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Washington Spring Preview 2015: Defensive Line

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Much of the spring practices will be spent trying to find starters and define a new pecking order along the Huskies new-look defensive line.

Meet Joe Mathis.
Meet Joe Mathis.
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Our spring preview series continues with a look at what was unquestionably the best unit on Chris Petersen's team in 2014.  Whether or not it can be that again is up for debate.  The Defensive Line is going through a major overhaul in 2015 and will highlight a number of new players playing significant roles.  Spring practices will be our first look at how those roles may play out.

2014 Year in Review:

We knew going into the season that this Defensive Line had the potential to be the best unit that UW would put on the field. Here is what our own Jesse Kennemer said in our preview piece before last season's fall practices:

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.

Yup.  He nailed it.  And, trust me, we don't like to encourage Jesse around here.

It is not hyperbole to claim the performance of the 2014 Defensive Line as the best seen at UW since 1991, if not in the history of the program.  Consider these accomplishments:

- Danny Shelton:  Academic First Team and AP First Team All-American - first time in program history

- Hau'oli Kikaha:  led nation with 19 sacks and 131 sack yards

- Shelton & Kikaha:  Consensus All-Americans - 19th and 20th in program history

- Kikaha:  Unanimous All-American - the 5th time in program history

- Shelton's 93 tackles led all interior linemen across the nation - second on team to MLB John Timu

- UW's 3.71 sacks per game (52 sacks) were 2nd in nation

- Andrew Hudson:  7th in the nation with 12.5 sacks

- Kikaha & Hudson:  31.5 sacks most of any DE tandem in all of CFB - Mizzou's Golden and Ray 2nd with 23 sacks

- UW's Rush Def was 2nd in Pac and 14th in CFB with just 3.28 yds per carry - a yard better than best program performance in the past decade

- Hudson:  winner of post-season Iron Husky award and All Pac 12 Honorable Mention

That's a whole lot of accomplishment for one group.  Remarkable accomplishment, to be perfectly honest.  And yet, when you assess the season as a whole, the results as they translated on the field felt a little less impressive.  For every standout performance like Hawaii, Oregon State and the Apple Cup there was a head-scratcher like Oregon, Oklahoma State and Eastern Washington.  Eastern friggin' Washington.

Of course, there are two sides to the coin that was the season for the Washington Defensive Line.  Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski leaned heavily on the DL to generate its own pass rush and to stand stoutly against the run so that he could protect his young secondary with extra help.  That strategy clearly paved the way for the talent on the DL to shine through.  However, it also took a lot of help away from those same D-Linemen.  Also consider the fact that the DL had little in terms of experienced depth in the second rotation and it isn't hard to see why the end result of the season was an 8-6 campaign in spite of the tremendous accomplishments of that starting front four.

Despite the "average" outcome to the season, history will look favorably on the effort put forth by a pretty special group of players.  Danny Shelton overcame personal tragedy and really leveraged the coaching transition to catapult himself into a top 10 NFL draft pick.  Hau'oli Kikaha overcame two ACL injuries to become the most accomplished sack man in all of college football and UW's all-time leader in that category.  Andrew Hudson had to endure the "suddenly senior" tactic of Steve Sarkisian at the end of last year and earn his way back on to the team only to become the heart of the defense and a top 10 performer, in the nation, in sacks.  Evan Hudson endured a mid-career position switch from TE to become one of the toughest and grittiest players we've seen occupy the interior line in some time.  Every one of those guys had a great story and each will go down as great Dawgs.

Players Lost/Players Returning:

name position year
lost:
Danny Shelton DT graduated
Hau'oli Kikaha DE/LB graduated
Evan Hudson DT graduated
Andrew Hudson DE graduated
Drew Schultz DT graduated
returning:

Taniela Tupou DT RS-Senior
Jarret Finau DE RS-Senior
Joe Mathis DE Junior
Damion Turpin DE RS-Junior
Will Dissly DE/DT Sophomore
Elijah Qualls DT RS-Sophomore
Vita Vea DT RS-Freshman
Greg Gaines DT RS-Freshman
Jaylen Johnson DE/LB RS-Freshman
Shane Bowman DE RS-Freshman

Storylines to Watch:

The overarching storyline for this spring is how Kwiatkowski, a former defensive linemen himself, and DL coach Jeff Choate go about the business of rebuilding both their positional depth and their player rotation following the graduation of the four starting seniors.  Of some interest, although likely to be answered over the course of the spring, is whether or not UW decides to help cover up some of the inexperience on the defensive front by becoming both more aggressive and more exotic with their blitzing game.

Besides these two unit storylines, we have a number of interesting individual questions to answer.

Interior Line:

Qualls is the most interesting character in the entire unit not only because of his already-demonstrated leadership potential but also because of his versatility.  He clearly has the physique of NT, but his astounding athleticism will provide the Huskies with some flexibility in terms of personnel packages.  Whether or not Qualls gets any play at Evan Hudson's old 3T will be an interesting question in camp. 

Vea and Gaines are both beasts despite their age.  Ideally, you'd like to be able to break in players like these as rotational depth where they can be afforded time to both condition their bodies and learn the speed of the game.  Unfortunately, UW can't wait for these boys to grow out of their diapers.  The Huskies need to see both Vea and Gaines play at a Pac 12 level starting now and to have one of them as a starting capable NT.

Tupou, one of the two seniors in this unit, will be watched closely to see if he can claim a starting role.  He played extensively in 2014 as the backup to Evan Hudson.  If he can emerge this spring and start alongside Qualls, that would be an ideal scenario for the Huskies.  The question is whether or not Tupou can be that guy.

Defensive Ends:

We already know that Mathis is a high-motor, high impact kind of DE who is already penciled in as Andrew Hudson's replacement.  Once thought of as a guy who might fall through the cracks with the coaching change, Mathis is now firmly entrenched as a featured player in the 2015 rotation and the big question is what he can bring to the table as a pass rusher with more snaps.  He'll definitely be one of the most scrutinized players this spring.

Dissly is another name that Husky fans will be looking out for coming out of the beat reports this spring.  Dissly earned several snaps a year ago as a true freshman and impressed everybody with his effort and his physicality.  What his role will be and whether or not he has the ability to play in multiple spots on the line will be questions that may get answers soon.

Finau and Turpin are both upperclassmen who run the risk of getting passed over by younger players if they don't emerge in camp.  Finau played in 8 games a season ago while Turpin was used in only 5 (recording no stats).  Both guys are of similar dimensions and both have the physical tools to warrant rotational roles.  Whether or not they can translate that potential into meaningful roles remains to be seen.

If Finau and/or Turpin fade, then it will most likely be due to the emergence of two young players in Bowman and J. Johnson. Bowman is a long and lean prospect out of Bellevue that a lot of local fans are interested in seeing.  Johnson was Petersen's first "flipped" commit when he came over from BSU and is a hybrid prospect who could play DE, BUCK or even MLB.  While neither projects as a pure pass rusher type of player, both are considered strong and have potential as edge-setters for Choate's line.

Freshmen Arriving in the Fall:

Benning Potoa'e DE 6'4", 265 lbs
Bryce Sterk DE 6'5", 230 lbs
Ricky McCoy DT 6'4", 275 lbs
Jason Scrempos DE 6'6", 250 lbs


Final Thoughts Going Into Spring

Change is hard.  Replacing Seniors his hard.  Husky fans are facing a complete overhaul of one of the most accomplished defensive lines in the history of the program and what was clearly the best unit on an average team a year ago.  Needless to say, we'll all be looking for signs of life coming from the next generation of defensive bigs this spring.  And don't think that fans are the only ones concerned.  In a recent interview with SI.com, Petersen himself signaled some concern noting that he has more confidence in the OLine than the DLine as of now.

I don't expect much to be revealed in terms of scheme or strategy throughout spring practice.  In fact, I half expect that the current DLinemen will be handled with kid gloves as the staff tries to preserve the health of this young and not deep unit going into the fall.  Still, we should expect to see a pecking order emerge and certain roles get defined.  We'll also very likely get some entertaining quotes from Qualls and Choate.

That, alone, will be worth the price of admission.