Spring Preview - Defensive Line

With Washington’s Spring Football campaign nearly upon us, it’s time to look at each position group to see what they’ve done in the off-season. It’s fair to say that both the offensive and defensive lines dealt with massive attrition in the off-season. Today we’ll look at what to expect from the defensive side of the ball.

The 2015 Washington Huskies defensive line has their work cut out for them. It’s that simple. Just like the Huskies’ running back room had to figure out how to reproduce Bishop Sankey’s prodigious output, the remaining UW DL will have to figure out a way to quickly replace four very productive senior defensive linemen.

How daunting is the task? When the 2014 season was complete, Washington’s defensive line had accounted for 329 total tackles, 65 tackles for loss, and 46 sacks. Holy crap! Sorry, but those numbers may never be seen again by one DL group at Montlake. It’s almost like everyone else was on the field while Danny Shelton, Andrew Hudson, Evan Hudson, and Hau’oli Kikaha were playing Xbox.

So heading into spring, not only does UW DC Pete Kwiatkowski and DL Coach Jeff Choate have to figure out a way to replicating that level of production, but they also have to do it with diminished numbers. The Huskies made defensive line a priority for 2015, signing five players - Benning Potoa’e, Ricky McCoy, Jason Scrempos, Myles Rice, and Bryce Sterk - but they won’t be here in April. Add to that the move of Kaleb McGary from the defensive side of the ball to offense, and that thinned the herd even more.

Here’s the position group heading into spring:
Jarett Finau (6-3, 272, RS Sr.)
Taniela Tupou (6-2, 293, RS Sr.)
Joe Mathis (6-2, 249, Jr.)
Damion Turpin (6-4, 275, RS Jr.)
Elijah Qualls (6-1, 305, RS So.)
Will Dissly (6-4, 275, So.)
Vita Vea (6-5, 329, RS Fr.)
Greg Gaines (6-1, 306, RS Fr.)
Jaylen Johnson (6-2, 266, RS Fr.)
Shane Bowman (6-3, 267, RS Fr.)

The Incumbents: Here’s the bad news that UW fans have to swallow, and there’s really no way to get around it; the defensive line is the only position group to not have anyone come back with any starts from the 2014 season. So in that sense, the group is literally starting from scratch. That also means there are technically no incumbents. There are no returning starters, or for that matter any returning players with enough playing time to assume a starting nod.

Now there are certainly heirs apparent - players that have acted as understudies and should be raring to go to pick up where the seniors left off. Of the group, there’s three main returners that fit that criteria - Elijah Qualls, Tani Tupou, and Joe Mathis.

Qualls isn’t a shoe-in to replace Danny Shelton, but he should be if he has the spring he’s supposed to. The sophomore played in all 14 games last year and basically learned the tricks of the trade at Shelton’s knee. He’s dropped some weight (6 pounds) in the off-season and from all the indications from those that saw him during the recent Combine Day saw a player whose career is ready to take off.

Tupou is the other returning interior defensive linemen to have played in every 2014 game, so Kwiatkowski and Choate will most likely be leaning heavily on the Marysville native, especially early in spring.

There’s only one returning defensive end with any substantial experience. Joe Mathis played in 11 games in 2014, notching a couple of sacks. There’s no question Kwiatkowski and Choate will look to number 5 to be the Huskies main sack man this spring, the one that should put in his work and lay the foundation to lock down that one defensive end spot occupied last year by Andrew Hudson. Hudson finished last year with 12.5 sacks, earning Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 honors - so Joe has his work cut out for him.

Making a Play: The player at the top of this list has to be Jarett Finau. After putting on 11 pounds in the off-season, it’s clear the 272-pound Finau will be asked to do most of his work as the 3-technique, the same spot occupied by Evan Hudson last season. The senior has been plagued with physical issues; last year - at least in the spring - he played with a knee brace usually used by offensive linemen. Since this is Finau’s final season, there’s no doubt he’s going to be counted on to provide quality backup in the two-deeps at the very least. Could he find himself starting? He’ll have to show that he’s made some substantial strides.

The same can be said for Damion Turpin. His Husky career is quickly coming to an end, but he’s another lineman that put on some weight (nine pounds to get to 275 total) and is gearing up to provide depth inside. Turpin only played in five games last year, so he will need to ramp up his play this spring to show that he can be a player Kwiatkowski and Choate can count on this fall.

When Will Dissly came through big on a goal-line stand at Cal, it sure looked like last year’s true freshman would be the one to break through and be a regular contributor in 2014, but it surprisingly never materialized. At 275 pounds, Dissly is plenty big enough to play off the nose and could certainly be seen as the guy to come in and take over for Evan Hudson - but there will be competition.

The New Guys: The new guys would literally be the rest of the 2014 defensive line class minus Dissly, who obviously played. Vita Vea headlines that group, as much for the fact that he’s 6-foot-5 and 329 pounds as for anything else. Vea has trimmed up considerably from last year, losing 17 pounds. Hopefully a lighter Vea means a Vea that can push Qualls for playing time inside from the beginning of spring.

He will be pushed by Greg Gaines, who offers up a much different body type at 6-foot-1. That will give Kwiatkowski and Choate some flexibility and options when deciding what body they want to be in during different down-and-distance situations.

Jaylen Johnson and Shane Bowman also redefined their bodies in the off-season; Johnson by 12 pounds and Bowman by a whopping 20 pounds. Choate said last year that Johnson was slotted in to learn behind Kikaha at the hybrid DE/OLB spot. But now Johnson is 20 pounds bigger than Kikaha was last year, so are they looking at more 3-4 defensive ends? Are the weight gains signaling a shift in philosophy? That will certainly be one of the first things to look for when it comes to the defensive line this year - which leads to…

What does spring mean for this group?: While the immediate outlook for the defensive line is the most challenging for any position group on the team, that makes spring football also the most interesting and most important for them. Starting spots don’t necessarily have to be won in spring, but players need to also be well on their way toward knowing exactly where they fit in and what they need to do in the summer and fall in order to fulfill their potential.

And the truth of the matter is, with no returners this spring that means all jobs are truly up for grabs. Sure we can speculate and we can hedge bets on who we think should be ready to start this fall, but this spring is going to offer up more opportunities for guys to break out along the defensive line than at any other position group. That’s just a fact.

And if it’s true that Washington is going to more of an odd front - and the weight gains to players like Finau, Turpin, Johnson and Bowman seem to offer up a clue that maybe the bigger ends are what Kwiatkowski and Choate are looking for in 2015 - it’s as good a time as any to add another front to Kwiatkowski’s multiple sets.

With few players returning with a ton of playing time under their belts, you might as well take the opportunity during spring to install something you feel will play to this current group’s strengths. They have some size inside, and they can always go to the even front if they need to since it was their base defense in 2014.

Spring Preview - QB’s

Spring Preview - RB’s

Spring Preview - WR’s

Spring Preview - TE’s

Spring Preview - OL

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