And with that, the news was seemingly in - Washington sophomore defensive tackle Vita Vea would forego a chance to jump to the NFL to come back and boost his draft stock for 2018.
And Husky fans breathed a collective sigh of relief.
That news, along with the expected announcement that Elijah Qualls would, in fact, take that next step to the pros and bypass his senior season with the Huskies, sets up Washington’s defensive line for next fall.
So what does this mean for the Washington defense in 2017?
In the short term, it’s about as good a piece of news as could have been expected if you follow the Huskies. Qualls was always as good as gone as long as he played the whole season and put out enough tape to give scouts and front offices a good look. He did just that, showing his versatility as an inside and outside presence along the defensive line, finishing second along the DL in tackles, third in tackles for loss and sacks.
But keeping Vea in the fold just might be Petersen’s greatest recruiting coup for the 2017 class. He has lottery-type talent, and another year learning from UW DL Coach Ikaika Malloe and defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski will only help Vita maximize his draft potential - and it’s as big as any Washington defensive lineman, Steve Emtman included.
In terms of losing Qualls, it’s going to hurt - but it’s nothing compared to the losses UW sustained after the 2014 season. They lost six of their starting front seven - Travis Feeney was the lone holdover - and the numbers for the Husky defense actually improved in 2015. So Kwiatkowski knows how to develop depth players and get them ready for prime time. He’s consistently done it since he came to Montlake, and there’s no reason to suggest it won’t continue.
So what does it mean for the Washington defensive line group going forward?
For the defensive line, it should just be more of the same. You lose a player the caliber of Qualls and you try and replace him as best you can. Vea and Gaines will anchor things, as they did in 2016. But instead of the ‘Big Three’, it will just be the ‘Big Two’ to start.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t candidates to fill Qualls’ sizable shoes. Jaylen Johnson came on at the end of the year and he’s talented enough to make an impact.
Ricky McCoy played tight end in high school and is known as being a high-level big athlete, so he's certainly capable of doing the same things Qualls did in terms of being able to play both inside and outside.
Levi Onwuzurike could do the same after a year redshirting, getting bigger, stronger and faster.
And then there’s true frosh Marlon Tuipulotu, who showed the country with his play in the U.S. Army All-American game he’s more than ready to play as a true frosh.
And you can’t count out a walk-on player like Jared Pulu, who has been in the program a couple of years and comes from a strong footballing family. Malloe talked about his potential during the Peach Bowl, so spring could be an opportunity for him to break out.
However you slice it, the Huskies will account for the loss of Qualls in 2017 much like they did when Tani Tupou graduated after the 2015 season, as well as the loss of their entire front the year before.
Washington doesn’t do rebuilds anymore. They reload.
Projected 2017 Defensive line class
Marlon Tuipulotu (6’2.5” 295, Fr)
Projected 2017 Depth Chart (by position)
Jaylen Johnson (6’3” 285, Jr)
Levi Onwuzurike (6’4” 262, RFr)
Jared Pulu (6’4” 260, So)*
Greg Gaines (6’2” 318, So)
Ricky McCoy (6’1” 302, RFr)
Marlon Tuipulotu (6’2.5” 295, Fr)
Vita Vea (6’5” 329, Jr)
Shane Bowman (6’4” 290, Jr)
Jason Scrempos (6’6” 279, So)
John Clark (6’4” 271, So)*
* = walk-on