Spring Preview: Defensive Line

It's cliche to say, but football games are won at the line of scrimmage. That's why it's a cliche; it's true. And we have already established how much experience and talent is returning along the offensive line, so today we move over to defense and look at their prospects under new Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski. Despite losing five players, things look pretty good over there too.

"It comes back to mentality," Kwiatkowski told Dawgman.com about his defensive linemen back in January when he first met with the Seattle media. "They need to be physical. They need to want to be physical. And then competitors. You're not going to win every battle, but once you get knocked on your tail get up and do it again. Here I come…that type of attitude and mentality."

Coach K and Defensive Line Coach Jeff Choate should be happy with what they see in spring, if that is their gauge - because this group of Husky defensive linemen are passionate, physical, and competitors. It stems from the teachings of their previous defensive staff, from DC Justin Wilcox to DL Coach Tosh Lupoi, taking a rag-tag group from the hundreds statistically under Nick Holt, to the thirties and twenties.

The defensive line, specifically, has strength in numbers, and quite frankly - strength. Even though they lost five defensive linemen from the beginning of 2013, none of them were major losses going forward. The main core of the DL still definitely remains intact.

"That's going to be the heartbeat of our team, how our line produces and plays," said Choate. "The best teams that I've been on have had great d-line leadership and play."

What does Choate want to see out of his new charges come Tuesday? "Whenever you're in a league like this you better be able to rush the passer," he said, matter-of-factly. "So I think that's one of the things - whether you're in a sub package or it's in our base package - we've got to continue to get guys like Hauoli going. Shaq (Thompson's) ability to rush the passer…I think we've got to be creative in that regard, but I think you've got to stop the run and rush the passer. Those are the two things you have to do up front. Danny is a good start inside. The Hudson kid, he's kind of impressive inside because to go from tight end to defensive line and be as productive as he was, especially in the bowl game…usually it goes the other way. Usually guys will transition from defense to offense. He did a nice job. We just have to develop some depth."
Defensive Line (11):
71 Danny Shelton - 6-1, 327 Sr. Auburn, Wash. (Auburn) - Shelton continues to improve, racking up progressively better numbers year after year. Until the emergence of Hudson as a complimentary piece inside, Shelton was in there alone most times, handing double and sometimes even triple-teams because he was the Huskies' clear leader in the trenches. If he continues to improve and post even better numbers in 2014, the first-team Academic All-Pac-12 pick has a chance to become a first-round 2015 NFL Draft pick. He's versatile enough to be a run-stopper, but also shows burst and movement getting after the quarterback in the pocket. He's best when he's working hard to get upfield, where he'll use his natural strength and motor to disrupt proceedings.
80 Evan Hudson - 6-5, 277 Sr. Bothell, Wash. (Bothell) - Considering he made the move to defense at the beginning of fall camp last year, Hudson had an incredibly productive 2013. He had four sacks and 21 total tackles in 13 games alongside Danny Shelton. Expect those two to be big contributors this coming fall. Hudson is, as you would expect, a rangy athlete who uses his reach and motor to get to places many defensive ends may not be able to. Even though he had been playing tight end up to last year, Hudson always approached the position with a tough defensive mindset. He's a blue-collar, no-nonsense player who should only get better and better with another two camps before now and the 2014 season.
22 Josh Shirley - 6-3, 232 Sr. Fontana, Calif. (Kaiser) - Shirley is listed as a defensive end, but he became a bit of a hybrid DE/OLB player under Washington Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox. Shirley came to Montlake with the reputation of being a guy that hounds quarterbacks in the pocket, and his 18 sacks the first three years in the purple and gold will certainly attest to his rep. But after coming up with 8.5 sacks his freshman season, his production has steadily declined, coming up with only three sacks last season. At this point it's hard to know what the new UW coaching staff will do with Shirley, as physically he really is just a rush end that you want to cut loose on clear passing situations.
52 Hauoli Kikaha - 6-3, 250 Sr. Laie, Hawaii (Kahuku) - Kikaha, formerly Hauoli Jamora, had what can only be described as a miraculous return to form in 2013 after missing basically the previous two years with knee injuries. He racked up an impressive 13 sacks last season and is poised to improve on second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2014. Kikaha, in a word, is relentless, whether it's as a rush end, or as a three technique when needed to help clean up on run downs. He plays the game with a spirit and passion that drives him to success. He's also an upperclassman that guides the younger defensive linemen through example.
97 Lawrence Lagafuaina - 6-0, 334 Sr. Aiea, Hawaii (Aiea) - Was slowed a little last year due to a lingering knee injury suffered in 2012, arguably the one ‘knee' guy to not make a real splash in his return. Lawrence is strictly a two-gap nose, head up against the center type that will plug run gaps and be a stuffer in the middle. He'll be a fixture in clear short-yardage and goal-line situations.
57 Drew Schultz - 6-1, 268 Sr. walk-on Olympia, Wash. (Olympia) -
95 Jarett Finau - 6-2, 263 Jr. Kirkland, Wash. (Juanita) - One of the players to have actually played in less action in 2013 than the year before, it's hard to know exactly what will become of Finau. There's absolutely no question he has the physical ability to play at a high level, and he has the body and measureables to be Kikaha's heir apparent in 2015.
90 Taniela Tupou - 6-1, 281 Jr. Marysville, Wash. (Archbishop Murphy) - Tupou was thought to be lost in the depth at the beginning of the 2013 season, but to his credit he started pushing through and by the end of the season was firmly placed in the two-deeps and getting regular snaps. Tani won the defensive weightlifting award during the team's post-season banquet, so he's poised to build on a strong finish. He doesn't have the bulk of Danny Shelton, but he's country strong and uses his quickness inside to his advantage.
66 Damion Turpin - 6-1, 260 So. Compton, Calif. (Dominguez) - Turpin is a player that hasn't seen a ton of action so far in his UW career, racking up four career appearances in two seasons. He's built a little bit like Tupou, but still needs to add bulk in order to be able to handle the pounding inside as a defensive lineman.
5 Joe Mathis - 6-4, 250 So. Ontario, Calif. (Upland) - One of two true freshman to see action in 2013, the heralded Mathis didn't waste time in making an impact at UW, playing in 12 of 13 games in 2013. He finished with seven tackles, as well as a heck of an education going up against big, strong Pac-12 offensive lines. Mathis is a workout warrior, so don't be surprised to see him come into the spring bigger, faster, and stronger - as well as fully prepared to take the challenge of playing time head on.
23 Marcus Farria - 6-5, 235 So. Peoria, Ariz. (Centennial) - Farria was another touted defensive end, a player the UW staff loved after seeing him work in their Rising Stars camp. Farria had 2.5 sacks in six games played as a true freshman, and if he's been able to add the necessary bulk and strength required to handle Pac-12 offensive tackles, it will be hard to keep him off the field. He's got pure natural pass-rushing ability; now he has to make sure he can hone the rest of his game so he doesn't end up as a situational guy ala Josh Shirley.
11 Elijah Qualls - 6-2, 293 RFr. Petaluma, Calif. (Casa Grande) - Unlike the other two defensive linemen in the 2013 UW recruiting class, Qualls redshirted - and now Husky fans should be able to see the benefits of that time in the weight room starting Tuesday. Qualls should be groomed as Shelton's eventual replacement, and anyone that has seen last year's video of Qualls doing a standing backflip at 303 pounds knows the young man has the athleticism to match anything he'll face in the Pac-12. But is he strong enough yet? Does he have the motor to go every play 100 percent? These are questions we will find the answers to in short order.

Departing Players: 5 (Sione Potoae, Josh Banks, Andrew Hudson, Connor Cree, Pio Vatuvei)

Incoming This Fall: 6 (Shane Bowman, Jaimie Bryant, Will Dissly, Greg Gaines, Jaylen Johnson, Kaleb McGary)

Where the Position Stands: The position is in good stead with a basic rotation of Shelton, Hudson, Kikaha, Mathis, Farria, and Qualls. Again, Shirley will be a situational player that could be rushing the passer most times, but might be asked to go out in coverage from time to time. That group of seven, while being young is still filled with quality and talent. While the redshirt frosh and true sophs will get even more time to show their stuff, this spring will be as much about some of the older heads getting back in the mix than anyone else.

Who Has the Edge?: Again, this might be one position group where things are fairly entrenched, and outside of one or two players making surprise moves in the spring or fall - not much should change. Shelton and Hudson will be clogging up the front, with Lagafuaina, Tupou and Qualls backing them up. Outside, Kikaha, Mathis, and Farria should be the initial rotation, with guys like Finau and Turpin backing them up.

Who Will Step Up?: There's no question Mathis, Farria and Qualls will be right at the front of any talk this spring about the defensive line. Washington fans already know what they have in Shelton, Hudson, Kikaha, and Shirley. Even Hudson, despite his relative inexperience heading into 2013, showed how quickly he could jump right into a starting role and make it his own. So that means it's up to the younger players to step up and show they are right on track in their progression toward being mainstays in the 2014 UW two-deeps.

Tupou is an intriguing player to watch considering how well he finished 2013. He's not the biggest player out there, but he clearly earned the coaches' trust, which in term landed him playing time. Can he continue his ascension up the UW DL depth? Lagafuaina is one of the big bodies that will definitely be needed in the fall, so this spring will be a great gauge to determine if he's been able to come back from his knee injury 100 percent. He played a bunch in 2013, so there's no reason he shouldn't find himself back in the rotation as long as he's kept up his conditioning. This spring should also be benchmarks for players like Finau and Turpin to see if they can contribute.

In Waiting: There are tons of bodies in waiting; so many, in fact, that one of them won't be able to wait all the way until summer to join up. Grayshirt Jaimie Bryant will show up in time for some spring football, but it's unclear whether or not he'll be joining them Tuesday, or if he'll be waiting for the beginning of spring quarter before donning the purple and gold. We'll know more on that Monday.

Greg Gaines is the only obvious interior defensive lineman arriving for the summer LEAP program, and Jaylen Johnson is the only obvious outside defensive lineman; past that the Huskies have a number of incoming frosh that could play a number of spots along the line. Bryan, Kaleb McGary, Will Dissly, and Shane Bowman all have the bodies and skill sets to be able to play anywhere on the DL, depending on down and distance.

Given the number of bodies Washington already has along the defensive line, I suspect spring will be critical for Kwiatkowski and Choate to figure out if burning redshirts will have to happen. In an ideal scenario they would be able to work with the bodies on hand, allowing them to sit the entire incoming class. Given Petersen's own comments regarding the number of true freshmen he believes will play, the numbers suggest that probably one, or maybe even two, of the true freshmen, will be pressed into service. If I had to hazard a guess, McGary already has a body type ready for Pac-12 play, so it wouldn't surprise me to see him in the 2014 rotation. Outside of that, maybe Bryant because he is a year older than the rest - but it's really hard to know right now.

In Summary: With eight solid returners and more talent in the fold yet to be revealed, Washington's defensive line is in great shape. Yes, they lost bodies after the 2013 season, but those losses can be mitigated by the younger talent stepping up - players like Mathis, Farria, and Qualls. If they emerge from spring bigger, faster, and stronger than they were last season the future is bright indeed.

We've been told everyone gets a clean slate with the new staff, and there's no reason to believe that won't be the case with the defensive line. But compared to other positions, where a clean slate may have significant implications with regard to who may start in the fall, the defensive line is set. There should be zero surprises when it comes to defensive linemen and the top of the pecking order when spring football is complete.

Barring (knock wood) injuries, Shelton, Hudson and Jamora will start, along with a rotation of Shirley, Mathis, and Farria doing their damage. Lagafuaina, Tupou and Qualls will add support inside, while it's up to the players already on the team to show they can back up the ends, or else it'll be up to the incoming frosh to show they can make their mark early.

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