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UW Fall Camp 2015 Preview: Defensive Line

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It's a whole gaggle of young pups that will be manning the defensive line of scrimmage for Washington in 2015.

Introducing the new face of the Huskies defensive line.
Introducing the new face of the Huskies defensive line.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

No single unit anywhere on the Huskies roster is going through more of an overhaul in 2015 than the Defensive Line.  Husky fans are well aware of what has been lost:  the NCAA's leading sack man (and UW all-time record holder) in Hau'oli Kikaha, the top DT in the NFL Draft in Danny Shelton, and senior leader and top 10 sack man in his own right in Andrew Hudson.  Mix in steady Evan Hudson and you have a lot of beef to swap out.

If there is a bright side, it is that at least the Hudson bothers won't have to hear the term "Hudson brothers" any more.

If there is another bright side, an imbalanced Husky two-deep where there was a huge gap between the first teamers and the youthful second teamers is now a much more balanced group of big, strong, mean and fast Dawgs.  Let's make no mistake, these pups are still young.  But they are growing up and will have the opportunity to forge a new legacy and restore luster to the recently-faded tradition of being a Husky lineman.

But first they need to sort out who is going to play where when they strap 'em on for real.  That's the challenge facing the Husky coaching staff this fall.  Let's take a closer look.

Who's Gone (5)

Name Position Sacks TFLs Tackles
Hau'oli Kikaha LB/DE 19 25 72
Danny Shelton NT 9 16.5 93
Evan Hudson DT 2.5 3 31
Andrew Hudson DE 12.5 15.5 77
Drew Schultz DT -- -- 2
Total
43 60 275

There is no question that the Huskies are losing a tremendous amount of production from the 2014 team.  The players departing the program played roughly 80% of the DL snaps for UW last year and recorded an even-higher percentage of the stats for the group.  These guys logged sacks, crushed the pocket, held up the edges and protected the young secondary by creating their own pressure without the need for blitzing.

It will be very difficult to replace the leadership of those seniors.

But it was their example that sets the tone for the next generation of young linemen.  Whether we are talking about A-Hud's perseverance, Shelton's emotional leadership, or Kikaha's dedication to technical excellence with his hands and his motor, the impact of the 2014 graduates will be felt this spring as the returning players emulate the habits of their predecessors.

Returning Players (9)

Name Position Year Tackles Sacks
Elijah Qualls DT RSo 13 --
Joe Mathis LB/DE Jr 16 2
Willy Dissly DE Soph 2 --
Taniela Tupou DT RSr 14 --
Damion Turpin DE RJr -- --
Vita Vea DT RFr -- --
Jaylen Johnson LB/DE RFr -- --
Shane Bowman DE RFr -- --
Jarret Finau DE RSr 7 1
Total

52 3

The theme for the Defensive Line this fall is "Everything is On the Table".  From my vantage point, there will not be a set starter in any single position when camp opens.

How's that for a little fall camp position battle drama?

The big thing that jumps out at Husky fans as they look at the roster is the breadth and balance of the players returning.  While none are exactly "accomplished", there is a nice balance of players - in terms of size, experience and differentiating skills - across the classes and position groupings.  We haven't seen this kind of diversity to open a fall camp in a very long time.

Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of "knowns" for anybody, coaches included, to bank on.  On one hand, there are veterans like Tupou, Finau and Turpin who will be looking for one last chance to work themselves into the rotation.  On another, there are a few young guys like Qualls, Dissly and Mathis who all flashed a year ago but have no real set position as of now.  Finally, there is a slew of young guys - all with high upside - who will be looking to make their marks as redshirt freshmen.  Count Vea, Gaines, Bowman and Johnson among that crowd.

More on UW's Defensive Line

Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski and DL Coach Jeff Choate will be looking to really ratchet up the competition this spring.  Look for them to continue their spring time experimentation with guys at different positions and for plenty of orchestrated competitive drills.  Just don't expect any immediate answers.  Husky fans are likely to get very little guidance on how the starting lineup will play out before the Huskies open in Boise on 9/4.

Newcomers (3)

Name Height Weight Star Rating Expected to Redshirt?
Benning Potoa'e 6-4 270 4* No
Bryce Sterk 6-5 230 2* Yes
Jason Scrempos 6-6 240 3* Yes

The Huskies loaded up on big, long defensive lineman in the 2015 signing class.  The headliner of the group is man-child Benning Potoa'e.  Given his size and the skills he has put on film, most experts find it difficult to believe that the Huskies will be able to keep him off the field this season, especially if he can emerge as a legit 3T style end.  There is plenty of depth in front of him and whether or not he can overcome it this fall is a storyline to watch.

Both Sterk and Scrempos bring to the table a versatile set of skills and the kind of physical capabilities that pop both on film and with the "eyeball test".  Both players have tremendous motors and bring an element of "grit" to the table.  These guys both epitomize the Petersen preference for "hard-nosed" and "under-valued" players.  While the odds would seem to be stacked against them playing in 2015, a huge fall from either of them could change that equation.  Scrempos - a strong kid with long levers - is a particularly intriguing prospect.

Players to Watch

JoJo Mathis

The biggest challenge that the Huskies will have in replicating the production of the 2014 line is sourcing a pass rush.  Kwiatkowski has demonstrated that he'd prefer - as would most coaches - to keep an extra defender back in coverage assuming that his D-Line can generate its own pressure on the QB.  That role was more than adequately manned by Hau'oli Kikaha a year ago with Danny Shelton providing a lot of opportunities with how he attracted double teams.

Enter JoJo Mathis.

The Dawgs don't have any obvious candidates when it comes to future pass rushers.  While guys like Dissly and Bowman certainly could develop that skill, there aren't any guys who have actually shown it in games.  That is, except for Mathis.

Whether he does it out of a stand-up BUCK role or with a hand in the dirt, Mathis is going to be leaned on to get past opposing tackles and to harass QBs.  His success in this role is vital.  Whether or not he can demonstrate it this fall is a critical situation to watch.

Predicted Two-Deeps*

*this is a total WAG (wild-ass guess), so please take it as such

BUCK: Mathis (Wooching and Littleton will be reviewed with the LBs)

NG: Qualls, Gaines OR Vea

SDE:  Tupou OR Dissly OR Potoa'e

WDE:  Dissly, Bowman OR Johnson OR Finau

How do you like that for putting a stake in the ground?

Closing Thoughts

The D-Line is the most interesting position group to watch this fall.  Not only is it stocked with high-level talent in adequate numbers, but the competition level promises to be very high.  The bottom line is that even if we knew what players were slotted for which roles, there still wouldn't be a ton of separation among the individuals competing for those spots.  It's a D-Line Battle Royale with Jeff Choate playing the role of Mean Gene Okerlund (who I saw in MSP airport last week!).

The hope here is that the competition continues in earnest throughout all of camp and that UW goes into Boise stocked with 8-10 players who are ready for rotational roles and able to man one or two positions each.  If that can be achieved, then UW may well surprise the rest of the PAC with their D-Line with both their diversity and their depth.