Returning: DT Jovon O'Connor (Rs. Sr.); DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim (Rs. Jr.); DE Darrion Jones (Rs. Jr.); DE DeShon Matthews (Rs. So.); DT Cameron Elisara (Rs. So.); DE Kalani Aldrich (Rs. Fr.); DT Nick Wood (Rs. Fr.); DT Tyrone Duncan (Rs. Fr.)
2008 Recruiting Class: DT Alameda Ta'amu; DT Craig Noble; DE/DT Senio Kelemete; DE Everette Thompson
This unit goes from one of the most experienced in 2007 to one of the least experienced on the entire team in 2008. That's what happens when you graduate five players (Greyson Gunheim, Wilson Afoa, Jordan Reffett, Erick Lobos and Ceasar Rayford) and fail to get the younger players into the rotation.
The one returning player with boatloads of experience is Te'o-Nesheim on the strongside who is a high-motor guy who led the team in sacks with 8.5 as a third-year sophomore in 2007. Te'o-Nesheim has started 25-straight games and his versatility has allowed the Huskies to use him inside on passing downs to get another pass-rusher on the field.
Te'o-Nesheim is ultra-strong and he's got that "never quit" mentality that allows him to make plays all over the field. He's not the fastest guy or the best athlete on the field, but he maximizes his abilities on every play and he's an emotional leader for the defensive unit.
On the weakside, the spot will be a battle between Matthews, Jones and Aldrich, although the latter is probably in need of another year in the program before he can seriously challenge for time.
Jones is a converted linebacker, who was an outstanding pass-rusher in high school. He actually posted double-digit sacks in both his junior and senior seasons at Lynnwood (Ca.) High School. Jones has a quick first step, that knack of dipping his shoulder as he gets around the edge and the ability to close quickly on the quarterback.
At this point, he's going to struggle a bit against the run as he takes on tackles instead of fullbacks, but he's strong and has excellent instincts. He has the chance to be a lot like Donald Jones was back in the early 90's with his speed and natural pass-rushing abilities.
Matthews is versatile enough to play either defensive end position and looked great during the spring as well as in fall camp, but he saw very limited action during the season and most of that was on special teams and during mop-up duty.
The expectation from those close to the program is that Matthews has the attitude and athleticism to be a very good defensive end, but he lacks explosion off the line, making it that much more difficult to rush the passer. He does have excellent strength and he's very good on twists that send him inside against less-athletic guards and smaller fullbacks. Don't be surprised to see him at defensive tackle on passing downs, but he'll spend most of his time at end.
Aldrich is ultra-talented, but he needs to add a bit more size and strength before he can be counted on for any length of time at end. He runs well, but appeared to be swimming last year during practices. He especially needs lower-body strength so he can hold up against the run, but there is no question that he has the frame and skills to be a very good player in a year or two.
Kelemete and Thompson were very important players to get committed for the 2008 recruiting class and both will challenge the older players in front of them because of their athleticism and pure-football abilities.
Both are very strong and both have huge frames to add lots of muscle.
Kelemete is already almost 270 pounds and he could be 280 or more by the time he arrives on campus. He will likely be headed to either the strongside defensive end position to be a backup to Te'o-Nesheim or he could move inside of he outgrows end.
His head coach at Evergreen High School, Shaun Tarantola, told us that Kelemete is a high-motor player with outstanding athleticism who they have to keep an eye on because he will run himself into exhaustion.
Kelemete was even used at linebacker by Tarantola, maximizing his playmaking and instincts to flow to the ball.
Don't be surprised if Kelemete ends up seeing time this year if he proves to be as good as everyone thinks he will be.
Thompson will likely redshirt because he needs to get stronger in his upper-body, but he's a super-intense player who will be able to get after the passer and hold up against the run. He also needs some work on his technique as he still plays a little too high, but there is no questioning the desire and drive the be the best are there and that might be the most important thing.
On the inside, Elisara is the only returning player with any kind of experience and that was very limited as well. He's strong and he's got a quick first step, but in his limited time I noticed he gets engulfed by offensive lineman and had difficulty disengaging from blockers. He plays with a low pad level which helps him maintain his base against the run and he's good in pursuit.
By default, Elisara is almost guaranteed one of the two starting spots at tackle, but the coaching staff will likely work with a rotation of five or six players rather than going with three players like they did last year.
The other tackle spot is going to be a four or five man "Battle Royal" between Wood, Duncan, Ta'amu, Noble and O'Connor.
Wood and Duncan didn't practice much in 2007 because of injuries, but both are expected to be fully healthy for winter drills and for spring camp.
Wood is one of the strongest Huskies and he's also an accomplished wrestler who the coaches raved about when he began practice in the fall. He had a lingering wrist injury from high school that he tried to play through, but the staff shut him down during camp to get it repaired allowing him to heal fully in anticipation of lots of reps this coming spring and in the fall.
Duncan has that squatty frame you love to see in your nose tackle and he's going to be counted on a ton in 2007 to be a run-stopper as a redshirt freshman. He struggled with a shoulder injury suffered early in fall camp so it will be on the coaching staff to get him ready for 2008.
Noble was a pleasant surprise when he committed to the Huskies shortly before Scout's Los Angeles Combine in April. What we saw when we arrived at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles the following day was a chiseled prospect with an amazing first step who uses leverage well to get past the lineman he is going up against.
He ate up one of the top linemen in the country, USC-commit Matt Kalil, in several one-on-one drills and was generally unstoppable while earning All-Combine Team honors.
Ta'amu was the biggest, literally, commit the Huskies got this fall when he committed to the Huskies on his official visit on December 8th. He's 6-3, 320 pounds and he's very strong, but he'll need to keep his weight down in order to be the ever-down player he wants to be and the team needs him to be.
He's a very good athlete and he's got a nasty side that every coach loves his linemen to have.
O'Connor will be entering his fifth year in the program this year and he's bounced between both lines before settling at defensive tackle last spring. He's a big body (6-5, 300) and he's good at occupying blockers, but he doesn't disengage well and he's not a very good athlete. He'll likely see time this fall because of the lack of experience along the line, but how much team actually gets will be determined on how well he shows this spring.
A look at the likely depth chart along the defensive line:
DE: Te'o-Nesheim; Aldrich; Kelemete
DT: Elisara; Wood; Noble
NT: Duncan; Ta'amu; O'Connor
DE: Jones; Matthews; Thompson
Previous position breakdowns:
Position Breakdown: Quarterback
Position Breakdown: Tailbacks and Fullbacks
Position Breakdown: Receivers and Tight Ends
Position Breakdown: Offensive Line
Position Breakdown: Defensive Line
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