While the loss of Alameda Ta'amu was significant, the good news for the Husky D-line was the emergence last year of Auburn High product, Danny Shelton. As a true freshman, he wedged his way into a starting spot and never looked back. At 6-foot-1 and 335 pounds, Shelton is a couple inches shorter than Ta'amu but appears to have the same kind of NFL potential at defensive tackle. Shelton is very athletic for his size and provides prototypical run-stuffing ability up the middle of the defense. A former wrestler in high school, his toughness and strength are starkly clear and now it's just a matter of honing his craft at the BCS level. If his production trajectory continues, Danny should remain the anchor of this defense for the next few years. (2011 stats: 11 tackles, 0 tackles for loss, 0 sacks)
The other starting DT position will likely be filled by either Sione Potoa'e or Semisi Tokolahi. While he lacks the type of bulk you'd like in a DT (6-foot-2, 276), Potoa'e will be a junior and has developed into a decent player in the trenches. However, in watching the Husky defense he often goes unnoticed and rarely makes a significant impact. One of the most highly sought after DT's of his recruiting class (and an Army All-American), the Lakes High grad has all the natural gifts to be an impact player. After recording two sacks in '10, Potoa'e posted a goose egg last season and had just seven tackles. Potoa'e started all but two games last season and Husky fans are hoping he can use that experience as a springboard to make the leap from average to outstanding in 2012. Getting the most out of #55 should be a point of emphasis for the incoming defensive staff. (2011 stats: 7 tackles, 0 tackles for loss, 0 sacks)
After a gruesome leg injury in the 2010 Apple Cup, Tokolahi bounced back and started seven games for the Dawgs in 2011. While he wasn't much of a factor last season, the good news is Tokolahi didn't re-injure his leg. If fully healthy, he could pair with Shelton to comprise a jumbo DT combination for the Huskies with a collective 670 pounds between the two. Tokolahi is a similar player to Shelton (with almost identical size) and they would make an especially outstanding short-yardage DT tandem. As a senior, Semisi's presence adds invaluable size, depth, and experience to this group. (2011 stats: 4 tackles, 0 tackles for loss, 0 sacks)
Lawrence Lagafuaina has been a rotational player on the D-line, and at six feet tall and 330 pounds plugs the middle with good initial punch. However, his ability to generate a bull rush remains to be seen up to this point. It would be a big bonus if the new staff could get him to parlay his quickness and low center of gravity into some sacks. His upside appears a bit limited but he adds serious size and depth as a rotational tackle. Similar to Tokolahi, if he can surprise with more-than-expected production in ‘12, it would go a long way in filling the void left by Alameda Ta'amu. (2011 stats: 1 tackle, 0 tackles for loss, 1 sack)
Taniela Tupou - An Associated Press 2A all-state selection from Archbishop Murphy High Schol, Tupou redshirted as a freshman in ‘11. Although many recruiting sites projected him as a defensive end coming out of high school, Tupou's skill set may be more suited to play inside for the Huskies. Scout.com had him listed at 6-foot-2.5 and 260 pounds as a senior in high school. However, as is often the case, his official UW profile lists him at a shorter but bulkier 6-foot-1 and 280 pounds. My overall impression of him is that he has good hands and plays with sound leverage but rushing the QB is not necessarily his specialty. Given the fact that he redshirted last year and there's a new defensive coaching staff, Tupou's role on the defense is very difficult to project. I foresee him being a utility DT and think he is flying a bit under the radar as Tupou is a talented player with good size.
Incoming players with potential for early playing time…:
Josh Banks - As a sophomore at San Joaquin Delta College, Banks was the MVP of the Valley Conference and Sark has tagged him as a player who could come in and contribute immediately. He was a defensive terror last season for the Mustangs, tallying 7.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss. The new staff will likely try and use his quickness and size to collapse the pocket against opposing offenses, allowing Shirley, Jamora, and Hudson to use their speed coming off the edge to get home. Banks can get after the quarterback and seems to have a nose for the ball so it will be interesting to see if he is deployed inside or outside on the D-line. If he's able to quickly adapt to D-I football and the associated schemes, look for the JUCO transfer to see early playing time.
Outside looking in…
Damion Turpin- Turpin is not the biggest defensive tackle right now at 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, but the Compton, Calif. native will have time to develop physically. Right now he could play inside or outside, but the Huskies want to bulk him up a little bit and see what he can do as a 3-technique.
Overall DT Outlook:
The defensive tackle position appears to be in decent shape. Weathering the subtraction of Ta'amu will prove to be a challenge but incoming recruits and getting Tokolahi healthy should help. With a young linebacker corps, it will be paramount for the front four to keep offensive lineman from getting to the second level of the defense. This group is another storyline to keep a watchful eye on going into next season as the defense attempts to transform its image.
It was plainly evident in 2011 that losing Hau'oli Jamora to a season-ending knee injury hampered the defense's ability to get after the QB. A silver lining, though, is it allowed the opportunity for Andrew Hudson to cut his teeth early in his career. Hudson is a virtual body double of Josh Shirley (both 6-foot-3, 230) and they possess speed off the edge that is difficult for offensive tackles to match. Yet, they're undersized and can struggle to generate push against the conference's better pass protectors. Given some time to add bulk and get a little more experience (a redshirt sophomore in ‘12), Hudson should develop into a very solid edge rusher for UW. (2011 stats: 24 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks)
If the end of last season was any indication of the type of player that Josh Shirley is going to be, Husky fans are going to love watching him over the next few years. He and Hudson combined for 10 sacks in the second half of 2011 and Shirley was the lone bright spot for the Husky defense in the Alamo Bowl. The redshirt freshman from Fontana, Calif. recorded three-and-a-half sacks, absolutely terrorizing Baylor's offensive line. Shirley's tremendous speed (4.55 in the 40) and strength (bench presses over 355 pounds) are remarkable for how young he is. The future appears very bright for Josh and Husky Nation is hoping his performance against Baylor carries over into the '12 season. (2011 stats: 28 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks)
The return of Hau'oli Jamora (assuming a full-recovery) will be a significant in offsetting the overall depth of the position with the graduation of Everette Thompson. The Oahu native brings great energy and physicality to the end position and, if healthy, seems the front-runner for his old starting spot. As evidenced by the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska in ‘10, Jamora has the ability to dominate a game when the lights are brightest. Bringing that type of attitude and ferocity day in and day out is infectious and something this team needs from the defensive line if it's going to compete for a conference title. (2011 stats: 15 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack)
Husky fans will be hoping that Talia Crichton can make a significant production leap in the upcoming season. At 6'3", 255 lbs, he has good size for a college DE and has shown glimpses of ability. However, like much of the Husky defense he is too inconsistent. I'm looking for him to lead by example and provide higher standards of leadership and physicality expected from a senior. I think it's more likely that Jamora assumes that role next year, but one can hope… (2011 stats: 5 tackles, 0 tackles for loss, 0 sacks)
There's been no bigger physical movement up the DE depth chart than with Jarett Finau. The redshirt frosh from Juanita came to Washington at 235 pounds, but has really bulked up over the last six months and is now a rock-solid 265. On the hoof, Finau looks like an absolute beast. Obviously this spring will go a long way toward knowing whether or not Finau will be able to contribute, but just based on what he's been able to accomplish in the weight room so far, the results have been inspiring.
Incoming players with potential for early playing time…:
Pio Vatuvei - A long time commit to USC, Sark was able to turn Vatuvei in the 11th hour. He was one of the bigger surprises of the class in an area of real need for the Huskies. From what I've seen, it appears Pio can play anywhere on the D-line and brings rare versatility to the group. His tape shows he plays with good pad level and lateral agility. Vatuvei shows good quickness closing on the ball and is a strong tackler. In my opinion, his development and transition to the college game is one of the more intriguing stories to watch over the next year.
Outside looking in…
Connor Cree, Corey Waller and Kalei Auelua - Cree and Waller could see some time in the DE rotation but have a lot to prove if the hope to see early playing time. Special Teams seems the likely destination for Waller and Cree as both have good athleticism but could use some more development time. Auelua will come to Washington at around 240 pounds, and he'll be expected to make the same kind of physical strides as Finau did during the next off-season.
Overall DE Outlook:
To be sure, the starting DE positions will see intense competition and are areas with definite room for improvement going into next season. The value of a consistent pass rush to a defense cannot be overstated (see: 2011 NY Giants.) Defenses that rush the QB well can alleviate pressure on their secondary, play with confidence, and increase the likelihood of turnovers. These are all areas that have been major problems for UW over the last several years. Here's hoping for greatly improved play along the defensive line in 2012!
Next up: Part II—Linebackers