Fall Position Preview - Defensive Line

With less than 50 days to Washington's September 3rd opener versus Rutgers, it's time to ramp things up with our fall position previews. Today we move over to the defensive side of the ball. 

The Pac-12’s top defense from last season returns seven of their 11 starters, but three of those lost starters were part of the front seven. Although only one was from the defensive line, this year there will be two new starters in the trenches for Washington, replacing second team all-conference tackle Tani Tupou, as well as Joe Mathis as a result of his move to BUCK linebacker.

There’s even a new d-line coach, Ikaika Malloe, stepping in for Montana State’s new head coach Jeff Choate. The only returning starter, Elijah Qualls, is playing at a new position as the five-technique defensive end.

With heaps of hype surrounding UW’s secondary and the linebacker tandem of Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria locking things down, the defensive linemen came out and had a solid spring, proving they too were worthy of praise.

Jaylen Johnson came out and seized the opportunity to start at Tupou’s old tackle spot, while Greg Gaines showed the potential he flashed while filling in for Qualls the end of last season was for real. Meanwhile, guys like Damion Turpin, Vita Vea, and Shane Bowman also had nice springs, bolstering the depth of Washington’s line. 

College Football News praised a couple players on Washington’s d-line, naming Elijah Qualls and Greg Gaines the fifth and ninth best players on the team, respectively. Phil Steele took it a step further, ranking Washington’s defensive line as the 27th best in the country, good for fifth in the Pac-12. But while fifth place is still on the top half of the conference, the defensive line is still the lowest ranked defensive position group. On the bright side, that means they have the most room for improvement heading into the fall.

Let’s take a look at the guys who can take those steps forward.

Defensive linemen by class:

Damion Turpin (6’3” 284, Sr)

Elijah Qualls (6’1” 321, Jr)

Vita Vea (6’5” 329, So)

Jaylen Johnson (6’3” 285, So)

Shane Bowman (6’4” 290, So)

Greg Gaines (6’2” 318, So)

Benning Potoa'e (6’3” 271, RFr)

Ricky McCoy (6’1” 302, RFr)

Jason Scrempos (6’6” 279, RFr)

John Clark (6’4” 271, RFr)*

Jared Pulu (6’4” 260, RFr)*

Levi Onwuzurike (6’4” 262, Fr)

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Depth Chart (by position)

Defensive End

Elijah Qualls (6’1” 321, RJr)

Benning Potoa’e (6’3” 271, RFr)

Levi Onwuzurike (6’4” 262, Fr)

John Clark (6’4” 271, RFr)

Jared Pulu (6’4” 260, RFr)

Nose Tackle

Greg Gaines (6’2” 318, So)

Vita Vea (6’5” 329, RSo)

Ricky McCoy (6’1” 302, RFr)

Defensive Tackle

Jaylen Johnson (6’3” 285, RSo)

Damion Turpin (6’3” 284, RSr)

Shane Bowman (6’4” 290, RSo)

Jason Scrempos (6’6” 279, RFr)

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What to expect heading into the fall

One emphasis this fall will be pass rush. Last year the Huskies finished fifth in the conference in sacks, but the defensive line accounted for only nine and a half of the total number of 34. To put that in perspective, Andrew Hudson had 15 sacks on his own in 2014. While 15 is a heck of a number and in no way a reasonable expectation for any defensive lineman, Washington needs someone to step up and flirt with double-digit sacks. 

The obvious pick is Elijah Qualls. The former nose tackle had four and a half sacks in just 10 games last year. With the move to defensive end, he’ll have more of an opportunity to rush the quarterback. A 320-pound five-technique is a rarity in college football and he could make a heck of a bull rusher off the edge.

Jaylen Johnson is another candidate for sack specialist. His impressive spring camp, in which he cemented himself as the starting tackle, ended with a three-sack performance in the spring preview. He provides an interior pass rushing presence that Tupou did not.

Looking beyond the starters, it will also be fun to see how the second and third units of this line shape up. Coach Choate loved rotating his linemen in hockey shifts, and, with the emergence of some younger lineman, Ikaika Malloe should be able to enjoy the same luxury. There will be a handful of players, experienced and inexperienced alike, competing for a consistent spot in the rotation.

One battle to watch will be Damion Turpin and Shane Bowman. Turpin, a redshirt senior, has been a part of the program much longer. Both played in seven games last year. It looks as if Turpin has the upper hand heading into fall to back up Johnson at defensive tackle, but Bowman is an impressive looking athlete and will be on Turpin’s heels all fall long. 

It will also be interesting to see how the depth behind Elijah Qualls at defensive end shakes out. There are two very unknown quantities with incredibly high ceilings in Benning Potoa’e and Levi Onwuzurike who will try to earn a spot in the rotation this fall.

Potoa’e redshirted last year and added even more muscle to his monstrous frame. Over the duration of spring ball he began to earn more and more reps with the second team. He will have every opportunity to solidify his role as the second defensive end.

Meanwhile, Onwuzurike was a four-star recruit from Texas and will be a true frosh this season. He will have plenty to prove that he belongs in the fight right from the first snap this fall. 

An impressive camp from Potoa’e could convince the coaches that it’s safe to lock Onwuzurike in the weight room and preserve a year of his eligibility, but Levi will more than likely have something to say about that. If he is able to prove worthy of playing time this year, it just adds more depth to Washington’s defensive line.

One more player to watch for this fall will be Ricky McCoy. McCoy is hidden behind Gaines and Vita Vea in the depth chart, but with a redshirt year under his belt he could make a case for some reps this fall.

In a perfect world, that leaves Washington with a first unit of Johnson, Gaines, and a Qualls, and enticing second and third units of Turpin, Vea, and Potoa’e and Bowman, McCoy, and Onwuzurike. Having nine players capable of competing in the Pac-12 will pay dividends near the end of Pac-12 play, knowing that a few injuries every year is unavoidable.

We’ll also get to see if coach Malloe decides to get creative with his personnel.

We’ve already heard him flirt with the idea of rolling out Vea, Gaines, and Qualls for his first team, assembling a nearly 1000-pound purple and gold wall. Thoughts like this made you wonder what else he may have up his sleeve.

Might he create a pass rushing cage, moving Qualls in to nose, where he was effective as an interior pass rusher last year, with a guy like Potoa’e filling in at defensive end? You never know. I certainly don’t, but it’s fun to imagine what this coaching staff could throw together between August 8th and September 3rd.


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