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Fall Camp Preview: Defensive Line

Greg Gaines headlines a talented group of defensive tackles and ends as they adjust to life without Vita Vea.

Washington State v Washington Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

When it is your job to stonewall opposing offensive lines and clog running lanes, it helps immeasurably to have a teammate beside you who stands 6-4 and 347 lbs., and who at that size can run a 5.1-second 40-yard dash. Yet with Vita Vea off to the NFL as first-round selection of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, this year’s Washington Huskies defensive line will be forced to thrust more than a couple of talented young players into the crucible of conference play. If they succeed, they will provide significant help to the team as the Dawgs seek to continue their streak of boasting one of the conference’s top-two rushing defenses that goes back to Petersen’s first season as UW’s head coach in 2014.

We can’t hold a conversation about Washington’s defensive line without first mentioning Vea, the generational defensive tackle who won’t terrorize Pac-12 offensive lines for the first time since 2015. But while his presence will surely be missed, it’s not as if the cupboards are bare: Senior tackles Greg Gaines and Jaylen Johnson will provide the group with veteran leadership, while younger players such as Levi Onwuzurike, Tuli Letuligasenoa and Draco Bynum should find chances to stand out as well.

Returning Production

Name Year Position Height Weight Games Tackles Tackles for loss Sacks
Name Year Position Height Weight Games Tackles Tackles for loss Sacks
Greg Gaines Sr DT 6-2 313 13 30 5 2.5
Jaylen Johnson Sr DT 6-3 294 13 18 4 3.5
Levi Onwuzurike Soph DE 6-3 283 12 16 3.5 2
Shane Bowman Sr DT 6-4 288 10 7 0 0
Jared Pulu Jr DT 6-4 283 10 6 1 0
John Clark Jr DL 6-4 275 0 0 0 0
Josiah Bronson Jr DE 6-3 292 0 0 0 0
Jason Scrempos Jr DE 6-6 292 0 0 0 0

Fresh Faces

Name Year Position Height Weight 247 Composite Rating
Name Year Position Height Weight 247 Composite Rating
Tuli Letuligasenoa Fr DT 6-1 338 0.9517
Sam Taimani Fr DT 6-1 320 0.9190
Draco Bynum Fr DE 6-3 258 0.8904
Mosiah Nasili-Liu Fr DE 6-1 281 0.8506
Jarryn Bush R Fr DL 6-1 257 Not Rated

Senior tackle Greg Gaines started all 27 games of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and earned second-team all-conference honors last year on the strength of his play. Alongside Vea, Gaines represented one half of the conference’s (and perhaps the country’s) best duos at defensive tackle, and was a major factor in Washington yielding just 2.86 rushing yards per attempt, the nation’s No. 2 ranking behind the Alabama Crimson Tide. He’ll undoubtedly be the defensive line’s star in 2018 if everything goes according to plan.

Meanwhile, fifth-year senior Jaylen Johnson is no slouch. He has played in 37 out of 40 career games since the 2015 season, primarily as a backup to Gaines and Vea, but he’ll have a chance to shine in 2018 as a player likely to earn starting snaps, especially in the pivotal season opener on Sept. 1 against the Auburn Tigers. Likewise, Shane Bowman has been a valuable backup in his first three seasons, and the Huskies will rely on players like him to rotate substitutions throughout the game and keep Gaines and Johnson fresh in the third and fourth quarters.

Third-year sophomore Levi Onwuzurike possesses arguably the highest ceiling of any defensive end on the Washington roster. The product of Allen, Texas, boasts prototypical size at 6-3 and 283 lbs., and it doesn’t take a wild stretch of the imagination to see shades of a player like Hau’oli Kikaha eventually emerging from his skill set. His first year on the field showed flashes of promise (16 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks), and he has to be considered one of the best candidates on the team to become this season’s premiere breakout player.

Among 2018’s first-year players, blue-chip nose tackle Tuli Letuligasenoa is almost certain to see the field. The combination of his undeniable talent and physicality, along with the fact that Washington hasn’t signed a true defensive tackle prospect since Gaines and Vea in the 2014 class, means that Letuligasenoa’s development will be one of defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe’s highest priorities by necessity this fall. Sam Taimani is a similarly talented freshmen whom UW’s coaches would surely appreciate redshirting, but might be called into action simply to help bolster Washington’s depth along the defensive trenches.

Finally, Draco Bynum and Mosiah Nasili-Liu are two players who might prove themselves to be worthy of playing in 2018 if they can show in fall camp that they can make concrete contributions to the defense’s pass-rushing efforts. Those two in particular will be candidates to show what they can do in a live game environment in light of the NCAA’s new rules regarding redshirt eligibility.