Spring Preview – The Defense Part I

With Kai Ellis departing, Washington loses their top pass rushing specialist up front. However, as a group this unit was one of the bright spots on defense. Randy Hart will never accept praise, being the perfectionist that he is, but he did a whale of a coaching job last year. The defensive line improved every week, and stopped the run as well as anyone in the conference.

This group didn't post big numbers in the sack department, and Hart would like to see them get more push up front. It is the development of two young players, however, that drew my attention the most to the fact that Coach Hart is getting his message across.

Manase Hopoi was dominant at times last year in his first season of collegiate football. He wasn't very strong last year physically, but he absorbed all of the techniques Hart threw at him enough to rack up a team-leading 17 tackles for loss and seven sacks. Hopoi will continue to get stronger as he lifts more weights, and is now under the direct tutelage of Steve Emtman in the training area.

The other young player that really shined last season was Josh Miller. Miller has worked hard to sculpt his body and has shed 25 pounds since his first year in the program. He is very quick off of the ball now and combines great strength with it to cave in the middle. Miller led all interior defensive linemen with 33 tackles, seven behind the line of scrimmage. He'll look to up his sack total of two last season, but he was the most consistent performer for the Dawgs all year in the trenches.

The other interior position will either be manned by Terry Johnson or Jerome Stevens. These two will rotate with Miller inside to essentially make three starters.

"Tank" Johnson is the most athletic and fastest of the bunch. He's explosive and can run like a linebacker, and he has shown a lot of passion on the field. Now it's a matter of becoming consistent on every down for Terry. He had five sacks last season, and is versatile enough to be moved out to end if needed. He'll be listed as a senior, but he can get back a fifth year of eligibility if he graduates in time, per the partial qualifier rules.

Stevens is the one guy inside with the prototype nose guard body. He's built low to the ground and he's very thick, however his feet are always moving. He hasn't posted big numbers to date, but he will be the lone senior on the defensive line in 2003 so he'll want to make this season a big one.

Tui Alailefaleula was slowed last season by a testicular condition that required minor surgery. There are no lingering effects from that injury, so he should be good to go this spring. After two years of being in the shadows, this could be the season that Tui makes his run up the depth chart. There is ample opportunity, as Hart prefers to rotate as many as eight guys up front to keep their legs fresh. He may very well get a look as an offensive tackle as well - watch for that this spring. He has a redshirt season available if necessary.

If Tank is kept inside, look for Ellis' spot at the rush end to be a fierce competition between Donny Mateaki, Brandon Ala, and Graham Lasee. Mateaki limped through his redshirt season last year with a shoulder injury that he had suffered in high school. He has had surgery and should be ready to see some action this spring, although how much contact he gets remains to be seen. Lasee played in 10 games last year so he has the experience factor on his side.

Ala impressed everyone with his scout team work last year. He showed how strong he was and how well he got around the corner as a rush end. He tweaked his knee during Sun Bowl practices but it didn't require surgery so he should be close to full-tilt boogie when spring begins next month. Ala is a guy that could rack up big sack numbers once he gets comfortable with the schemes. He catches your attention.

Due to enroll this spring into Washington is Mike Mapu, who should also challenge for playing time at defensive end. At his Letter of Intent press conference, Rick Neuheisel brought up the idea of perhaps redshirting Mapu so he would get an additional year to gain more strength. We'll see if the current depth allows it. Mapu put up some very crooked numbers at Mesa JC, with 17 quarterback sacks. That is an area that certainly needs addressing with the departure of Ellis. We'll see how strong he is when fall rolls around, but he'll get at least this spring session to get familiar with "The Hart Foundation."

A guy that redshirted last year and made huge strides on the interior defense was Daniel Milsten. Dan is taller than the usual tackle, but he showed some nasty and some good power moves last fall. He still looks skinny, and that's with carrying over 275 pounds on his frame. I project great things for this kid from Puyallup, particularly when his weight reaches 290. He is strong and difficult to handle up front.

Another newcomer to watch will be Stanley Daniels. Recruited as an offensive lineman, Daniels redshirted last year and had his shoulder surgically repaired. I don't know if he's ready for contact this spring, but he has the body and athleticism to be an outstanding nose tackle or three technique in the trenches. Daniels can run like a tight end, but is over 300 pounds and built fairly low to the ground. This guy is explosive, but is still waiting his turn while he gets healthy. He and Milsten make a nice looking future defensive line. The depth here is outstanding, if they can stay healthy (how many times am I going to write that?).

Junior Coffin only saw action in two games last season, but he is a junior that has played in some big games over the years.

Another guy with great skills and potential at defensive end is Will Conwell. Will has impressed the coaches with his work ethic and his knowledge of the game, but now has been asked to put on about 20 more pounds. That will take a year or so, but he is just a redshirt freshman. His future in the program looks very bright if he continues at his current rate of progression.

Mike Savicky also toiled at defensive end last year after being converted from offensive line in 2002.

Joining the Huskies this spring will be Jordan Reffett. The Moses Lake grad was recruited to play at defensive end last year, but has since grown into his 6-5 frame a bit more. I project him as an interior player that will hopefully redshirt in 2003. If he can do that, he'll have had two springs and a full fall season under his belt before his freshman season of eligibility begins.

If asked what the rotation will be up front for the Huskies, I would answer like so:
Inside: Miller, Stevens, Johnson, Milsten, Alailefaleula.
Outside: Hopoi, Johnson, Ala, Mateaki.

This unit was outstanding at stopping the run last year, and at times, got in the quarterback's face pretty well. But if there were one area where Hart will be looking for improvement, it will be getting push up front from his four guys to cave in the pocket from the middle. He's got some talented guys to work with.
Link to Offensive previews:

Part I: The Offensive Line

Link to Part II: The Receivers
Link to Part III: The Offensive Backfield

next up – the linebackers

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