While the defensive end positions have been relatively strong over the past few years and have had solid depth, the interior nose tackle position has more often than not been a huge question mark entering the season. With the return of Russell Tialavea and the play of Tevita Hola and others, that position looks to be in the best condition it's been in for quite some time.
"It's nice to have the same guys back," said defensive end Brett Denney. "It really helps. You learn what other people do, and so right away we don't have to work through what every other person does and how they work. We just know."
The big news is that Russell Tialavea has returned to the defensive front at nose tackle. Indeed, Tialavea is a welcome addition for Denney and company.
"He does so much out there for us," said Denney. "He can pressure it up the middle and flush it out to where, if even we weren't in position, the play comes to us and makes everything so much easier."
"We've worked now for four years to build our interior, which is where I think championships are won because it controls how you practice," added Mendenhall. "So, you can really do any drill you want anytime we want and not be concerned about having to protect the line, because if you can't run into each other there it's very difficult to practice the physical part of the game."
For Denney last year, it was all about improving his overall run defense. Though he excelled at rushing the passer as a freshman, he would find himself on his back a bit too much during running plays, so he bore down and made huge strides in both run technique and in his overall strength.
"I got my run defense down pretty good last year, and that's why I was able to play and split time with Ian Dulan," said Denney. "Now I'm working again on my pass rush because I probably didn't work as hard on it last year [while] getting my run defense better. There's always improvements you can make and that's what we're all doing: becoming well-rounded defensive players."
Denney recognizes the advantages that the rotation between him and Ian Dulan gives the defensive line and defense as a whole.
"You always want to play as much as possible, but now I can go in, give it my all for three plays, go out, Ian goes in, and we stay fresh," said Denney. "So keeping bodies fresh gives us a huge advantage."
Denney recognizes the great heights that the defense, and the defensive line in particular, can reach this coming year.
"We haven't played yet, obviously, but yeah, we're excited," said Denney. "You can't talk or say anything until after at least a few games, but we're looking good. Practice is running smoother and we're starting out way ahead of where we were a year ago. Guys know their roles and we have some awesome new guys like Vic So'oto, Michael Alisa, Iona Pritchard, Coleby Clawson and some others that are only going to make us better."
Putnam Pass Rush
One player who is looking to make an impact is Matt Putnam, who recently switched from linebacker to defensive end this offseason. According to Putnam, the decision was pretty much made as spring practice came to a close.
"I liked playing linebacker, but now they have me at defensive end again, and I like that too," said Putnam. "If they feel that I can help out most at defensive end, then I'm all for it, and yeah, it feels good to be back at defensive end. It's taking some time to get used to the position again, but I'm progressing."
Indeed, Friday's practice saw Putnam storm around the end on the way to a sack, which demonstrated why coaches decided to make the switch in the first place.
"He might be the second-best pass rusher on our team after Jan [Jorgensen]," noted Mendenhall about Putnam. "If that happens it gives us a chance to get him trained there. Then what we can do is in long-yardage situations possibly have a speed group on the field and have those two [Jorgensen and Putnam] on the field at the same time."
Putnam recognizes his opportunity and hopes to see the field early and often this coming season.
"I'm about 245-250 right now, so I need to get a bit heavier, which affects me defending against the run mostly," acknowledged Putnam. "But I already feel great rushing the passer. That's why I think they moved me, and hopefully I continue to do that well."
True freshman lineman Solomone Kafu has caught his head coach's notice, and so far Mendenhall likes what he sees from his youngest defensive lineman.
"I like him," said Mendenhall about Kafu. "He's physical, he's tough, he's a great young man and he'll help us. When? I'm not certain, but I like him."
Mendenhall likes Kafu more as a nose tackle at this point and mentioned that his added weight and strength will determine where he plays on the defensive line in future years.
Junior college transfer Bernard Afutiti finally made it on the practice field, and Mendenhall mentioned that Afutiti has a lot of work to make up due to him missing five practice sessions. The plan is to work him in slowly and have him try to catch up with the rest of the team.
-For the third straight day Timpview recruit Xavier Su'afilo made it out to practice. He spent a lot of time speaking with head coach Bronco Mendenhall following practice, as well as spending time with Lance Reynolds Jr., who was in attendance as well.
-True freshman O'Neill Chambers continues to make his presence felt during practices, and made the play of the day by hauling in a Max Hall pass down the sideline that went for 35 yards. Chambers tiptoed along the sideline and did a great job of keeping his feet in bounds for the over-the-shoulder grab.
-Chambers battled a lot with cornerback Brandon Bradley during goal line drills. Both Chambers and Bradley are arguably the most physical players at their respective positions, so their battle was intriguing. While Chambers came out on top on occasion, Bradley generally won most of the battles.
-Max Hall led the offense to a touchdown during his first set of reps. The set culminated with Harvey Unga taking the ball into the end zone off tackle from six yards out. Hall went 4-of-4 during the set with passes completed to Luke Ashworth, Dennis Pitta and Andrew George twice.
-Kurt McEuen got the second set of reps and went 2-of-2 for four yards, with one of his passes completed to B.J. Peterson for a loss of three yards. On that play safety Jordan Pendleton jumped the pass in the backfield after making a quick and good read on the ball.
-Hall then went 5-of-6 during the second set, which included the aforementioned 35-yard pass to Chambers. Hall hit short passes to Unga, George, Reed White and Michael Reed during the set. Linebacker Jeff Bell ended the set by knocking down a pass across the middle on third and short.
-Hall then went 3-of-4 for 16 yards with passes to Unga, George and Wayne Latu. So'oto ended the set with a sack.
-The team did a lot of work on kick coverage with the first-team coverage unit fielding Andrew Rich, G Pittman, Michael Alisa, Shiloah Te'o, Bryan Kariya, David Nixon, Vic So'oto, Coleby Clawson, Garret Reden and Isaac Taylor.