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Better-Worse-Neutral: Washington’s rush defense

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Will UW be as nasty in run defense as they were a year ago?

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington
Greg Gaines crushes running backs.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The numbers don’t lie: UW’s rush defense was pretty nasty in 2016.

You can start with the traditional statistics. Washington surrendered just 3.65 yards per rush in the PAC - tops in the conference and 11th in the nation when plotted against other Power 5 teams. They gave up just 9 rushing plays over 20 yards - tied for fourth in the nation and just three behind Alabama’s leading 6 plays surrendered. Their 16 rushing TDs allowed was a solid performance coming fourth in the conference (behind Colorado, Utah, and Stanford).

The advanced statistics reveal more of the same. UW scored at an elite level in overall rush defense efficiency (as measured by S&P+) and in adjusted line yards - a measurement that shows how well the opposing RB performed against the tacklers once the performance of the o-line is normalized. The latter of which shows how far UW has come in areas such as play recognition and wrap-up tackling.

As good as UW was, there are clear opportunities for improvement from last year. While we probably can’t ask for more in terms of big play containment, we can look for more consistency. Games against Arizona, USC, Colorado and Alabama stand in stark contrast to other more dominating efforts put up against teams like Stanford and Oregon.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Washington
Expect to see a lot of Vita Vea and Azeem Victor gobbling up ball carriers in 2017.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

In addition, advanced stats reveal some other chinks in UW’s rush defense armor. The biggest was UW’s performance in “Stuff Rate” - a measurement of rushing plays stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. For as big and strong as UW’s defensive line was a year ago, the linebackers did not perform all that well in dropping ball carriers for loss. In fact, UW’s total tackles for loss (including on pass plays) was 26th in the nation and, based on eyeball check, seemed more concentrated amongst UW’s less challenging opponents. Not horrible ... but not dominating.

With all of that background established we can now try to project whether or not we think UW is in a position to improve in 2017.

The first thing to consider is the impact of the lost players. Elijah Qualls is the greatest challenge to backfill. His size and athleticism allowed him the versatility to flex between each of the gaps on a play-by-play basis. In addition, he was instrumental in eating up the blocks that freed up players like Joe Mathis and Budda Baker to deliver hits on ball carriers behind the line.

Baker’s loss is also a major one to cover up for. While not exactly a big hitter, Baker could cover a lot of ground and never seemed to lose an angle on a ball carrier. He was also a sure tackler who very rarely whiffed on running backs, even those who outweighed him by substantial amounts.

The good news for UW is that they will be replacing those guys with mostly experienced players. Greg Gaines and Vita Vea will be eating up most of the Elijah Qualls’ snaps (literally) and both of them were actually much more disruptive than Qualls in terms of getting to ball carriers behind the line. You can expect both Jaylen Johnson and redshirt Levi Onwuzurike to also get more playing time. While no one of those players is nearly as versatile as Qualls was, the unit as a whole is bigger and deeper than what UW had a season ago.

The inside linebackers actually ought to be strengthened by the return to health of pre-season All-American Azeem Victor. His presence fortifies what might be the strongest subunit on the field. Victor, along with Keishawn Bierria and, now, DJ Beavers have all demonstrated their balance between size, speed and tackling.

Oregon State v Washington
Big Jaylen Johnson will factor into a lot of rush defense in 2017.
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The outside backers ought to be an upgrade over what UW had a year ago when you consider both the difficulties that Wooching had in run defense and the injury challenges they experienced with Mathis and Connor O’Brien. More snaps are going to be taken on by young vets like Benning Potoa’e and O’Brien as well as redshirts Myles Rice and Amandre Williams.

It is fair to wonder if the role that the secondary plays in run prevention will be nearly as good as it was a year ago. Baker played great in run support while Sidney Jones was very reliable on the outside. While UW is going to be giving more snaps to thumpers like JoJo McIntosh and Zeke Turner, I worry that we won’t have the kind of speed we had in place a year ago. This might result in more big plays surrendered.

The Verdict - Neutral

Husky fans should expect to put up similar productivity in rush defense as they did a year ago. In fact, I think it is altogether likely that a deeper d-line and more effective rush defense from the BUCK position will result in more disruption and plays behind the line of scrimmage. I also like our depth in helping to address our consistency from game to game.

However, I do think UW is going to face a few better rushing attacks than they did a year ago (assuming that they don’t neutralize those rushing attacks by getting quick leads). I also believe that we’ll give up a few more than 9 plays over 20 yards given the turnover on our back end.

It’s hard to improve on great, especially when there is the kind of change happening the likes of which UW is experiencing. Thus, I’m going with NEUTRAL in my assessment of their rush defense in 2017.

Poll

How will UW’s rush defense fare in 2017?

This poll is closed

  • 50%
    Better than 2016
    (348 votes)
  • 8%
    Worse than 2016
    (56 votes)
  • 41%
    About the same
    (281 votes)
685 votes total Vote Now