The Washington Huskies enter spring practices in 2018 with bigger questions on the defensive front than at probably any point in the Chris Petersen and Pete Kwiatkowski era. For the first time, the Huskies don’t have multiple 300+ pound run stuffers coming back as established starters or high-potential guys waiting for action. That’s not entirely true, actually - 2014 featured established starter Danny Shelton, and Elijah Qualls coming off his redshirt season. 2016 had Qualls, plus the emerging Greg Gaines and Vita Vea. And last year, Vea and Gaines anchored one of the best defenses in the country. This season is most like 2015, when the Huskies had a young but experienced Qualls, and two unknown redshirt freshmen waiting in the wings. One of them is now counting down the days until he can start counting his millions of dollars, as Vita Vea is set to go in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft. Meanwhile, Gaines is back for fifth season, but will likely be limited or entirely absent from spring practices as he recovers from a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament suffered in the latter half of 2017 that hampered him at times and held him out all but a handful of snaps in the 2018 Fiesta Bowl versus Penn State.
The big question for spring is if there’s a future Greg Gaines or Vita Vea waiting in the wings, ready to step forward and make an impact on a defensive line that likes to rotate players into games early and often. Quickly perusing the roster of defensive linemen here to enjoy a typically balmy Seattle spring and 15 practices over the next month, the answer appears to be “not really.” Here’s the list:
Spring 2018 Defensive Line
|56||Jared Pulu*||Jr||6' 4"||283|
|57||John Clark*||Jr||6' 4"||275|
|90||Josiah Bronson||Jr||6' 3"||292|
|92||Jaylen Johnson||Sr||6' 3"||294|
|93||Jarryn Bush*||Rfr||6' 1"||257|
|95||Levi Onwuzurike||So||6' 3"||283|
|96||Shane Bowman||Sr||6' 4"||288|
|97||Jason Scrempos||Jr||6' 6"||292|
|99||Greg Gaines||Sr||6' 3"||313|
The thing that’s conspicuously absent is the presence of anyone not named Greg Gaines weighing over 300 pounds. Also noteworthy is that virtually every player got smaller from 2017 to 2018, not bigger. Including Gaines.
That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, as humans this big can have their weight vary by five or 10 pounds over the course of a single day.
On the other hand, it could mean that at least for this spring, the Huskies simply don’t have the personnel on the roster to run the base look 2-4-5 defense (which is actually played like a 4-2-5, with the outside linebackers playing stand-up defensive end techniques) that we’ve seen the last few years. At least all the time.
Jaylen Johnson is entering his senior season having shown flashes at both the end of 2016 and 2017 as an emerging force on the line. He’s also struggled to stay healthy each of those years. The time is most definitely now for Johnson to reach the potential he’s shown on a consistent basis; even if he doesn’t start, he’s absolutely going to be a pivotal part of the liberal tackle rotation.
Levi Onwuzurike signed with Washington with most “experts” projecting him as a weak-side defensive end. He spent his redshirt season putting on around 30 pounds, and became part of the defensive tackle rotation in 2017. He played through an injury suffered in the opening game against Rutgers, and saw his role expand as the season wore on. Like Johnson, Onwuzurike is best suited as a quick, penetrating, play-making tackle next to a stout anchor like Gaines, but it remains to be seen if he can hold up at the point of attack and swallow double teams the way Husky defensive tackles have the last few years.
Walk-on Jared Pulu was something of a surprise in the tackle rotation in the early part of the season, seeing critical snaps in several games as part of the second wave of the defense. His role was gradually supplanted by Onwuzurike, but he continued to see the field. With the loss of Vita Vea, he’s going to have the opportunity to seize a larger role moving forward.
Shane Bowman played the 2017 season at over 300 pounds, but is down to 288 heading in to spring. Bowman is a good athlete, so we’ll have to see if he’s able to play a little quicker without the extra 20 pounds. Now entering his senior season, this is Bowman’s last chance to become a regular part of the rotation.
Jason Scrempos and walk-ons John Clark, Josiah Bronson and Jarryn Bush round out the depth for the spring.
Husky fans, at least the ones at uwdawgpound.com, have rued the defensive tackle recruiting the last few years, and it’s possible that it’s coming home to roost this spring. Gaines is obviously entrenched as one starter, and there’s established talent in Jaylen Johnson and Levi Onwuzurike, but no matter which of those two started next to Gaines if there was a game tomorrow, he’d be the smallest defensive tackle the Huskies have had in three seasons. There’s logic to the notion that the coaching staff was able to play their base nickel defense with only two down linemen due to the fact that those two linemen both commanded double teams on most plays. If that second player doesn’t exist, it’s possible we see the defense have to adjust to a more traditional alignment and set of responsibilities.
Adam Jude of the Seattle Times published his defensive line spring preview - you can read it here - and it’s more than worth noting that Jude is listing Benning Potoa’e as a defensive end on his chart. Potoa’e started much of the 2017 season as Washington’s “Buck” outside linebacker, but saw his playing time decrease along with the emergence of Ryan Bowman. We also saw the Husky coaching staff use a traditional 3-4 front (but still with their base nickel defense, so it was actually a 3-3-5) early and with regularity all season, with Potoa’e playing as a defensive end with his hand on the ground. Frankly, with his mauling style of play, he looked more comfortable in this role. Potoa’e is still currently listed as an outside linebacker on the (at least semi-) official roster on gohuskies.com, but it’s possible that the decreased size virtually all the way across the defensive front might portend some sort of shift in the base defense in 2018. All we can do is wait and see...
....because things change in the fall. The Huskies welcome in a very solid recruiting class on the defensive front, lead by the 6’ 1” 338-pound Tuli Letuligasenoa, who was a top 100-150 overall recruit, and top 10 at his position. Sam Taimani - all 6’2” and 320 pounds of him - also officially enrolls at Washington this summer. He was a top 250-ish recruit with offers from the majority of the Pac 12 plus programs like Tennessee, Notre Dame and Alabama, although most services projected him at offensive guard. Those two both project in the same mold as former and current Huskies like Gaines, Shelton, Vea and Qualls. It’s something of a scary thought to be projecting true freshmen into key roles before they’ve even stepped foot on campus, but Petersen et al. certainly aren’t afraid to play the young’uns when it matters the most. And with the hockey-like rotation employed in the front seven of the Husky defense, it’s probably a decent bet that one or both of these two end up playing, either subbing for Greg Gaines, or along side him.
As usual, we’re going to have to be satisfied with a near-complete lack of information out of the football program as spring practices get underway. Hopefully, though, we’ll get a few nuggets of information on the progress and battles of the defense front, because it’s going to be one of the most critical and interesting position groups to watch unfold between now and the opening kickoff in September.