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2014 UW Football Review: Defensive Line

The Huskies 2014 Defensive Line was one of the best position groups that the team has fielded in decades which makes the question as to how UW failed to beat a winning team even more perplexing.

Hau'oli Kikaha became UW's all-time sack king and an All-American in 2014.
Hau'oli Kikaha became UW's all-time sack king and an All-American in 2014.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our post-season review of the 2014 football position groups with the Defensive Line. Here is what Jesse Kennemer said in our pre-season previews:

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.

While it wasn't exactly difficult to project the D-Line as the best unit on the team coming into the season, I'm not sure anybody could project the heights of accomplishment that the individuals on this line would reach.  Whether it was the inspirational comeback of Andrew Hudson, the heart of Evan Hudson, the record-breaking campaign of Hau'oli Kikaha or the sheer beastliness and ridiculous production of Danny Shelton, the 2014 defensive line achieved a level of distinction that no other unit has since the 90's.

2014 In Review

The D-Line was the strength of the Husky defense in 2014.  By just about any measure - particularly when it came to the pass rush - the Huskies D-Line was amongst the most productive position grouping that UW has ever fielded.  Whether it was Danny Shelton drawing double and triple teams, Hau'oli Kikaha showing off his judo skills in terrorizing opposing QBs or Andrew Hudson simply out-efforting bigger offensive linemen, the Dawgs' senior-laden line was productive all across the stat sheet.

And, it was a good thing that they were.  DC Pete Kwiatkowski leveraged this strength to help cover up a very green defensive secondary by employing a bend-don't-break strategy throughout the season.  Despite the fact that the Huskies rarely blitzed and often just rushed three, they were consistently able to collapse the pocket and generate QB pressure throughout the season.  This approach helped them to generate turnovers and to create plays for said young secondary.

Unfortunately, this line will not be remembered just for the sack records, the amazing production of the middle of the line or the sparks that the young players who rotated in provided.  This unit will be remembered as much for its periodic lapses in production and its inconsistent output.  For every dominating performance that this unit put up (Apple Cup, Oregon State, Illinois), they had inexplicable periods of minimal contribution (EWU, Georgia State, Oregon, the Cactus Bowl).  Whenever you have a unit that features two All-Americans, you would expect that unit to be strength upon which you build a few key wins.  Despite the gaudy stats, this unit failed to lead the Huskies to win over a ranked team or, even, a victory over a team with a winning record.  The failures of Shelton, Kikaha and Hudson to even be relevant in games like the Cactus Bowl will be as much a part of the legacy of their senior seasons as the individual stats and plaudits that they all earned.

Standouts and Key Moments

Sr. Hau'oli Kikaha, DE - 19 sacks, 25 TFLs, 72 tackles
Sr. Danny Shelton, DT - 9 sacks, 16.5 TFLs, 93 tackles
Sr. Andrew Hudson, DE - 12.5 sacks, 15.5 TFLs, 77 tackles
Sr. Evan Hudson, 3T - 2.5 sacks, 31 tackles
RFr. Elijah Qualls, DT - 13 tackles
Soph. Joe Mathis, DE - 2 sacks, 16 tackles
Fr. Will Dissly, 3T - 2 tackles

For the purposes of this analysis, we'll leave Hau'oli Kikaha in the D-Line group given that his primary role was as a pass rusher. And, man, what a role he played. By now, you all know the stats. Kikaha parlayed a highly productive junior season as a true defensive end into a record-smashing performance as a senior. He exits his Husky career holding not only the career sacks record but also the record for sacks in a season. He led the nation in sacks. He was an All-American. A unanimous All-American. He did it all while enduring a change in role from one that was a true defensive end to one that involved him playing more of a hybrid role as a BUCK linebacker.

Given all his plaudits, you may think that Kikaha was the best player on the Husky D-Line. He wasn't. That honor goes to Danny Shelton. The giant Husky DT had, perhaps, the greatest statistical season ever produced by a Husky interior lineman (and, yes, I know who I'm comparing him to). In this era of spread football and getting the ball to playmakers on the perimeter, the kind of statistical production that you saw Shelton put up for a defensive tackle is pretty much unheard of. To consider it was done by a 345 lb man whose knock coming into the season was that he didn't have his "motor on 100% of the time" makes it even more so. While his impact on the W/L ledger pales in comparison to what Steve Emtman did in his time - and that is a mystery that Chris Petersen MUST resolve - there can be little doubt that we witnessed one of the greatest seasons ever by a Husky tackle.

I'd like to give a shout out to the Hudson brothers. Neither Andrew Hudson or Evan Hudson have ever been particularly revered by fans or, for that matter, by coaches. However, when you consider each of their individual paths, their stories become more impressive. Evan started his UW career as a tight end and only switched to defense in a moment of desperation for Steve Sarkisian. To make that kind of switch and to step in as a starter in his first season there - as a 3T no less - is pretty impressive for any player.

His counterpart, Andrew, was always an end, but one that was pretty much dismissed by Sark with one year left to go in his eligibility. Never valued for his heart or his commitment under the previous regime, Petersen saw an "OKG" and invited him to come back last spring. The results are now a matter of public record. Andrew would put up a ridiculously productive season with 12.5 sacks and carry the mantle of "Most Inspirational" for his defense in 2014.

Looking Ahead to 2015

A lot of Husky fans are bemoaning the loss of four seniors off of the D-Line and for good reason. However, we cannot ignore the fact that, despite the presence of two All-Americans, this line never really became a dominating unit that changed the trajectory of games. For every example of "lights out" play that you can come up with, there are games like Eastern Washington, Georgia State and the Cactus Bowl that simply make you say "huh?"  For whatever reason, opponents of varying levels of notoriety were able to randomly establish highly effective attacks against this unit.  Watching FCS players like Vernon Adams or true Freshmen Royce Freeman and Mason Rudolph have career days against this group was as disturbing as the recognition for these players was satisfying.  The bottom line was that this line more often than not played more like a one-dimensional group of pass rushers that accumulated individual stats more so than a cohesive and comprehensive unit that could handle both pass and rush defense in at least a capable manner.

The replacements for this year's line, guys like Dissly, Qualls, Mathis and Tupou, have all gotten experience and will be a completely new look for the Huskies. On one hand, they certainly won't have the elite pass-rushing of a Kikaha or the bone-crushing presence of a Shelton. On the other hand, they do present more of a balance of size and strength at each position. I expect that this line will play more consistently against the run and, through Mathis, demonstrate some ability to rush the passer. Nonetheless, there is no escaping how green this unit will be, especially with redshirt freshmen like Vita Vea and Jaylen Johnson expected to play major roles. That kind of youth invariably leads to execution errors which, in the Pac 12, leads to opponent touchdowns.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of pieces to like in the young defensive line, but a healthy dose of patience required for Husky fans who will be looking for that young talent to blossom.