The 2014 Washington Huskies featured a defensive unit which was arguably the school's best since 1991 and helped the team to an 8-6 mark in Chris Petersen's first year as head coach. By contrast, the 2015 edition of the Husky defensive unit might need name tags to identify themselves to fellow players and coaches. The team lost four defensive standouts in the first 44 picks of the NFL draft and will now have an entirely new look on the front seven, which will also change to more of a pure 3-4 scheme this year.
Players responsible for 45 of the teams 52 sacks last season are now gone, including Hau'oli Kikaha, the nation's leader in sacks (19) in 2014. With returning players accounting for only seven sacks a season ago it is a fair question to ask -- which Husky will step up and lead the team in the category this year? We offer some suggestions and a final prediction here in the latest edition of the 30 day countdown.
Option #1- Taniela Tupou (DT)
The eldest of the new look front for Washington, senior Taniela Tupou has seen action in every Husky game the last two seasons, but has largely been shuffled down the depth chart in his first three seasons. Is there more to Tupou than his 40 career tackles would indicate, or has the proverbial ceiling been reached? The Washington local will get a chance to make 2015 his personal proving ground with the departure of several other highly talented Husky linemen.
At 6'2", 290 pounds Tupou is physically gifted and strong. His strength could give his average speed a needed compliment when it comes to beating offensive linemen to get to the quarterback when needed, even from the tackle position. With limited action in his first three seasons, Tupou remains a bit of an unknown, but his talent earned him a Rivals.com 6th overall ranking in the state of Washington during the recruiting process -- a positive note to Husky fans everywhere.
Option #2- Joe Mathis (LB/DE)
Mathis enters 2015 as the only returning Husky with more than one sack last season, and just barely, as he registered two, along with 16 tackles. A season ago Mathis was used more as a pure lineman instead of linebacker. This season he is expected to assume the role of hybrid linebacker -- the role filled by the departing Kikaha and his Husky record 19 sacks. Washington would obviously be satisfied with a fraction of that output from the junior Mathis.
One thing that could hinder Mathis' ability to accumulate sacks at such a frantic pace is also what could benefit the defensive unit the most. Mathis is a versatile player in a defensive scheme that is attempting to switch to an equally versatile 3-4 look. Mathis will be counted on to do more than simply chase the quarterback. He will also be tasked with stopping opposing running backs and helping in pass coverage. Still, with the defense expecting to move from a dominant player formula to a more "team" effort, Mathis could find himself near the leader in sacks for the Huskies this season.
Option #3- Jaylen Johnson (DE/LB)
After originally committing to Boise State, defensive end Jaylen Johnson followed coach Chris Petersen to Washington, and the redshirt freshman will now have an opportunity to prove himself to Husky fans. The youngest of the projected front three for the Huskies, much is expected of the former three-star recruit in 2015.
Standing 6'3", 240 pounds, Johnson is surprisingly quick for a defensive end, the position he was converted to in high school from linebacker. Johnson is a physical end, also capable of running a 40-yard dash in under five seconds, and boasts a work ethic that should endear him to Husky fans early on. If the redshirt freshman can combine his physical and mental tools in 2015 he could be in for an outstanding upcoming season.
Option #4- Elijah Qualls (DT/DE)
Like several other player on the Washington defense, Elijah Qualls has been waiting in the wings behind upperclassmen that have since departed for the NFL. Qualls was understudy to Danny Shelton, now of the Cleveland Browns, but is now projected as starting none-tackle for the Huskies this season. Short glimpses at Qualls in 2014 showed the potential for the sophomore to be a solid contributor in a future that is now the present.
Qualls is physically imposing at over 300 pounds, but is also deceptively fast, and fits the new Washington goal of a diverse defense. While penciled in at defensive tackle Qualls could see time at end as well, and is still versatile enough to get to the quarterback from the tackle position as well. Should he be able to combine his size and quickness he could potentially carve out a niche as the next top threat to opposing quarterbacks and team sack leader.
Verdict- Elijah Qualls and Joe Mathis (Tie)
Too close to call, two players emerging from the shadows of defensive stalwarts, Qualls and Mathis will tie for the team lead in sacks -- with seven or eight apiece. Qualls has the skill set to emerge as the anchor of the Washington front seven, whether as a tackle or end, and Mathis should benefit from playing a similar role to Kikaha last season. No one player will replace the sack production of Kikaha in 2015, the team will instead have to rely on a committee style of defense. Several players should approach a handful of sacks this season, with Qualls and Mathis leading the way.
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