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Fall Camp Preview: Defensive Line

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Washington will again feature a strong defensive front.

NCAA Football: Washington Spring Game
Vita Vea is set to lead a deep group of DTs.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

When Chris Petersen first arrived at UW, he told former Husky QB Brock Huard, “Bringing it back to a championship level will be dictated by our ability to recruit and to develop defensive linemen." It’s a simple notion, but makes a lot of sense when you consider the larger ideas around football: defense wins championships, and it all starts up front. Hence, the defensive line could be considered the most important unit on the field.

In Petersen’s first 3 seasons, he’s stayed true to that. Despite turnover of NFL caliber players each season, the unit has been one of the strongest on the team, and last season was no exception. Washington had the best defense in the Pac-12 and much of that began with the pressure generated by the DL. They were 2nd in the conference in sacks and rush yards, showing great prowess against both the run and pass. However, those numbers dipped when Joe Mathis was lost to injury and the DL was just not quite as disruptive.

The Huskies lost some talent, but also return some big bodies, including a potential first round NFL draft pick.

Who’s Gone

Elijah Qualls (6’1”, 321 lbs): 38 tackles, 5 TFL, 3 sacks
Damien Turpin (6’3”, 284 lbs): 16 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack

Continuing the trend of Petersen players breaking out in their senior year, Damien Turpin turned in a respectable season and made an impact on a Pac-12 Championship team. This was a nice addition to the defensive line for a player who frankly hadn’t done much in his previous 3 years. His experience will be missed but the team should have no problem replacing his numbers with the likes of Shane Bowman and some younger guys.

Qualls decided to forego his senior year of eligibility and enter the NFL draft, where he was a 6th round pick. While he went much lower than he and many expected, initial returns from Philadelphia are positive. While he doesn’t possess the longest arms for pass rushing, he boasts exceptional strength, quickness, and versatility. He could generate pressure from the interior of the defensive line and even lined up as a BUCK for a number of plays against Alabama. His abilities won’t be easily replaced, but with the overall strength of the defensive line, the unit shouldn’t take any steps back.

Who’s Back

JR Vita Vea (6’5”, 340 lbs): 39 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 5 sacks
JR Greg Gaines (6’2”, 322 lbs): 35 tackles, 8 TFL, 3.5 sacks
JR Jaylen Johnson (6’3”, 298 lbs): 12 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack
JR Shane Bowman (6’4”, 303 lbs): 4 tackles, 1 fumble recovery
SO Jason Scrempos (6’6”, 283 lbs): no stats
SO Ricky McCoy (6’2”, 292): no stats

The first 3 names on this list should be familiar to most Husky fans. Between Vea, Gaines, and Johnson, UW has a talented, experienced, and disruptive front 3.

Vea is the clear leader and getting tons of attention this off season for deciding to return to UW instead of going pro, where he certainly would have been drafted. He’s a mountain of a man with athleticism and feet rare for his size. He’s adept at collapsing the pocket from the center and getting into a QB’s face. He’s a high motor player too, not taking plays off, and is involved in more stops than DT/NT types usually are.

Next up is Greg Gaines, the human OL eater. With his size and strength, he’s great a taking up double teams and freeing up other pass rushers around him. However, most UW fans were probably surprised to see how well he can generate pressure from the interior, and not just eat space. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s one of the top returning run defenders in the conference. Paired with Vea in the middle, it will be incredibly difficult for teams to run against this defense.

The final player on this list who made a meaningful contribution is Jaylen Johnson. He spent the first portion of the season injured, but came on strong towards the end of the year, and had more than a few nice moments against Alabama in the Peach Bowl. With the way UW lines up the defensive line, Jaylen Johnson fits somewhere between the true nose tackle/0-tech and an outside pass rusher. I imagine when UW goes with a 3 man DL, he’ll line up between the guard and tackle. If he stays healthy, he has a chance at a big year next to Gaines and Vea.

Outside of the big 3, there’s Shane Bowman who has steadily seen his time on the field increase. While I don’t expect a huge year from him, his size and experience will provide quality depth on the line. Jason Scrempos has intriguing size, but after spending his first season injured, is working his way back into the rotation. Ricky McCoy hasn’t made an impact yet at UW and risks getting buried in the depth if he doesn’t breakthrough this year.

Who’s New

Levi Onwuzurike (6’3”, 290 lbs)
Ali Gaye (6’6”, 276 lbs)
Josiah Bronson (6’5”, 265 lbs)

Washington scored a major coup by reeling in a 4-star defensive lineman from Texas, Levi Onwuzurike. He was one of, if not the best, high school rush end in Texas his senior year and after a redshirt year is ready to burst onto the scene. He’s a young player consistently brought up by Petersen as one he’s excited about. And considering Petersen usually keeps those feelings close to the vest, it creates an intriguing story line heading into the year.

Ali Gaye is the only freshman DL entering the program this fall, and is a long term developmental prospect. At 6’6” and over 275 pounds, he’s physically got all the tools to be an elite level player. He’s your classic “raw” athlete perfect for Chris Petersen’s system. I wouldn’t expect much from Gaye until at least the 2019 season. That said, there’s a chance he grey shirts this year while rehabbing a shoulder injury.

The final name is an intriguing one - Josiah Bronson. He’s the brother of former UW running back Demetrius Bronson, who is now pursing a career in WWE (yes, pro wrestling), and recently transferred in from Temple University. Grades were the primary reason he wasn’t recruited by UW and ended up as an Owl, but there’s no denying his impressive physical ability. He’s a big, strong, quick twitch athlete perfectly molded to be a pass rushing demon. He has some work to do on technique, and after taking a redshirt this year, he’ll have two years to play two.

Final Thoughts

Already one of the best units on the team, they have a chance to be a very special group. The front 3 rotation of Vea, Gaines, and Johnson is as good as any front in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the country. There’s decent depth, but the drop off from those 3 to the likes of Shane Bowman appears pretty big. The emergence of a young guy like Levi O will be huge in adding big bodies to the DL. All in all, the Huskies boast an excellent DL and the next few weeks of call camp should help solidify who the main contributors are after Gaines, Vea, and Johnson.