The UW defense is expected by many fans to be the strength of the team. I'm particularly excited about this year's version of the D because I feel likedid a really nice job of retooling the athletes on the back end - not only in attracting the types of athletes we need but also in putting those athletes in new positions that take advantage of their unique traits and skills. The arrival of Pete Kwiatkowski does little to quell my optimism given the fact that he practices pretty much the same philosophy and, in fact, he and Wilcox crafted their philosophy while working on the same staff at Boise. With these athletes all starting to grow into their own and with some congruency in philosophy to lean on, the number of break-out candidates on the D is brimming.
To narrow it down a little, I'm going to impose some criteria for "break-out" status. First, the candidate may not be higher than a RS Sophomore in 2014. Let's focus on the young guys. Second, the candidate cannot have been a starter or a "starter-like" contributor for most of 2013. That's a little fungible, but I think you get the gist. Finally, the player cannot have accumulated break-out like stats in their 2013 appearances even if he meets the first two criteria. The goal is to really get to the under-the-radar guys who, as of right now, have very little game experience for us to project upon.
With those in mind, here are my candidates:
Option #1 - Azeem Victor, LB
Victor is a real dark-horse here given the fact that he sits behind Huskies defensive captain John Timu as an inside backer. His physical capabilities are such that he could probably flex to an outside role, but those roles are also going to be highly competitive with Shaq Thompson a sure thing and guys like Travis Feeney, Keishawn Bierria and maybe even Hau'oli Kikaha duking it out. Still, Victor's potential is tantalizing and one has to figure that Kwiatkowski will find a way to get Victor involved in rotations if he has the kind of Fall Camp that many believe he can have. If Victor goes into the season with a role carved out, he could be an absolute wild card for unsuspecting Offensive Coordinators, perhaps in the same way that Princeton Fuimaono was a season ago.
Reasons He Will Be: Too good to keep off the field; Physical versatility to be used in multiple roles; He has a first name as a last name and a last name as a first name
Reasons He Won't Be: John Timu is in front of him; UW LBs are pretty stacked; Learning curves for ILBs tend to be longer than OLBs
Option #2 - Jermaine Kelly, CB
Kelly has a great chance to beat out Travell Dixon and win the starting outside CB job opposite of the inimitable Marcus Peters. Despite the lack of plaudits that Peters has gotten in the national debate, most Pac 12 coordinators know that he may be the best cover corner in the Pac 12 and will be looking towards Kelly's side of the field (should he win the job) when they call their plays. Thus, expect Kelly to get plenty of opportunity to attract eyeballs and generate stats this season. If this kid's athleticism and play-making abilities are as advertised, he has a great opportunity to be this year's break-out defensive player.
Reasons He Will Be: Plenty of opportunity; He's in a position to generate "stats" that catch attention
Reasons He Won't Be: High risk position where massively negative plays are possible; Peters could draw all the attention and credit for UW's secondary play
Option #3 - Elijah Qualls, DL
Elijah Qualls promises to be a key rotation player in 2014 after redshirting last year. Qualls is a physical wonder - a nimble, strong athlete with a low center of gravity tucked into a 300 lb frame. His athleticism gives him the opportunity to play behind Danny Shelton or, in some cases, next to him as an edge-setting end. It remains to be seen how he'll do against Pac 12 level O-Linemen - in particular the beasts that Oregon and Stanford put on the field.
Reasons He Will Be: Position of need - he should get lots of opportunity; playing next to Shelton on occasion could generate eye popping plays
Reasons He Won't Be: Pac 12 O-Linemen; still relatively green in terms of technique and opponent knowledge; other young DL may break out and steal his spotlight
Jermaine Kelly, CB
I was really tempted to go with Elijah Qualls here. However, I had to take the guy who I think will not only see the most snaps amongst the breakout candidates but who also will be tested the most with live fire from the opposition. Layer in the benefit that I think Kelly will get from plus-level play from the UW defensive ends and I think you have that magic mix of conditions that, when added to the caliber of the athlete, adds up to a break-out style campaign.