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UW Fall Camp Preview — Defensive Line

UW's Defensive Line is considered by most pundits to be amongst the deepest and most experienced in the Pac 12. Here is our view of its status heading into the Fall.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

7/26: Quarterbacks (Kirk DeGrasse)

7/27: Defensive Backs (Brad Johnson)

7/28: Running Backs (Ryan Priest)

7/29: Defensive Line (Jesse Kennemer)

7/30: Linebackers (Ryan Priest)

7/31: Receivers (Chris Landon)

8/1: Offensive Line (Kirk DeGrasse)

8/2: Special Teams (Brad Johnson)

8/3: Coaches (Chris Landon)

Two All-Conference stars, a ton of talented, unproven youth, and a few familiar veterans. This is the most talented defensive line that Washington has fielded in years. No one of tremendous importance is lost from last year's group, while at least one or two of the sophomores is likely to pop. If Shelton and Kikaha can both remain healthy, this could very well be the best position group on the entire team.

Who's Gone (6)

Josh Shirley: Transferred out after receiving his undergraduate degree. This would have felt like a bigger loss before Shirley lost his starting role to Littleton last season.

Sione Potoa'e: Graduated.

Josh Banks: Graduated.

Lawrence Lagafuaina: Transferred to Hawaii, closer to home.

Conner Cree: Retired from football.

Jaimie Bryant: Sad to see Bryant retire as a result of a back injury before having a chance to get his collegiate career started.

Key Returners

The new staff will apparently run something closer to a 3-4 defense than what Wilcox ran last season (which was also kind of a 3-4). Last year Washington typically went with one defensive end (Kikaha), a 3-technique tackle (Hudson), a nose tackle (Shelton), and a stand-up pass rusher dubbed the rush end (Littleton).

In discussing positions below, I'm operating under the assumption that the change will represent a shift in terminology while largely keeping the same players at the line of scrimmage as before. Several linemen are now listed as outside linebackers, but the difference between a pass rushing DE and a pass rushing OLB can be as little as one hand to the ground, so we'll keep them here for now. I also reference the second tackle as a "3-tech tackle" a lot, despite the fact that under the new staff that second tackle might not exist in the base defense. Such is the confusion of pre-camp previews under new coaches.

Danny Shelton, Sr., 6-2 339

A pre-season All-American, a likely future 1st (or 2nd) round NFL draft pick, and the most important player on the line. He's also made Academic All-Conference two years in a row and has great hair. Valuable both for his personal talent and because the roster lacks a proven backup at nose tackle, Shelton's primary role will, as always, be to occupy multiple blockers and stuff any and all run plays in between the tackles. He'll likely continue to do his job as well as any nose tackle in the nation.

Hau'oli Kikaha, DE/OLB, Sr., 6-3 246

It appears that two torn ACLs could only delay the inevitable. After missing back to back seasons, Kikaha amassed 13.5 sacks and 70 total tackles in 2013. Most of his snaps came at defensive end, but he regularly slid inside to rush from the 3-tech spot and also disrupted the pocket rotating in as a stand-up rush end. The move to outside linebacker under the new staff may just mean more of the latter, and Kikaha will continue to rack up sacks regardless.

Cory Littleton, DE/OLB, Jr., 6-3, 229

After stealing the rush end spot from Shirley, he amassed 62 tackles, 5.0 sacks, and 10 tackles for loss. Now listed as an outside linebacker, it's safe to assume Littleton's role will look much the same as before: line up outside the left tackle and attack the quarterback from a two-point stance.

Elijah Qualls, DT/NT, RS-Fr, 6-1, 311

Qualls was listed at 282 in high school, 298 this spring, and stands at 311 currently. Assuming all the weight is good, this is an encouraging sign that Shelton's backup will actually have the size of a proper nose tackle. While technically unproven, Qualls has the potential to serve as Shelton's eventual heir.

Evan Hudson, DT/DE, Sr., 6-6, 273

Hudson isn't a particularly explosive player, but he can play end or 3-tech to add size to any package and did manage 4.0 sacks in his first year as a defensive player. If Mathis threatens for his starting spot it should be taken as a sign that the player with more upside is already prepared to eclipse the senior. Either way, he's a grinder that the coaching staff will appreciate having at their disposal.

Joe Mathis, DT/DE, So., 6-4, 250

Ideally built to fill the role of the stout 5-tech defensive end or the penetrating 3-tech (like a lot of the younger linemen). He showed enough as a true freshman for Sark to burn his redshirt year, but made a modest impact. This season look for him to fight for a spot in the rotation both at end and at 3-tech, and to make it on to the field in packages that have locked-in DE starter Kikaha sliding around to different spots on the line.

Taniela Tupou, DT, Jr., 6-1, 281

Failed to seriously crack the rotation so far, but has been provided with a prime opportunity to make an impression on the new staff. Hudson is not exactly a guaranteed starter at the 3-tech tackle spot, and at the very least expect defensive line coach Jeff Coate to rotate several players at that position. Tupou has to have his eyes on that spot.

Marcus Farria, DE/OLB, So., 6-4, 225

Immense potential as a pass rusher, which he flashed as a true freshman (2.5 sacks). There were rumbles about his grades coming in, and there are rumbles about his practice habits now, so one can only hope he is able to focus in and harness his physical talent. He could combine with Littleton and Kikaha to form a trio of prototypical edge rushers.

Andrew Hudson, DT/DE, Sr., 6-3, 246

After a poor 2013 had Sark ready to let Hudson graduate despite an extra year of eligibility, the new staff decided to keep him around. Both Hudsons will need to fend off younger players that likely have more long-term upside. If players like Farria and Mathis aren't prepared yet, Hudson will serve as valuable insurance.

Psalm Wooching, DE, So., 6'4 225

Wooching started off as a fullback before the new staff arrived and decided he'd be better off rushing the passer. He's a good athlete with an aggressive mentality, so the move could pay off somewhere down the line. Counting on him to crack the depth chart and contribute early this year is likely unrealistic.

Damion Turpin, DT, So., 6-3, 260

Turpin played a little last season, but he's honestly someone I know very little about. He'll have his chance to make an impression and earn snaps at defensive tackle.

Jarrett Finau, DT/DE,  Jr., 6-3, 261

It seems that Finau will likely have a tough time seeing significant playing time barring injuries.

Newcomers (5)

The overall theme: lots of redshirts. If a freshman sees the field, it will be because he truly blew the staff away. The talent Coach Sark and his staff amassed along the defensive line is truly impressive, and as a result Washington has the luxury of allowing these linemen to develop technique and put on important weight.

Kaleb McGary, DE/DT, Fr., 6-7, 291

Originally touted as a prime offensive tackle prospect, McGary is getting his wish and will begin his career on the defensive side of the ball. He played very well on both sides of the line at Fife, but it's natural to wonder if his greatest value could be as an offensive lineman. He could put that question to rest by cracking the rotation right away, but don't be surprised if the depth is great enough to allow him to redshirt. Qualls and McGary at the nose and 3-tech is a very real possibility for 2015.

Greg Gaines, NT,  Fr., 6-1, 321

Serious size for a true freshman. If Qualls establishes himself as Shelton's backup and stays healthy, Gaines can probably benefit from a redshirt year. Unless he's too impressive to keep off the field, injuries will probably be required for Petersen to burn that year of eligibility.

Jaylen Johnson, DE/DT, Fr., 6-2, 254

Another player that has quickly gained weight to fit a specific role. Listed at 232 in high school, Johnson has already put on the pounds necessary to hold up as a five-technique end or even as a penetrating inside presence.  With so much depth at those spots, expect him to redshirt.

Shane Bowman, DE, Fr., 6-3, 247

Local kid out of Bellevue that will likely redshirt this season.

Will Dissly, DT, Fr., 6-4, 273

Without knowing much about him, I would assume a redshirt is likely.