Jan Jorgensen was a four-year starter and regarded as one of the better and more consistent defensive ends ever to pass through the program. With Denney, they lose a two-year starter who rotated in consistently while providing solid play during his final three years.
The two players looked at as being most able to replace them are Matt Putnam and Vic So'oto, who both saw spot action last season. Both of them are getting almost exclusive reps with the first-team defense when healthy, and while they've shown good signs, Coach Kaufusi readily notes how much further they need to go in becoming his two dependable ends along the defensive front.
"They're not ready right now," he bluntly assessed about both Putnam and So‘oto. "They're not where they need to be and they have lots of improvements they both need to make until they're at a point where we can depend on them."
Practice has seen some standout plays made So'oto, as he's recorded several sacks and tackles for loss. Meanwhile, Putnam has shown to have some ability in rushing the quarterback. While some would assume that the pass rush is up to par with both players, Kaufusi would strongly disagree with that notion.
"They have a long way to go until you can label them as being good pass rushers," he noted. "I mean, what sacks have they had? None that I can think of off the top of my head, so they need to show it more. They certainly have to work on their run defense, but their pass rush needs to get better as well."
Kaufusi just wants to see both of them show up and work hard every day while focusing on all the details. Consistency is key with any position, and he's looking for more of that from the two players he has with the first defensive rotation currently.
While both Jorgensen and Denney were every-down type of defensive ends who weren't rotated out much at all during the course of a game, Kaufusi isn't sure yet if Putnam and So'oto can be those guys or what type of rotation he'll use to adequately fill the position.
"We simply don't have the depth right now to rotate guys," he explained. "Those freshmen coming in, we have a lot of them, and I need to find some guys that can be in the rotation this fall, because this spring we're really thin right now."
Like many, Kaufusi anxiously anticipates the return of Eathyn Manumaleuna, who was a defensive standout at the nose tackle position as a true freshman. While he'll certainly be projected to play there again upon his return, Kaufusi mentioned that he may be used to help fill one of the end positions.
"He was a really good player for me before his mission, and with him and Romney [Fuga] being at nose, we should be alright there," he said. "What I'm hoping is that one of the freshmen nose guards can step up so I can use Eathyn on the outside possibly to add some strength there or possibly even Romney."
The cupboard certainly hasn't been completely bare this spring, as players such as Thomas Bryson and Jadon Wagner have stepped forth and shown some good potential.
"Thomas has come out real nicely and [is] improving every day," commented Kaufusi. "I've really been impressed with the progress he's made, and Jadon, he used to be a linebacker and has a lot of athleticism. He's working very hard right now because he's been here a while and he wants to play and I like that. They're both getting a lot of reps and we'll see if they take advantage of them."
Like most new players, both Bryson and Wagner are currently working to get over the hump of learning their proper alignment and assignments as dictated partially with what formation the offense presents. Once they get over that hump, the hope is that they'll be able to be quicker off the line and more able to make plays and complete their assignments.
"They need to really focus more in the film room, because knowing what they're supposed to do and being completely confident in their reads is what will help them most," said Kaufusi. "Not only them, but Vic and Matt as well. That's the big thing they need to get before they can really play and be depended on. Obviously Vic and Matt are closer to reaching that point because they've played more, but it's something I'm looking for from all of them. It will help them be more consistent, which is what we need."
While the task certainly isn't an easy one, Kaufusi is confident they'll find adequate replacements, whether those replacements are currently participating in spring practice or whether they'll arrive this fall.
"We'll be okay and I like the progress we're making," he said. "It's a lot of work they need to do, but I like how they're working so far. I've been sort of spoiled with how good and consistent both Jan and Brett have been and these guys have a lot to live up to, but I think they certainly have the potential to do so."
Those expected to add their talents to the defensive line mix include the aforementioned Eathyn Manumaleuna and true freshmen Alani Fua, Graham Rowley, Tayo Fabuluje, Jordan Afo, and Travis Tuiloma. Afo and Tuiloma will most likely be looked at to play inside at nose tackle, while Rowley, Fabuluje and Fua will be looked at to help contribute at defensive end.
"We have a lot of guys coming in and we're excited to see what they have and what contributions they can make," said Kaufusi. "We hope to get our front guys set this spring, but with so many guys who we like a lot coming in this fall, we probably won't get it sorted out until then."