The best defense statistically in the Pac 12 in 2015 only loses four key contributors next season. That's great news. But of those four, three were all-conference selections. Today we evaluate who's gone, and some players that are in line to help replace them.
DL Taniela Tupou 6'2" 288 (37 Tackles, 5.5 TFL, 0 sacks)
I have to be honest, I had no idea who this guy was entering the season. Just another DL with a hard name to pronounce who rotated through and made some plays (22 tackles in his first 3 years combined). But as I go back and re-watch games from 2015, I can see why he was a 2nd-team All-Pac 12 selection. He ate up blocks and was constantly wreaking havoc in the backfield. Despite how good Tupou was, I get a little excited thinking about who will help fill his void. The list is long and impressive, and since he lined up over the guard and outside the tackle, I get to mention more possible players. I know I am leaving guys out, but that is what the comments section is for.
Candidates (a.k.a. a chance to brag about the depth of this Defensive Line, and leaving out Vita Vea because he is the size of two people):
Elijah Qualls 6'1" 311 Jr (26 Tackles, 4.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks)
Okay, I'm cheating here. Qualls is Qualls and isn't replacing anyone. But when he was out, we got to see what the defense looked like without him. It wasn't as good. So if we are being literal and saying "who will replace Tupou as an All-conference DT," then this is the player. And he's really not just a Nose-guy anymore. Watch the bowl game and notice on passing downs the Qualls/ Vea combo in the middle. Deadly.
Greg Gaines 6'1" 310 So (28 Tackles, 1 TFL, 0 Sacks)
Sorry, that's Greg Effing Gaines. Yeah, I know; I'm really cheating here. Gaines sure seems like he will be a pure NT, but I just love looking at his corn-fed face stuffed into a too-small helmet, and had to mention him. This dude is just amazing. I was kinda shocked to see that he only had a single TFL last season, but he was really disruptive (and constantly being held). All-Pac 12 D Lineman #2 (and this time it won't be honorable mention).
Jaylen Johnson 6'2" 260 So (9 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 Sack)
Now we get to guys who will actually see an increased role with Tupou's departure. In fact, I may have missed it, but I never saw Jaylen and Tupou in the game at the same time. Johnson's size makes you think he is a pure end who won't play inside, but going back and looking at games, he did line up inside as often as Tupou.. He's a quiet player who I could see with kind of an Andrew Hudson role: you gotta account for too many other guys to pay extra attention to him. He should exploit those one-on-one matchups and put up nice numbers.
Will Dissly 6'4" 277 Jr (8 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 Sack)
Count me among the folks who thought Dissly would be a huge factor in 2015. Fact of the matter is I just didn't realize how many other great DL the Huskies had in waiting. Talk about getting the most out of your playing time; half of his tackles last season were behind the line of scrimmage. He's a versatile guy like Tupou and Qualls, and I think his impact in 2016 will increase quite a bit.
Benning Potoa'e 6'3" 270 (2015: Redshirt)
Just what every Washington opponent was hoping for: the Dawgs rotate in another guy who is hard to block with one man and who will get into the backfield. After Vea crushes your center on one play and Qualls slips the guard and bulldozes him on the next, the UW line goes "small" and in comes this kid fresh off the sideline to say howdy doody to your dizzy quarterback. Can't football season just start already?
LB Travis Feeney 6'4" 226 (56 Tackles, 17.5 TFL, 8 Sacks)
LB Cory Littleton 6'3" 227 (63 Tackles, 11 TFL, 6 Sacks)
For the second straight season, UW loses its top pass rushers. BUCK, Rush End, DE, OLB, even a little Strong Safety; these two seniors were everywhere on defense for the Dawgs in 2015. If we're being honest, every fan is just a little worried about replacing Feeney and Littleton. They had 14 sacks and almost 30 TFL between them. No matter what scheme Pete Kwiatkowski wants to employ, he will need guys who can provide an outside pass rush and drop into coverage. There's no shortage of options, especially when you consider that none of the linebackers are locked into a certain position. While unlikely, even Keishawn Bierria or Azeem Victor could move outside if that is what the coaches deem the best fit. I will be leaving some good players out here (e.g. Bryce Sterk), so trumpet your guy in the comments.
Joe Mathis 6'2" 252, Sr (30 Tackles, 6 TFL, 2 Sacks)
Mathis was the logical choice last season to fill the void left by Hau'oli Kikaha. While he did start most games and play very well in the opener at Boise State, he saw less playing time in subsequent weeks as the Huskies went to a lot of 2- and 3- man Defensive Line sets with Feeney and Littleton flanking them on the outside. Mathis was injured in the USC game and missed the next two, then was eased back into the rotation before finishing the season quite strongly. He's a pure pass-rush end and has decent cover skills for his size. Pencil him in at DE in 2016, but have your eraser handy.
Psalm Wooching 6'4" 236 lbs, Sr (23 Tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 Sacks)
Say what you want about the journeyman former-fullback throat-slasher, but Psalm Wooching makes plays. If I were a betting man like Chris Landon, I'd say the two seniors Mathis and Wooching begin the season with starting roles. The problem with Wooching is that while he has an excellent outside speed rush, he has never developed a spin-move and really has a hard time getting off blocks. He does pretty much everything else quite well. I hope he either puts it all together in his senior year, or he returns to his 2015 role and one of the guys below takes his starting job.
Tevis Bartlett 6'2" 218, So (11 Tackles, 0 TFL, 0 Sacks)
The high school quarterback from Wyoming who put up ridiculous numbers at his 4A school in Cheyenne is an athletic specimen. Anyone who can make the state track and field meet in High Jump, 4x100, and discus has my respect. We didn't get to see him do much in 2015, but the coaching staff liked him enough to have given him snaps on defense as a true freshman, so he will factor into the defensive equation in 2016.
D.J. Beavers 6'1" 211, Rfr (2015: Redshirt)
Okay, now we get to the fun part, and everyone is going to have the player they are high on. (Thanks, Hudl.) For me, it's Beavers. Maybe there are ties at Crespi High School to Todd Graham's ASU staff, because Beavers seemed to know where every play was going immediately. Of course everyone looks fast on their HS tape, and everyone makes a billion tackles. What I noticed about Beavers is how often he gets a guy by only the jersey and rips him to the ground. Now of course that won't fly in college, but with how tight uniforms are now, you must have really strong hands to do that. Strong hands help with shedding blockers. The only knock on Beavers I can think of is: why was he redshirted? I must be missing something, or maybe he just needed to get bigger.
Jusstis Warren 6'1" 239 Rfr (2015: Redshirt)
Another fast linebacker who looks like a man among boys on tape, Warren was also redshirted and could bulk up to DE size by the time he sees the field. I'll let OWW tell everyone in the comments what makes him extra special.
Camilo Eifler 6'2" 215 (True Freshman)
Eifler is probably the best overall athlete on this list. 43" vertical jump? Are you kidding me? His 40 time is good, but his 20 yard shuttle is among the best of any of the linebackers going to any school. He really reminds me of Feeney on tape, right down to his big-play celebration move.
Brandon Wellington 6'0 217 (True Freshman)
Shaq Thompson, anyone? Wellington played an awful lot of safety and scores a long touchdown in every other highlight of an 8-minute reel. He even uses the signature Shaq move "I'm just gonna shoulder you to the ground cuz I can." But like Thompson, he picks his spots to do that. Usually when the ball-carrier doesn't have his shoulders square and is vulnerable.
S Brian Clay 6'1" 207 (65 Tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0.5 Sacks, 0 Int, 1 PD)
This is a little more straightforward than replacing the other three guys; UW just needs a new strong safety. Clay was steady and solid. He was beaten in coverage but made a ton of tackles (3rd on the team) like an SS should. His one (1) Pass Defensed was bettered by every other member of the Legion of Dub (yes, I just made that up, and yes, it is horrible). Even the backups had more than one. I really think the Huskies upgrade this position in 2016, but it's not done until someone plays better than Clay.
JoJo McIntosh 6'0" 196 So (38 Tackles, 1 Int, 2 PD)
McIntosh likely slides in here and gives the Huskies a really good Strong Safety to go with the other 4 studs in the secondary. He played well last season when called upon and with a little more size added in the offseason can become more of an enforcer.
Ben Burr-Kirven 6'0" 201 So (34 Tackles, 1 TFL, 1 Sack)
No fan-driven Husky blog is complete without suggesting the coaches move someone to Strong Safety who is already good at another position. After all, how can they know more about personnel than a guy who accumulates potato chip crumbs on his 2001 Rose Bowl Sweatshirt while watching Hudl videos? Burr-Kirven's coverage skills were excellent at his tiny high school and he would be a really good strong safety. Moving him there isn't totally crazy.
Ezekiel Turner 6'2" 206 Jr (22 tackles)
Turner is more of a big-hit guy than McIntosh, but I'm not sure by how much. He factors in for sure. As does Trevor Walker (5'11" 188 Jr), who returns from a redshirt season follwing a season-ending injury in 2014.