Most Husky fans were cautiously optimistic that the defensive line could take a step forward in 2013. While overall it improved, it was still a bit of a mixed bag.
I'm not sure anyone would guess this, but the Huskies were tied for 4th in the country with 41 sacks in 2013. All but 9.5 of those came from the defensive line (NOTE: I'm including rush ends in these totals). That's great production from the trench Dawgs, mostly coming from the newly-minted Hau'oli Kikaha (13 of them in fact, on his way to second-team All Pac 12 honors) and the emergence of Corey Littleton at the rush end (5 sacks). The interior linemen did get into the action, with Evan Hudson coming on strong in the second half of the season and picking up 3 of his 4 sacks in the last 6 games. There's no doubt the line did its job in helping the D produce a top-flight pass defense.
All was roses, as the line produced only an additional 10.5 tackles for lost yardage (the team as a whole only had 33 outside of sacks). Littleton had 5 of those, Kikaha had a meager 2.5, and no other lineman had more than 1.5. The defense as a whole was highly rated (20th by S/P+), but that is largely due to great pass defense (6th) an only "decent" rush defense (39th).
So, just like the offensive line, the defensive front appears to have done half of its job very well, and struggled with the other half. The good news is that every starter returns, as well as some young and talented depth. I'd give the unit a B- for 2013, but barring injuries, they should be counted on to be better this spring and into the 2014 season.
One thing to keep in mind with this unit is Wilcox has shown a willingness to use multiple fronts and alignments. You could see jumbo lines with Kikaha and A. Hudson flanking Shelton and Lagafuaina, and you could see quick lines with Littleton & Shirley flanking A. Hudson and Potoa'e. Aside from Shirley and Littleton, you could see any of the ends playing inside at times, and you could see alignments where Potoa'e is lined up in 0 technique with Shelton at the 3 technique. There are big question marks here, but also a lot of upside and a potentially really bright future.
Players Returning: Hau'oli Kikaha (RS-Sr), Danny Shelton (Sr), Evan Hudson (RS-Sr), Josh Shirley (RS-Sr), Lawrence Lagafuina (RS-Sr) Corey Littleton (Jr), Taniela Tupou (RS-Jr), Jarrett Finau (RS-Jr), Marcus Farria (So), Joe Mathis (So), Damien Turpin (RS-So), Elijah Qualls (RS-Fr)
Incoming Players: Jaime Bryant (grayshirt), Will Dissly, Kaleb McGarry, Greg Gaines, Jaylen Johnson, Shane Bowman
A Look Ahead:
It all starts up front on both sides of the ball, and fortunately for the Huskies they are loaded with experience both on the OL and the DL for 2014. The biggest draft decision news this off-season wasn't ASJ or Sankey declaring for the draft - it was Danny Shelton opting to return for his senior season. Shelton is arguably the most irreplaceable guy on the roster - a true NT with NFL ability. With him returning and Hau'oli Kikaha bouncing back from two knee injuries to look better than ever, plus a roster full of younger talent, this is as stacked as the DL has been for the Huskies in a long time.
Shelton anchors the middle and teams that don't double-team him are prone to seeing their running plays shut down before they can start. And while he's not much of a pass-rusher, he's getting better at driving the pocket back and occupying multiple guys. Next to him this past season was Evan Hudson, and while it took a while for the converted TE to get going, by the end of the season you could see the light starting to turn on for him. With terrific overall size, he's a guy that can disrupt passing lanes and reduce running lanes with his reach.
On the edge, Kikaha has come back better than we probably had a right to expect after consecutive knee injuries. By the end of the season he was looking like his old mentor Daniel Te'o Nesheim and had become a real pass-rush threat. He also has the size and strength to hold up against the run game, and he's looking an awards candidate for 2014. Who mans the other edge is a good question, both because we don't know for sure what kind of fronts new DC Pete Kwiatkowski will favor, and because there is some young talent knocking on the door. Cory Littleton supplanted the mercurial Josh Shirley at the Rush End spot due to his greater versatility. While he's not quite the pass rushing Shirley is, he's a better all-around player, though still a bit on the small side. His role was a bit of a mix of DE and OLB responsibilities, and it's possible the new staff might use him more in coverage like a more traditional OLB.
Among the young guys, Marcus Farria brings perhaps the most potential as an edge rusher. He's a long kid that's still filling out and getting stronger, but he's got the physical talent to be a major weapon on the edge. Jojo Mathis is thicker than Farria and is more of a strong-side end or a guy that can slide inside at times. He also has a world of potential. And last but not least is Elijah Qualls who had the luxury of redshirting last year. He's not quite as big or thick as Shelton, but he might be the next best NT on the team. He also has shown on film the quick first step that could make him a terror at the 3T as an interior rusher.
There's also upperclass depth with Shirley back for his final season, and guys like Tani Tupou and Jarrett Finau entering their 4th years in the program. Both appear to be 'tweeners, not quite quick enough at DE and not really showing much (yet) at DT. Maybe a new start under the new staff will get them going.
So while there are some question marks here, this feels like a group that should become a strength for this defense.
There can be little doubt that the state of the Huskies Defensive Line is the healthiest that it has been in a decade. Chris Petersen inherits a legit, double team-eating DT, a top-of-conference pass rusher and legitimate Pac 12 depth at defensive end. There are a lot of pieces to work with whether we are talking about the top of rotation players in Shelton, Kikaha and Littleton or the up-and-coming reserves in Mathis, Qualls and Farria. Husky fans have clamored for years for depth along the line of scrimmage and this is the year that they can claim that they have it.
Unfortunately, there is a difference between "depth" and "proven depth". While very few teams possess the luxury of saying that all of their two deeps are comprised of experienced players (we can't all be Oregon and Stanford), the best can often demonstrate a good mix between veterans and newcomers, both inside and outside. And, while UW can legitimately claim that many of their young players - such as Farria and Mathis - were able to acquire some experience last year, it is a stretch to call them proven depth.
The good news is that, as Kirk alluded to above, the potential is mesmerizing. Sark, Wilcox and, especially, Tosh Lupoi can point with pride to the unit that Chris Petersen has inherited. Defensive End, which is the most demanding position to find athletes to plug into, is stocked with potentially a good mix of strong side guys who can lock down the edge (Evan Hudson), hybrid guys who can shift in and out (Mathis) and pass rushers who have up-field speed (Farria, Littleton and Shirley). Similarily, DT has a good mix of space stuffing big bodies like Shelton, Qualls and Laga to complement the 'tweener type of bodies that have had considerable time to develop their bodies (Finau and Tupou).
I'm not claiming that all of these guys - or even many of these guys - are destined for stardom. But the numbers and the maturity of the unit would at worst suggest "serviceable". There are enough high quality players in various roles to give a reasonable fan an optimistic outlook. If a second legit pass rusher can develop opposite of Kikaha, we could be talking about the DL as the breakout group for this team by the end of the season. Until we see it though, I prefer to not yet get my hopes up too high.
Brad Johnson UW
The Huskies are in the best shape heading in to a spring on the defensive line that I can remember. There's proven talent in Danny Shelton to clog up the middle and possibly eat opposing linemen, there was a big-time production in some new guy named Kikaha that looked a lot like a guy named Jamora, and Evan Hudson was playing his best football at the end of the year after switching to the d-line in fall camp. While we don't really know what's going to happen to the Rush End spot under Pete Kwiatkowski (in all likelihood, it won't be much different, no matter what it's called), Corey Littleton's versatility allowed him to pass the incumbent Josh Shirley. Behind those guys, things are a bit more dicey, but there's some fantastic potential in ends like Farria and Mathis, and Elijah Qualls has a ton of potential that should allow him to crack the two deeps if not the starting lineup.
The line simply needs to be better against the run. While Shelton had a great year in swallowing two blockers and still making plays, there was little other production from the interior of the line. I'd expect Hudson to get better with a year of experience, but he's a "do more with less" type of player. There are guys with more potential on the roster to become the playmaker that's been missing at the 3-tech spot. Qualls in particular has great athleticism for his size. At the end spots, as good as Kikaha was as a pass rusher, he doesn't really set a great edge against the run. The fact that he's coming off of two straight injuries provides some hope that he'll make another big step forward this season just based on improved health.
There's going to be a refinement in technique with a new defense, but based on what Boise State has done the last few seasons, it doesn't appear it will be too drastic. Hopefully after getting to know everybody's names, Kwiatkowski will be able to teach and really add some value to this position. Even with Marcus Peters coming back, the secondary simply can't be counted on to do as much heavy lifting in the passing game as it has the last couple of years. The line is going to have to step up.
Jaime Bryant is the only incoming player that will be here this spring. He hasn't played football in a long while, and he's really added a bunch of weight. It'll be interesting to see how the coaches look to use him. Based on what I've seen, Jaylen Johnson is the guy that looks the most ready to step in a play this fall. McGarry could as well, but my hope is that he ends up spending 2014 learning how to play offensive tackle.