Post-Season Position Analysis: Defensive Line

With the offensive position analyses done, it's time to switch over to the other side of the ball. With the grades the defensive positions are going to receive, it's a wonder this is the same Washington team that lost six of their front seven to the pros or graduation. You would have thought the front would have been the ones to really struggle in 2015, but you would have been dead wrong.

Defensive Line (by class)

DT Taniela Tupou (6-2, 288, RS Sr.)
DE Jarett Finau (6-3, 274, RS Sr.)
DT Damion Turpin (6-4, 276, RS Jr.)
DE Joe Mathis (6-2, 252, Jr.)
NT Elijah Qualls (6-1, 311, RS So.)
DE Will Dissly (6-4, 277, So.)
DT Shane Bowman (6-3, 273, RFr.)
DT Jaylen Johnson (6-2, 260, RFr.)
NT Greg Gaines (6-1, 310, RFr.)
NT Vita Vea (6-4, 340, RFr.)
DE Benning Potoa’e (6-3, 270, Fr.)
NT Ricky McCoy (6-3, 307, Fr.)
DT Jason Scrempos (6-6, 280, Fr.)
DE Bryce Sterk (6-4, 234, Fr.)

Where does the defensive line group find itself after the season?

As a room, the Washington Huskies defensive line amassed 222 total tackles, 40 tackles for loss and 16.5 sacks - and that's including Travis Fenney's work at BUCK. I included him in the totals as a basis of comparison to last year's DL numbers with Hau'oli Kikaha; 329 total tackles, 65 tackles for loss, and 46 sacks.

We knew one thing going into the season when it came to the front; there was literally no way they were going to replicate the 2014 numbers. They were arguably one-of-a-kind totals produced by an all-senior front anchored by two top-45 NFL draft picks. That circumstance just may never happen again at UW.

But check out some of these numbers. The 2015 defense gave up an average of 4.9 yards per play; the 2014 group did so at 5.4 clip. The strength of the 2014 defense was in the run, where they allowed a measly 3.3 yards per rush. There was some expected drop-off there to 2015; 3.5 yards per rush. That's it. For as good as the Huskies were at stopping the run two years ago, they were only 10 yards a game different this past season - and that's without Danny Shelton and the Hudson Brothers.

So while other areas of the defense continued a rapid ascent in terms of their productivity, the Washington defense fell off pretty dramatically in the pass rush and making a ton of tackles at the line of scrimmage. Yet their rush defense numbers really didn't change at all, and the pass defense numbers went down like fine wine, nearly 1500 yards in total.

And the biggest statistic of all? Scoring. Washington's 2014 defense, with all that star-power, still gave up 24.8 points per game. In 2015, that number dropped to 17.8. That's a touchdown and an extra point.

So how did it happen? It happened up front, ironically enough. While the totals wouldn't make it seem possible, the Huskies' defensive line did one job incredibly well; they occupied offensive lines and allowed the linebackers clean paths to the ball-carrier on a consistent basis. They kept their run fits sound, and when blitzes did come they were able to create a stalemate inside - allowing the extra rushers to either get picked up by running backs or to run free to the quarterback.

The pass rush was done in tandem with the secondary to create staggering improvements in Washington's defensive backfield. The front didn't have to necessarily get to the quarterback all the time, but they did create enough pressure and take the quarterbacks off their spot, thus planting the seed of doubt. The cornerbacks and safeties did the rest.

In short, we knew this year's defensive line was never going to measure up statistically with last year's group. But what we got instead was an extremely well-oiled group that was able to fill in gaps with a number of players and do it - as Defensive Line Coach Jeff Choate suggested in the fall - 'Hockey-shift' style with minimal drop in play, especially at the nose tackle position. And that's where it all started.

So in many ways, the defensive line is on the verge of a real breakout in 2016 as long as they continue their 'no name' identity and collective spirit. They lose one key cog to the machine in Tani Tupou, but outside of him the rest of the line returns. With four freshmen redshirting, you have to hope they come along and fill gaps in the same way 2015's redshirt frosh crew stepped up to the challenge.

DT Taniela Tupou (6-2, 288, RS Sr.) - Tupou had 35 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and no sacks - modest numbers for a second-team All-Pac-12 pick; not too shabby for a player the previous coaching staff wanted to stick on the scrap heap after the 2013 season. After 2014 saw him revitalized, Tupou took off this past season and showed off his leadership skills that allowed him to be the heart of the defensive line. Two years ago you wondered if Tupou would reach his potential, but those questions have been answered with a resounding YES.

DE Jarett Finau (6-3, 274, RS Sr.) - Finau didn't make a tackle in six games his final year at Montlake, and on the field his career has been a definite disappointment because of injury. But his importance to this team shouldn't be understated; he earned the Mark Drennan Defensive Scout Team MVP this past season, and his role on the sidelines during games helped the defensive linemen immensely. In many ways Finau was like another coach, quickly identifying what the offense was trying to do and relaying that information to the players.

DT Damion Turpin (6-4, 276, RS Jr.) - Turpin finished 2015 with three tackles in seven games, and though Choate singled the junior out for his play in the fall, it never really materialized. The hope you have to have for Turpin going forward is that he can have a Tupou-like impact as a senior. He's only got one season left and he needs to show improvement.

DE Joe Mathis (6-2, 252, Jr.) - Mathis's numbers keep steadily going up. In 2014, he had 16 tackles, two tackles for loss and two sacks in 11 games; in one less game this past season he racked up 26 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. They aren't the kind of numbers you would have expected in a junior campaign from a former U.S. Army All-American, but the progression is there. That means Mathis is on pace for a 40 tackle, 10 tackle for loss, five sack season in 2016. I think those are reasonable goals.

NT Elijah Qualls (6-1, 311, RS So.) - In his first year outside the shadow of Shelton, Qualls had 24 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in nine games, missing the Utah, Arizona State and Oregon State games due to injury. When he was healthy the sophomore produced and was part of a trio of players that really locked things down inside and helped clog up opposing run offenses.

DE Will Dissly (6-4, 277, So.) - Dissly had eight tackles, three tackles for loss and one sack in 12 games for the Huskies - very modest numbers for the player expected to be the heir apparent to Evan Hudson after flashing his play in 2014. And he started out well against Boise State, playing a lot. But as the season went on those flashes of play were less and less frequent. But, true to the 'no name' feature of this year's defense, Dissly fit in well and helped to keep things tidy for the linebackers to clean up.

NT Greg Gaines (6-1, 310, RFr.) - Backing up Elijah Qualls, Greg Gaines had 26 tackles in 12 games. Despite the fact that he had neither a tackle for loss nor a sack, Gaines was one of the real pleasant surprises of the season as far as the defensive line was concerned. When Qualls was hurt, Gaines stepped up admirably in a starting role with little drop-off. Probably the best season from a freshman nose tackle since true frosh Alameda Ta'amu started five games in 2008.

NT Vita Vea (6-4, 340, RFr.) - Vea, the more physically impressive of the redshirt frosh interior players, had 16 tackles and two tackles for loss in 12 games. It was always expected Vea would have more catching up to do since he was already a year removed from football before coming to Washington, but he did very, very well in 2015 in a backup role. That role should increase as he continues to get his legs under him and his instincts refined. There's no doubt he can be a real presence inside when he puts it all together.

DT Jaylen Johnson (6-2, 260, RFr.) - Johnson had nine tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack in 12 games. The redshirt frosh also made his first career start, against Oregon. Johnson is another one of those depth players that may not have looked like he contributed a ton on paper, but he provided another body inside with little change to Washington's effectiveness along the line of scrimmage. Now that Johnson has settled into a role and a body type that he can be comfortable with, I expect he'll continue to ramp up his play in 2016.

DT Shane Bowman (6-3, 273, RFr.) - Of the redshirt frosh, Bowman was the last one to be a major contributor, racking up only one tackle in six games. But there's no doubt the former Bellevue star is still getting used to playing at this weight, having gained well over 20 pounds in the off-season. Some of his best play came at the end of the year, including recovering a fumble in the Apple Cup - so expect more from him next season.

DE Benning Potoa’e (6-3, 270, Fr.) - Redshirted in 2015.

NT Ricky McCoy (6-3, 307, Fr.) - Redshirted in 2015.

DT Jason Scrempos (6-6, 280, Fr.) - Redshirted in 2015.

DE Bryce Sterk (6-4, 234, Fr.) - Redshirted in 2015.

Overall Position Grade

In grading this group, production is a very small part of the overall equation - but it still has to be taken into account. But really outside of sacks, where they were fifth in the Pac-12, every other statistic was overwhelmingly in the defense's favor, especially the ones that mattered - like scoring defense and total defense. And when you look at how a defensive line can impact play inside the red zone, the Huskies had the best red zone defense in the league, allowing only 15 touchdowns in 36 red zone opportunities. And instead of a senior-dominated front in 2014, there was only one senior that played in 2015 - so youth and their development also has to be taken into account. But the progress wasn't just made by the redshirt players - Tupou's turnaround was nothing short of impressive. The biggest point in the defensive line specifically was that Choate's hockey-shifts worked; whenever one of the starters came out for a breather there was no decline in play from the backup. And that was consistent across all three positions. But to have nothing but sophomores and redshirt freshmen back up the starters all season with consistent play was truly remarkable and really puts this room on solid ground as they get ready to show in 2016 that 2015 wasn't a fluke.


Projected 2016 Spring DL Depth Chart

Defensive End:
Joe Mathis (6-2, 252, Sr.)
Will Dissly (6-4, 277, Jr.)
Benning Potoa'e (6-3, 270, RFr.)

Nose Tackle:
Elijah Qualls (6-1, 311, Jr.) OR
Greg Gaines (6-1, 310, So.) OR
Vita Vea (6-4, 340, So.)
Ricky McCoy (6-3, 307, RFr.)

Defensive Tackle:
Jaylen Johnson (6-2, 260, So.)
Damion Turpin (6-4, 276, Sr.) OR
Shane Bowman (6-3, 273, So.)

Post-Season Position Analysis: QB’s
Post-Season Position Analysis: RB’s
Post-Season Position Analysis: WR’s/TE’s
Post-Season Position Analysis: OL Top Stories