The Husky defense made huge strides on defense in 2012 versus the previous 6 seasons. They gave up nearly 12 points per game fewer in 2012 than in 2011. Their pass efficiency defense was 22 points lower. They gave up 5 fewer TD's through the air, and intercepted 7 more passes. They gave up almost 90 yards per game fewer the air - a fantastic improvement that accounts for virtually all of the nearly 100 yards per game improvement in total defense.
So, while it would be easy to promote Justin Wilcox's campaign for Mayor of the World, all is most definitely not roses on Montlake. The team actually generated one fewer sack in 2012 than 2011, and opposing QB's still had enough time in the pocket to read the cliff's notes version of The Iliad before feeling any kind of pressure. Any pressure the team did get came from blitzing multiple people. Rushing yards were only modestly reduced, and while the yards per carry allowed fell by more than half a yard, it was still a robust (in a bad way) 4.4 ypc.
The back seven of the Husky defense was good enough to win with in 2012. But the Dawgs were still lacking, substantially, up front. Danny Shelton was very solid at the nose tackle, but just about everybody along side of him made up for their lack of ideal size by being slow, not particularly instinctive, or tackling poorly. Or all of the above.
The Dawgs have to replace two starters in the secondary, but also have two very good pieces coming back, and there's talent waiting in the wings. The linebackers are all very good even though they're mostly young. John Timu is, at worst, solid (and I'm of the opinion he's a lot better than that). Shaq Thompson is going to be a star, probably this year. And Travis Feeney might be the most underrated player on the team.
But the Dawgs have been missing a huge piece on defense - the guy that should be the focus of the defensive line - ever since Larry Triplett graduated more than a decade ago. Yes, the Husky 3-tech defensive tackle has been on milk cartons around the nation for that long. And the key player for the defense this fall - the guy to watch - is whomever takes control of that position.
During the Sarkisian era, a number of guys have tried their hands at that position. Cameron Elisara was the first, but injuries greatly reduced his effectiveness before he was forced to retire. Everette Thompson played the position, with some success (especially the USC game in 2009) but also dealt with injuries, and was mostly used at end. Semisi Tokolahi seemingly took hold of the position in 2010, and looked like he'd hold it for a couple of years, but a badly broken leg at the end of that season cost him much of 2011, and he simply wasn't in good enough shape in 2012. Andrew Hudson spent most of his season inside, giving up 50 or more pounds to opposing linemen. The aforementioned Tokolahi was another primary occupant of the position, and JC transfer Josh Banks also had significant playing time later in the season prior to being hurt. Sione Potoa'e, one of the most heralded recruits Sarkisian has ever signed, played but was largely an afterthought.
The 3-tech isn't necessarily a glamorous position, unless you have a guy like Steve Emtman. The stats aren't really there, even for Emtman (although, in fairness, he spent much of his time in the second half on the sidelines cheering on the backups). But if the nose tackle does his job the way Shelton does (occupy multiple people), a 3-tech that can penetrate will end up making some plays behind the line of scrimmage (Emtman managed 19 1/2 tackles for loss as a junior, so that's the gold standard), but will mostly cause running backs and QB's to cut or roll into the waiting arms of defensive ends and linebackers working their way up field.
So, who are the candidates to fill this position in 2013? In no particular order:
Connor Cree - Cree played in 12 of 13 games last season as a redshirt freshman, mostly on special teams. He did see some time, mostly in mop-up duty, at defensive end. Surprisingly, he ended the spring running with the first team at tackle, and was one of the most-hyped players of the spring. We won't know an updated weight for him until Sunday, but he'll most likely be undersized for the position still (he's currently listed at 245 lbs). He's a high effort, high motor guy that could very likely be at end come fall. But he's the current leader in the clubhouse.
Josh Banks - Banks didn't get his first playing time until the Stanford game. He had at least one start, against USC, and registered 4 tackles, with one for a loss. But he was also the guy that couldn't hold on to Silas Redd in the backfield during that same game, allowing Redd to bounce outside for a huge gain to set up the Trojans' first TD. In all, Banks saw time in 8 games, and registered 7 tackles prior to being lost near the end of the season to injury. He was listed at 265 lbs for last year, smaller than you'd like to see, but we won't know until new weights come out of he's managed to get any bigger. He didn't make a huge impression on me last season, but he's a guy that will undoubtedly see snaps either as the starter or a primary backup.
Sione Potoa'e - I hate to use the "B" word, but if college football was a game of horse, Potoa'e would be sitting at "B-U-S" and shooting to avoid the "T." He could've gone to any Pac 12 school, and very nearly changed his mind to sign with USC prior to reaffirming his commitment to the UW. He was fairly dominant in high school, and I've seen bench presses ranging from 390 to 425 pounds for him prior to enrolling at the UW, and 40 times below 4.9. He also listed himself at 6'-3" and 285 pounds, only to be 6'-2" and 271 pounds three years later. Makes me wonder about the strength and speed a bit....Nick Holt said that Potoa'e was going to be a first round draft pick as long as "he (Holt) didn't screw him up." Maybe it's Holt's fault. Potoa'e played early and often as a true freshman, even starting a couple of times, but after picking up a sack on his first collegiate tackle and showing potential that season, he's mostly been MIA the last two years. He's struggled with knee problems and other assorted small ailments (a broken finger kept him out of most of the spring this year), and has admitted that he's struggled to adjust to the college game. But you have to hope that this guy - a senior before you even realize it - can step up in his final season and reach even some of his potential. I wouldn't bet on him starting, but he'll get snaps. It's just a question of how many.
Andrew Hudson - He spent a lot of time inside last season, and as already mentioned, was way undersized. He might be bigger this year, but like Cree, he's a more natural fit at end. I admire his tenacity, and his effort here and at end led him to an honorable mention all-conference selection, but he played the position entirely out of necessity rather than fit. Even if he's predominantly at end, I wouldn't be at all surprised if he slid down at times this season. This isn't a statement about Hudson (or Cree, for that matter), but it's not a great sign for the defense if either of these guys are the primary tackle next to Shelton.
Elijah Qualls - Qualls appears to be the future of this position. The only question is if the future starts in 2013 or waits a year. Strong, quick, and athletic enough to play running back, linebacker and every position on the d-line, Qualls is already officially listed about 15 pounds heavier than he was in high school. If (when) he plays in 2013, I expect him to at times flash the potential that made him such a highly coveted prospect (turning down virtually the entire conference along with notables such as Arkansas, Michigan, and Nebraska) but struggle to consistently handle stronger and more experienced offensive linemen play in and play out. In a perfect world, he'd redshirt and spend the year champing at the bit to get on the field, but the Huskies aren't yet in that position and he's going to play. I just hope it's more about his talent than the state of the line.
So that's what we're most likely to see in 2013. I think that, regardless, the position will be more effective than it was in 2012, but unless one of the returnees makes huge strides from last season, or Qualls is the second coming, it's not going to be a position of strength this season. It'll probably still qualify as a weakness. But it's a key battle to watch this fall, and the position on the line that the Huskies need to bolster in order to take the next step as a defense.