Option #1: Joe Mathis
I went back and forth between Mathis and sophomore Will Dissly here. They’re both relentless and high intensity players who figure to shoulder most of the pass rushing load in 2015. They have a tough act to follow, and I give Joe Mathis the edge for his one extra year in the program. Plus, with how much the starters played last year (all of whom are now gone), anyone that gets a handful of snaps this year will be a "breakout" player. Mathis was one of former coach Tosh Lupoi’s bigger recruiting wins, and has gotten limited reps along the D line the last two years. He will feature prominently this season at one of the defensive end spots in Washington’s 3-4 defense. He also spent a lot of time in practice at the buck position, but with Travis Feeney seemingly inheriting that role, it is unclear how much Mathis will be asked to drop back in coverage. Either way, Mathis has always been a confident player, and if he is feeling good about his game, it will come through in his play. He’s ready for the spotlight, and there’s certainly plenty of it after Washington lost so much talent on defense to the NFL draft and graduation. When he saw action last season he was tenacious off the edge, and typically impressed. He could very well be poised for a double digit sack season if he takes the next step – he certainly has the size and non-stop motor to do so.
Option #2: Azeem Victor
RS Sophomore, MLB
Fans have been waiting years for Azeem Victor to assume the middle linebacker position at Washington. He was a little known recruit coming out of high school, uncovered by LB Coach Peter Sirmon who flipped him from San Diego State. Very raw, he had a tantalizing combination of size, strength and speed, not to mention an aggressive nature on the field. Now in his 3rd year in the program, reports out of practice have touted his big, crushing hits, and now it’s time for him to show the team he can step up and be the quarterback of the defense. Taking over for John Timu’s experience and headiness is no small task, and Azeem will have his hands full. He’s shown on special teams (two big tackles in the Apple Cup last year) he can be reliable, and that kind of play usually translates to defensive proficiency. He was here and there last year, flashing occasionally, but now is his time to explode onto the scene. If his football IQ can match his physical abilities, there is no doubt in my mind he will perform at a very high level.
Option #3: Ezekiel Turner
Zeke Turner is your wildcard. He’s a junior college transfer, who brings size and big hitting to the safety spot. A full qualifier out of high school, he chose to attend a JC to improve his recruiting stock and get some more Division 1 offers. It worked, as Washington had to beat out Oklahoma, Arizona State, and Illinois to secure his services on the field. Turner will probably split some time with JoJo McIntosh, but by mid-season I expect him to be the full time starter. While it’s far from DI ball, his experience at the JC level is more than McIntosh can claim, and his size will help Washington match up against the bevy of playmakers and big receivers in the Pac 12. He’s a great in the box type of safety and his experience, albeit at a JC, will be needed in a still relatively young secondary. The latest news however is that he has a broken finger, so it is unclear how healthy he will be in two weeks to start against Boise State. If he’s ready to go, expect him to surprise with his physical play.
This might be a shock to many, but I’m going with Ezekiel Turner. A good season from him and he’ll definitely fit the "breakout" tag, since he’s a virtual unknown heading into the season. Anyone playing alongside Budda Baker has to benefit right? Budda’s range will free up Turner to fly around and be the thumper he has a reputation for being. You don’t sign JC players to have them stay on the bench, so Zeke is going to play quite a bit. I thought Darren Gardenhire could be a good choice as the breakout candidate in the secondary, but Turner is the only player on defense who fills the role of the big, physical, strong safety. If he’s healthy and good to go, expect a big season from the first year JC transfer.