It must be fun to be UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski. Coming off a 2015 season where the Huskies led the Pac-12 in scoring defense and total defense, Coach K welcomes back all but four main members of that stellar D. He also has new toys at his disposal in the form of highly recruited freshmen and gifted redshirts. The defensive line may be the strongest part of the UW defensive unit, and that is really saying something when you consider the quality of the linebacking corps and a secondary that returns two first-team All-Pac-12 players.
What makes the defensive line so strong is the combination of star players at the top of the depth chart and quality players below.
Key Losses: Taniela Tupou (37 tackles, 5.5 TFL)
Returning: Elijah Qualls, Jr (6'1" 321); Vita Vea, So (6'5" 329); Damion Turpin, So (6'3" 284); Jaylen Johnson, So (6'3" 285); Shane Bowman, So (6'4" 290); Greg Gaines, So (6'2" 318)
2015 Redshirts: Benning Potoa'e (6'3" 271), Ricky McCoy (6'2" 302), Jared Pulu (6'4" 260), Jason Scrempos (6'6" 279), John Clark (6'4" 271)
Incoming Freshmen: Levi Onwuzurike (6'4" 262)
Taniela Tupou seemingly came out of nowhere last season to have an All-Pac-12 senior campaign. He led all Husky defensive linemen in tackles and tackles for loss. Coach K loves the 2-down lineman set, and Tupou was lethal when paired with Elijah Qualls in those sets. There was also plenty of Greg Gaines paired with Qualls, and Jaylen Johnson played his fair share in the 2-down alignment with Qualls, Gaines, or Vita Vea. Johnson dominated the Spring Preview, and the redshirt sophomore is poised for a big year. Shane Bowman and Damion Turpin add solid depth and both are capable of surprising people this year, especially when the opposition has to double-team at least one of the other beasts.
With Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton gone, the defensive line may be asked to fill their void in some capacity. It was often the two senior linebackers who flanked the interior defenders to complete the outside of the front four. Neither Feeney nor Littleton played with a hand on the ground the way Hau'oli Kikaha did as a pass-rushing end, and this season we may see Joe Mathis playing more of a Kikaha-style "Buck." It's about getting your best players on the field, and it's hard to imagine that doesn't include Mathis, Qualls, Gaines, and Johnson in the game simultaneously. Qualls is athletic enough to stand outside and rush, something we saw from Will Dissly at times last season. 321 lbs twisting inside? That's pretty crazy.
Versatility: that's what this unit has. There are many, many different combinations at the disposal of the coaching staff. I couldn't believe my eyes last season during the second half of the Heart of Dallas Bowl when I saw Vea and Qualls side by side as a two-man front on passing downs. They bull-rushed the interior line while Littleton, Feeney, Psalm Wooching and Co. attacked from the outside. The same can be done with Gaines and Vea, or Qualls and Gaines...or all three.
There is also plenty of defensive line talent that we have yet to see in game action. The most decorated of the group is Benning Potoa'e, a 4-star recruit and the #1 overall player from the state of Washington in 2015. Potoa'e has a non-stop motor and great chasedown ability in short distances, but he had a tendency to play upright in high school, probably because he could get away with it. Redshirting last season gave the coaches an opportunity to teach him how to play low.
Jason Scrempos spent his redshirt season getting bigger, gaining 40 pounds to beef up his 6'6" frame from the 240 lbs he played at in high school. Ricky McCoy projects as the 4th nose tackle. He's about the same weight as he was in high school where he looked like a man among boys on tape, literally toppling blockers. I'm inclined to believe that during his year in the weight room he has improved on the 450 lbs he was squatting as an 18-year-old. Jared Pulu walked on at UW last season and is up from the 220 lbs he was at Federal Way. If he is still running a 4.7 40-yd dash at 6'4" 260, he's got some potential. John Clark turned down scholarships to attend UW as a preferred walk-on and his vitals show that he is a very strong kid, squatting 505 lbs in high school.
The lone defensive lineman in the 2016 recruiting class, Levi Onwuzurike, could be headed for a redshirt season. It's not due to a lack of talent; the 4-star out of Allen, Tx has plenty of that. At 6'4" and 260 coming out of high school, size isn't a problem for the young DE either. There is just so much depth at the defensive line position for UW.
The Verdict: Better
I was tempted to go "neutral" on this position group, simply because it was so good last season. Allowing less than 3.4 yards per rush was tied with Utah for the best in the conference, so if we said this defensive line group was going to perform the same as last year that's hardly a critique. The defensive line was nearly void of injury in 2015. Qualls missed a few games, but besides that the unit was healthy. The position also loses its coach with Jeff Choate taking the head coaching job at Montana State. Former UW standout Ikaika Malloe takes over after spending the past two seasons coaching a very stingy Utah State defensive line.
According to basic college football metrics, young players get better in their second and third seasons. Qualls enters his third year and is a budding superstar, and now Pro Football Focus has pissed him off by not naming him one of the 101 best players in the country.
13 DE's and 14 DT's better than me in this country? Fasho— Elijah Qualls (@ElijahQualls11) July 11, 2016
Gaines earned All Pac-12 honorable mention as a freshman, and also earned the nickname "Greg Effing Gaines" around these parts for his savage play. Fellow sophomore Vea is down a few pounds from last season where he showed flashes of pure dominance. During his freshman season, Johnson subbed in admirably for Tupou and appears ready to be a star. The improvement of those three, in addition to returning depth in Bowman and Turpin, should be enough to offset the loss of Tupou. Getting great play out of Potoa'e or any of the other newcomers should make the "better" verdict a slam dunk in 2016.