (on sweep playss in particular), the sturdy Washington essentially operated as something of a modern-day outside linebacker or, in certain situations, perhaps even the very real equivalent of a seventh lineman in the Bruins’ normal 6-2-2-1 defensive formation.
This is not meant to imply that Washington was merely a ferocious tackler who was not quite so effective in pass coverage. The UCLA All-America backfield player picked off a respectable total of six passes and scored two defensive touchdowns (one on the return of a fumble) over the course of his three-year collegiate career. Washington also still holds the Westwood school record for average yards per interception return in a career (37.7 avg), but that would be another blog article.