The embarrassment of riches on the defensive side of the ball has been a major storyline during the first eight days of fall camp, particularly in the secondary.
"It makes it a little more difficult on me," laughed coach Jimmy Lake when asked about his method to ensure he gets all his guys reps. "I have to make sure I read my script, make sure I get the right guys in there. But it’s an awesome problem to have."
The defensive backs room isn't the only one overflowing with talent at Washington this year. The big boys up front enjoy the same 'problem' the secondary faces.
But if you ask UW Defensive Line Coach Ikaika Malloe, the depth doesn't create problems. Rather, it's a necessity.
“The depth and versatility is almost a must nowadays with the no huddle offense," Malloe said Monday. "The tempo of the game has really picked up and not even substituting. So we want to be able to rotate as much as we can and see how fresh we can be, get guys who can go full speed play after play, and hopefully win the fourth quarter we can be fresh and can finish it out.”
Malloe put his preaching to practice, enlisting a myriad of marauders along the defensive line during day eight of fall camp. The first unit included Jaylen Johnson and Elijah Qualls respectively at tackle and end, with Greg Gaines lining up on the nose.
The second group featured Damion Turpin, Vita Vea, and Shane Bowman. Younger Huskies, including John Clark, Jason Scrempos, Ricky McCoy, Jared Pulu, Ryan Bowman, and Levi Onwuzurike rotated in and out of the third unit as the day progressed.
Twelve players competing at three positions certainly sounds daunting but the players have embraced the challenge. "There’s 12 guys on that d-line; 12 guys can play," said sophomore defensive tackle Jaylen Johnson. "We compete every day and just try to get better on the techniques, again, just trying to learn the techniques and things like that. It’s always a competition and it’s always fun to play with these guys.”
The depth has bred a competitive culture for the defensive linemen, who seem to always be pushing each other to elevate their games to the next level.
Depth is just one piece of the puzzle. What might be even more impressive is the versatility of the unit. Just about every player on the defensive line is proficient at multiple positions.
“It’s huge," Malloe said about taking on the challenge of learning different roles. "Not only so that we can move them from position to position, but it gives them the benefit to learn what else is going on around them…. it’s been really beneficial for us and I think it will pay off during the season.”
A lot of credit should go to coach Malloe, who has done an impressive job teaching players the responsibilities involved in such an undertaking. However, it's a rarity to have a group that can respond to these requirements as well as the Huskies have.
Damion Turpin complimented his teammates, saying, "I think it’s very unique. We’re very athletic guys. We have 300 pounders that can move the way like we have, it’s very easy to put them anywhere on the defensive line and expect them to be successful, because of their athleticism."
The combination of variety and versatility has given Washington's new defensive line coach the opportunity to get creative with the way he groups his linemen.
On Monday, he had Elijah Qualls, Vita Vea, and Greg Gaines together during a team red zone period. During the same period, Shane Bowman, Damion Turpin, and Jaylen Johnson were also used.
In nickel situations, guys like Greg Gaines and Elijah Qualls have been paired together to bring some power to the front. Conversely, a smaller, quicker pair like Turpin and Bowman got their share of reps to create a contrast.
Want balance? A Vea-Johnson pairing brings the best of both worlds.
"We got Greg (Gaines) and Vita (Vea) in there when we need power," Johnson noted. "And me and Turp (Damion Turpin) and Shane (Bowman) when we need a little bit of speed and a little juice on the edge. It’s different for every situation."
In a conference as competitive as the Pac-12, dueling it out in the trenches is made significantly easier when multiple bodies can shoulder the burden. With that in mind, the rest of fall camp will be essential for some of the younger guys to step up and solidify a spot in the rotation.
The coaching staff has between now and September 3rd to, in the words of Coach Malloe, 'feel them out' and see where we can put them in certain situations.
"Can they be an all down type package or can they be a specific type package?" said Malloe. "We’ll keep playing around with it in the fall and see what we come up with."
One guy to keep an eye on for the remainder of camp is Jason Scrempos. Although he missed all of spring, the 6-foot-6, 284-pound redshirt freshman from Milpitas, Calif. looked great Monday, making his presence felt at tackle and end.
Ricky McCoy is another guy who could play his way into the rotation with a solid end to fall camp. At 6-foot-2 and over 300 pounds, McCoy is ideally suited to clog up the middle.
What about a guy like Levi Onwuzurike? The four-star Texas native oozes talent, but are there too many names in front of him to justify burning his redshirt? Malloe said that Onwuzurike, like most true freshmen, still has to adjust to the speed and complexity of the college game. But once that light goes on, watch out.
"I think everybody will expect to see what we saw on the film in the highlights,” said Malloe when asked about Onwuzurike's potential.
The question is whether or not it all clicks before the first weekend in September. The fact that a player as highly touted as Onwuzurike is currently buried in the depth is indicative of the amount of talent spread across the defensive line.