Every season in August we like to take a look ahead at the upcoming football season and give our predictions about how the team will perform compared to the previous year with our Better/Worse/Neutral series. In the spirit of accountability, with the season concluded it's time to take a look back at those predictions and see how accurate they were. Next up is our look at the Husky run defense.
Here's what we said
From our article back on August 6th, this was our conclusion:
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.
How did we do?
We missed on this one. The run defense was actually better this year (a year ahead of schedule by my prediction). Last year the defense allowed 1,737 yards on 529 carries for a 3.28 yard average. But when you take sacks out of the equation (in college football sacks are counted as runs), they allowed 2,034 yards on 477 carries for a 4.26 yard average. Decent, but not dominating by any means. S&P ranked the Huskies 43rd in rushing defense last year. This year the base numbers were 1,629 yards allowed on 495 carries for a 3.29 yard average, but thanks to fewer sacks the true numbers were 1,837 yards allowed on 461 carries for a 3.98 yard average - a definite improvement. S&P thought so too, ranking this year's group 20th in rushing defense.
For as much hype as there was around the Husky defense last year with the draft picks and whatnot, they were good but not great against the run - their best attribute was their ability to get after the quarterback. Danny Shelton was a beast in the middle and Hau'oli Kikaha did a very good job setting an edge, but Andrew Hudson's best trait was his pass rush, especially with the attention opposing OL had to pay to Shelton and Kikaha.
Even with the departure of all four starting defensive linemen (I'm including Kikaha here) and two of the three starting linebackers, this year's defense had more quality depth along the front seven. Elijah Qualls may not be quite the run-stuffer than Shelton was, but he's quite good, and his backup Greg Gaines may be even better. Add in quality reps from the immensely talented Vita Vea and that's a group of nose tackles that would be the envy of 99% of the rest of college football. Taniela Tupou broke out with a terrific senior season, one that earned him All Pac-12 Defense 2nd Team honors. Azeem Victor stepped into the vacancy at MLB with John Timu off to the NFL, and showed himself to be the next Husky NFL prospect at LB with a great season. Kieshawn Bierria was improved in his 2nd season of starting, and both Cory Littleton and Travis Feeney were very effective at the OLB positions. Add in quality rotational depth from guys like Joe Mathis, Jaylen Johnson, Will Dissly, Psalm Wooching, Ben Burr-Kirven, Scott Lawyer, Tevis Bartlett, and Sean Constantine and it's easy to see why this aspect of the Husky defense improved. And we haven't even mentioned the secondary - guys like Budda Baker, Sidney Jones, Kevin King, and JoJo McIntosh all showed they can be physical defenders against the run game.
While replacing Feeney and Littleton may be tough, there's a wealth of experienced talent returning and some exciting youngsters ready to join the depth (Benning Potoa'e, Jason Scrempos, Ricky McCoy, D.J. Beavers, Jusstis Warren). The future looks bright for the defense, and the run defense could be even better next year.