For all the question marks raised by Washington’s offense heading into April, there were very, very few queries on the other side of the ball. They had earned their stripes the hard way by becoming the Pac-12’s leading defense.
But that doesn’t mean UW Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski and the Husky defensive coaches could just hit the ground running in April. They did need to find an answer for the departing Tani Tupou, who crushed it in 2015 en route to second-team All-Pac-12 honors.
The returning defensive linemen have given Kwiatkowski enough options that he could afford to lose one of his defensive linemen from the previous season - Joe Mathis - by moving him to an outside linebacker position. They can do that because of three (literally) big players that could form the nucleus of Washington’s defensive line fortunes in 2016: Elijah Qualls, Greg Gaines, and Vita Vea.
All three of those players have enough to be able to replicate Tupou’s outstanding 2015 campaign, and then some. And when you start to add in other depth
Defensive Linemen (by year)
Elijah Qualls (6-1, 321, Jr.) - Qualls made the switch outside, which also suits him as a player who can become a one-on-one pass rush specialist in certain situations. Even though he is a very big defensive lineman, he’s so athletic he can pull it off. He’s also very much the vocal leader of the defensive line, picking up where former seniors like Danny Shelton, left.
Shane Bowman (6-4, 290, So.) - Bowman was in the mix at both tackle and end this spring until an untimely ankle roll kept him out of the spring event. It was a rough end to April for the former Bellevue star, who was making some nice strides. Given his size and athleticism, it’s going to be hard to keep Shane off the field this fall as a solid depth contributor.
Jason Scrempos (6-6, 279, RFr.) - Missed spring rehabbing from injury.
John Clark (6-3, 271, RFr.)* - Hurt most of spring ball, didn’t make a substantial impact.
Greg Gaines (6-2, 318, So.) - Gaines appears to be Kwiatkowski’s nose tackle of choice in the lineup when Qualls goes outside at end and Vita Vea plays at defensive tackle. Gaines will never be the flashy player, the guy that immediately stands out, but he can occupy at least two offensive linemen at a time and always brings energy and effort to the position. He worked hard in spring, got his turns in, and stayed healthy. That’s the most important thing.
Vita Vea (6-5, 329, So.) - Vea, like Qualls, has become an indispensable force along Washington’s defensive line. He had a really strong spring, one that puts him in prime position to have an even bigger fall. He literally can play any of the three positions along the defensive line with ease, and showed as much during April.\
Ricky McCoy (6-2, 302, RFr.) - McCoy is in the depth right now, and with the quality in front of him it’s been very hard to stand out or make a substantial impact. His breakout is still a year away.
Damion Turpin (6-3, 284, Sr.) - In a tight battle with Jaylen Johnson and Shane Bowman for starts along the defensive line, Turpin could see a scenario where he plays tackle or end. Same with the other two, for that matter. Kwiatkowski has ultimate flexibility to use who he wants to put the defense in the best position to succeed. Being the lone senior, it’s up to Turpin to lead the way and show he’s ready to take advantage of his final opportunity as a Husky.
Jaylen Johnson (6-3, 285, So.) - Of the three between Johnson, Turpin and Bowman, Jaylen Johnson had arguably the best spring - topping off his play with three sacks during the scrimmage portion of the spring event. They had good springs, but Johnson just made more plays. He’s gained a ton of weight in the off-season, but it’s functional weight and hasn’t slowed him down at all.
Benning Potoa'e (6-3, 271, RFr.) - The reality is, even though Benning is listed as the only other scholarship player at this position besides Turpin and Johnson, there is so much position flexibility here for Kwiatkowski that he can call on a number of more experienced players to fill the gaps. Benning had a hit-and-miss spring, and his breakout should take place a year from now. There’s no questioning his athleticism: now he has to master the playbook.
Jared Pulu (6-4, 260, RFr.)* - Out for spring.
Where does the Defensive Line group stand heading into the summer?
In short, the defensive line is second only to the secondary when it comes to being in the best shape possible. They had one big hole to fill with Tani Tupou’s graduation, but Kwiatkowski has revamped his system to put even bigger players in his place - and at the same time moving another starter into a position of need (Mathis).
Washington fans have to be very excited about a base 3-4 front of Qualls, Gaines and Vea - three players that average 6-foot-3 and 324 pounds. That’s astounding.
Obviously, this would be a situation where the rotation is ever-evolving, and that’s how the Huskies were so successful up front last season: they did it collectively. Now players like Jaylen Johnson, Shane Bowman, Damion Turpin are a year older and ready to break out. Johnson and Bowman should be getting a ton of turns this fall after what they showed in the spring, and Turpin has to be massively motivated to show he can follow Tupou’s shoes and exceed expectation in his final season as a Husky.
Those six should form the nucleus of arguably the best front in the league, and will allow youngsters like Ricky McCoy, Jason Scrempos, Benning Potoae’e and Levi Onwuzurike to properly follow the chain of succession and build up their development in a manner that ensures a clear path for them to take over when their time comes - as well as an opportunity to battle during fall and show the defensive coaches that they will not be denied a chance to get on the field as difference-makers.
But their development does not need to be rushed, and that’s key. The depth and class balance in this group is well-established and shows Washington is in a great position to push ahead and play even better than they did last year.