The Husky defense last season was key in generating excellent field position for the Washington offense. The unit was second in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, allowing a stingy 124.0 yards per game, while getting 3.7 sacks per game and allowing 24.8 points a game. The Husky defense held California to 7, and allowed 13 each to Oregon State and Washington State. But new faces will have to emerge this fall if defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s unit is going to match that performance.
Nose tackle Danny Shelton, linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha and Shaq Thompson moved their talents to the National Football League, and three other starters in the front seven are gone. Kwiatkowski is dialing up a 3-4 defense this fall, utilizing the speed of his players to cover different angles.
Up front, senior Taniela Tupou (6-2, 288), Elijah Qualls (6-1, 311, So.), Travis Feeney (6-4, 226, Sr.) and Joe Mathis (6-2, 252, Jr.) are the expected starters, according to the newspaper The Seattle Times. Tupou played in all 14 games last year and registered 12 tackles. Qualls also played in all 14 games last season and had three tackles, including one for a loss. While Elijah largely played a reserve role last year, he’ll be counted on as the man at defensive tackle this fall. Qualls, who was ranked as the #11 defensive tackle in 2013 by Scout.com while also playing running back, played in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl following his senior season at Casa Grande High School in California.
Feeney was one of the leaders of the defense, playing in every game and starting nine. Feeney finished last season with 60 tackles, 4.5 for loss, with a sack and two interceptions. With his size and mobility, Feeney will likely play his position similar to the way Shea McClellin played at Boise State. Mathis posted 11 tackles last year, two of them for loss. Joe was ranked as the #16 defensive end prospect in 2013 by Scout. Jaylen Johnson (6-2, 260) is a talented redshirt freshman, and whether he starts or not, is expected to get considerable playing time. Johnson earned all-state honors in 2013 for Centennial High School in Corona, California, helping his team to the Open Division state championship game as a senior.
Azeem Victor (6-3, 240, So.), Keishawn Bierra (6-1, 220, So.) and Cory Littleton (6-3, 227, Sr.) are the leaders to start at linebacker. Bierria made four starts last season, posting 35 tackles, three for loss and one sack—he too played in the Semper Fidelis All-American Game after his senior year in high school. Littleton also brings starting experience with him—he started every game in 2013. As a junior, Littleton had 62 tackles, 10 for loss, with five sacks.
Sidney Jones (6-0, 178, So.) will start at one cornerback, while Kevin King (6-3, 183, Jr.) has been battling Darren Gardenhire (5-11, 185, So.) for the other spot. Jones started 12 games as a true freshman, posting 61 tackles and two interceptions last year. King started 12 games last year and was credited with 65 tackles, while most of Gardenhire’s action in his first season was on the Husky special teams. Budda Baker (5-10, 178, So.) and Brian Clay (6-1, 207, Sr.) are the safeties.
Baker earned freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News, and is on Watch Lists for the Jim Thorpe Award, the Bronko Nagurski Award, the Chuck Bednarik Award and the Paul Hornung Award. Baker feels like he has made a lot of progress from his freshman season: “This year it’s just a whole new experience,. We know what we’re getting into and I feel like it’s going to be a lot easier getting all the play calls down, understanding what the offense is trying to do to us.”
Clay is a transfer from the University of Hawai’i who saw his first action in purple last season as one of the stars on special teams for Washington.
Although Kwiatkowski had to replace several starters on his unit, especially his front seven, the new players stepping up are athletic and talented. Kwiatkowski has the benefit of the knowledge gained from stopping the Boise State offense every day with his defense when he coached in Boise, so he knows what to expect. In many ways, the two teams mirror each other, so the chess match that creates between the two coaching staffs will be fascinating to watch.