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2017 Spring Preview: Defensive Line

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I’m starting with the man in the middle.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

(credit to Kevin Cacabellos for the preliminary work on this preview)

This preview will focus strictly on the interior tackle positions, even though the defensive scheme essentially calls for those on the roster listed as “outside linebackers” to effectively play as defensive ends. They were covered in Chris Landon’s linebacker preview earlier.

The interior of the Husky defensive line was seen as a bona fide strength heading into last fall. In a result that should surprise no one, the interior tackle positions for the Huskies dominated from the first game of the season on. If there was anything that might raise eyebrows, it was the depth of the line, running four and later five deep at these two positions, and the willingness to use it.

2016 in Review

Junior Elijah Qualls and sophomore Greg Gaines started every game for the Huskies in 2016. With sophomore Jaylen Johnson out or limited the first third of the year, sophomore Vita Vea and senior Damien Turpin were integrated in quickly each game. Frequently together in a hockey-style rotation, but often it was Vea who played nearly as many snaps as the starters each week. Johnson’s time increased steadily as the season wore on, and he was a crucial piece of the defense in the Peach Bowl, when the Huskies utilized a big lineup that saw Qualls playing one of the end/outside linebacker positions much of the game.

Qualls and Gaines both turned in superlative seasons. Their versatility (and really, that statement holds true for all five members of the rotation) was a big key why; because either could suitably man the middle as well as act as the primary playmaker in the interior, the line could play “sides” as opposed to having to adjust to the opponent’s offensive alignment. With the number of opponents that don’t huddle on offense, this was invaluable. All five players spent time playing the 1-3 tech tackle positions, and Qualls, Gaines and Vea all took at least a few snaps as a “true nose tackle” 0 tech.

Qualls was rewarded with first-team recognition on the all-Pac 12 team. Johnson was actually ahead of Vea on the depth chart heading in to the first game, until a leg injury sidelined him. Vea made the most of the opportunity, and his power and surprising athleticism for a man that weighs nearly 350 pounds earned him second-team all-conference honors. Greg Gaines may feel slightly snubbed, as he was “only” honorable mention. Frankly, he deserved more.

All told, these five men sharing two positions combined for 13.5 sacks (led by 5 from Vea) and 24 tackles for lost yardage (led by 8 from Gaines). Considering the veritable smorgasbord of double teams they ate all season long from the opposition, that’s fantastic production.

Here for the Spring of 2017

Untitled

Name Class Height Weight
Name Class Height Weight
Vita Vea RJr 6' 5" 344
Jared Pulu RSo 6' 4" 270
John Clark RSo 6' 4" 279
Ricky McCoy RSo 6' 3" 292
Jaylen Johnson RJr 6' 3" 287
Levi Onwuzurike RFr 6' 3" 274
Shane Bowman RJr 6' 4" 308
Jason Scrempos RSo 6' 6" 275
Greg Gaines RJr 6' 3" 321

It’s fairly safe to assume that Greg Gaines will remain a starter, and that he’ll be joined by Vita Vea. As mentioned, Johnson’s snaps, effectiveness, and production all increased as the season wore on, and he’s certain to be in the first wave of substitutes. Up for grabs is the “Damien Turpin” role - the man that emerges from semi-obscurity to become a regular part of the rotation and a consistent, valuable, contributor.

This is a big spring for Ricky McCoy and Shane Bowman to state their respective cases. Bowman got some garbage time snaps in 2016, and has added a fair bit of weight. McCoy has yet to really make a mark, but that shouldn’t be a complete surprise given the depth and experience in front of him. That he was seemingly passed over for in the blowout wins by walk-on John Clark may raise some eyebrows, but giving time to a walk-on in meaningless non-conference games is a reward and not a total surprise, even at the expense of a scholarship player.

Fans should be excited to see what Levi Onwuzurike brings. Even though he isn’t currently the ideal size for the position, he was a highly recruited player that was thought to be suited for a weak side end role out of high school; that of a speed rusher. He’s continued to grow, and has earned praise for his work along the interior. He’s a fantastic athlete, and if he can get up to the Mendoza Line-ish mark of 290 lbs or so in the next year, could be a special player.

Storylines for Spring

Depth

Can someone emerge as the heir apparent to Damien Turpin’s fourth tackle role? If so, who? It’s tough to make any definitive statements from spring practices, as the pecking order will continue to evolve through the fall and likely in to the season. But we’ll see if anyone takes the lead to jump in to the rotation.

Versatility

Vita Vea and Greg Gaines both move extremely well for their sizes. But neither is Elijah Qualls when it comes to being a quick-off-the-ball disruptive force. Does that change what the Huskies do with their tackles? Probably not, but - Is there a chance the coaches keep one of them on the bench to pair up as a second line of defense?

Who Can Make a Mark

Jason Scrempos, McCoy, Bowman, Onwuzurike, Clark, Pulu....Is one of them ready to break out?

The Huskies find themselves in better version of what played out in 2015. Three starters left from the year before, fans were optimistic about what Qualls had done with his opportunities, but the rest was mostly unknown. A lightly-recruited kid from La Habra, CA burst on to the scene in the form of Greg Gaines, and the staff showed a willingness to play (at critical moments, even) guys that fans didn’t know a thing about. This year, the Huskies return their 1B and 1C starters, have some optimism about a key backup, and hope that a couple of the other guys emerge as the year wears on. Nothing is going to be settled this spring, but hopefully we hear about the emergence of a couple of young pups forcing their way on to the field.