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Better/Worse/Neutral: Rush Defense

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With 6 of 7 starters gone from last year's front, does the Husky defense have any hope of matching - or exceeding - last year's production vs. the run?

DT Elijah Qualls will be counted on to plug the middle
DT Elijah Qualls will be counted on to plug the middle
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Key Losses: Danny Shelton (NT), Evan Hudson (DT), Andrew Hudson (DE), Hau'oli Kikaha (BUCK), John Timu (MLB), Shaq Thompson (OLB)

Key Additions: Vita Vea (NT), Greg Gaines (NT), Benning Potoa'e (DE/DT), Justiss Warren (LB), Kyler Manu (LB), Ezekiel Turner (S)

Before we can really assess how effective the rush defense will be for the Huskies in 2015, we have to agree on how good they were last year.  By standard metrics like avg. yards per rush and avg. yards per game, the Huskies looked pretty good, limiting teams to 3.28 ypr (14th nationally, 2nd in the conference) and 124.1 ypg (22nd nationally, 2nd in the conference).  However you have to account for the fact that in college football, sacks are counted as running plays (which doesn't seem very logical when you think about it).  But even though the Huskies benefited from a tremendous pass rush with 52 sacks totaling 297 yards, they actually ranked first in the conference in ypr and second in ypg when you take away sacks.  On the other hand, by S&P (which attempts to factor in opponent quality among other things) the Huskies fall to 7th in the conference and 51st in the country vs. the run.

Let's split the difference for the sake of argument and say they were good against the run, but not great.  That feels about right based off of what we witnessed last year - Hawaii, Stanford, Oregon, UCLA and Colorado all had effective run games against us.

With the massive losses from the starting front seven - including arguably the top NT in the country in Danny Shelton - it's easy to assume that this aspect of the defense takes a step back.  But the Huskies return more experience than you might think when you consider the number of starts between Travis Feeney, Keishawn Bierria and Cory Littleton.  And along the DL guys like Elijah Qualls, Tani Tupou and JoJo Mathis got a lot of reps as the new coaching staff was much more liberal with their substitution patterns.

There's also a lot of physical talent along the front.  Qualls, Mathis and Will Dissly all flashed at times last year, redshirts such as Vita Vea and Greg Gaines impressed at times this spring (when healthy) and guys like Azeem Victor, Benning Potoa'e, Justiss Warren and Sean Constantine all have the physical traits that suggest they could step up.  Add in another year of getting bigger and stronger in the secondary and the addition of a big-time thumper in JC transfer safety Zeke Turner and you have the ingredients for a defense that could surprise folks as run-stoppers.

Verdict: Worse - but not by much.  And by 2016 I think there's good reason to think they could be better.  Qualls is not the same kind of two-gap plugger that Shelton was, but he's got superb quickness and the ability to get upfield to disrupt the run before it has a chance to get going.  If Vea is healthy, he's got enormous potential matching his impressive size and strength and would be an ideal NT that could allow Qualls and his quickness to spend more time at the 3T.  Victor has the size and athleticism to add his name to the list of recent Husky NFL linebackers.  Dissly has shown his potential to be a real factor off the edge as has Mathis.  And while Budda Baker is undersized at safety, he plays bigger than he is and his speed allows him to close off running angles quickly.