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Washington Huskies 2016 Spring Football Previews: Defensive Line

Washington’s defensive line returns nearly every starter from a 2015 unit that proved to be dramatically better than most observers expected. Today, we take a look at which key contributors might ensure that upward trend continues into next season.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

2015 Year in Review

The Huskies entered last season’s fall camp needing to replace all four of their starters across the 2014 defensive line: Nose tackle Danny Shelton, defensive end/BUCK linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha, defensive end Andrew Hudson and defensive tackle Evan Hudson. Shelton and Kikaha had been selected with the 12th and 44th picks in the 2015 NFL Draft; including the Hudsons (no relation), the quartet accounted for 43.0 of the team’s 52.0 sacks (83 percent) and 60.0 of 91.0 tackles for loss (66 percent).

In other words, the Huskies’ defensive line showed all signs of 2015 being the textbook definition of a rebuilding year. So it was only natural when the Dawgs instead showed dramatic improvement, substantially bettering their yards-per-play statistic from 5.38 (51st in the country) to 4.90 (23rd).

Here’s what Chris had to say about the defensive big uglies as we headed into last season’s fall camp:

The D-Line is the most interesting position group to watch this fall. Not only is it stocked with high-level talent in adequate numbers, but the competition level promises to be very high. The bottom line is that even if we knew what players were slotted for which roles, there still wouldn't be a ton of separation among the individuals competing for those spots. It's a D-Line Battle Royale with Jeff Choate playing the role of Mean Gene Okerlund (who I saw in MSP airport last week!).

The hope here is that the competition continues in earnest throughout all of camp and that UW goes into Boise stocked with 8-10 players who are ready for rotational roles and able to man one or two positions each. If that can be achieved, then UW may well surprise the rest of the PAC with their D-Line with both their diversity and their depth.

One of the team’s most impactful new starters was Taniela Tupou, who turned in a swan song of a fifth-year season after Steve Sarkisian’s coaching staff had made it clear he was no longer wanted earlier in his career. Tupou joined sophomore Elijah Qualls in anchoring the defensive line’s interior, starting all 13 games and tallying 5.5 tackles for loss. Meanwhile, Joe Mathis continued to blossom into a credible pass-rushing and run-stopping option at defensive end, presaging his move to outside linebacker this spring as the prohibitive favorite to replace Travis Feeney at the BUCK position.

Players Lost, Players Returning

Name Position Height Weight Year
Shane Bowman DT 6-4 290 So.
John Clark DL 6-4 271 RFr.
Greg Gaines NT 6-2 318 So.
Jaylen Johnson DT 6-3 285 So.
Ricky McCoy DL 6-2 302 RFr.
Benning Potoa'e DL 6-3 271 RFr.
Jared Pulu DL 6-4 260 RFr.
Elijah Qualls NT 6-1 321 Jr.
Jason Scrempos DL 6-6 279 RFr.
Damion Turpin DT 6-3 284 Sr.
Vita Vea NT 6-5 329 So.

Unlike last spring, the Washington defensive line is returning a load of known quantities, with Tupou being the only major contributor from last season who won’t return to the team in 2016. (Also gone is defensive end Jarett Finau, who saw action in six games last year.) At nose tackle, Qualls figures to continue his ascension into becoming the unit’s primary anchor, and he’s backed by quality depth in the form of two 300-pound redshirt sophomores in Gaines and Vea. Redshirt sophomore and 2015 second-stringer Johnson is the favorite to succeed the defensive tackle position vacated by Tupou, though he’ll be challenged by Turpin and Bowman.

Perhaps the defensive line’s most intriguing position battle will take place at defensive end, following Mathis’ move to the linebacker corps. All three players listed at defensive end in last season’s bowl game depth chart have either graduated (Finau) or changed position (Mathis and Will Dissly, who has switched to lining up at tight end), making this a wide-open race for the starting role and the depth behind it.

Story Lines to Watch

Will Qualls elevate himself from an above-average player to superstar?
For four years, Husky fans were spoiled by eventual first-round draft pick Danny Shelton, who barrel-rolled his way into our hearts and opponents’ backfields. In 2015, Elijah Qualls failed to garner so much as an all-Pac-12 honorable mention, and for now, he seems like the best-kept secret on the Washington defense that rated as the nation’s 23rd-best, as measured by yards per play. A strong 2016 season could earn him first-team all-conference (and possibly all-American) consideration, and we’d likely see the first signs of that this spring.

Who fills in at defensive end?
Joe Mathis’ move to outside linebacker leaves a vacuum at defensive end, and there’s precious little evidence among the likely players to succeed him for either the media or the coaches to use in projecting who will step up to the challenge. In that sense, this spring’s practices will be huge in terms of establishing a pecking order among the position’s three-deep. Based on recruiting evaluations and the whispers that echoed out of bowl practices, it seems reasonable to think that Potoa’e and Scrempos have the inside track to the starting and primary backup jobs, respectively, but don’t count out true freshman Levi Onwuzurike once he arrives in the fall.

Will we see a return to the accumulation of gaudy statistics?
In 2014, nose tackle Danny Shelton (93 tackles, 9.0 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss) and defensive end/BUCK linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha (19.0 sacks and 25.0 tackles for loss) put up ungodly numbers that are far outside the norm for what Washington fans are used to seeing at those positions. Despite the 2015 defense improving its statistical ranking over the 2014 team, no player managed to put up flashy statistics in the way we saw Shelton and Kikaha accomplish. Will any one or two players "pop" in 2016 the way Shelton and Kikaha did, or will next season be another "more than the sum of its parts" defense akin to what we saw last year?