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Fall Camp Position Preview: Defensive Line

Today, we talk beef.

Like the defense as a whole, the D-Line is experiencing a good deal of turnover, and will see a lot of fresh faces this fall. Levi Onwuzurike headlines a group that has been a strong part of UW’s defensive dominance over the past four seasons and will go a long ways in helping determine if that trend continues.

Before we get into it, let’s catch up on some position group notes from spring:

  • Both Jacob Bandes and Sama Paama, members of the 2019 recruiting class, enrolled early for spring practice. Bandes unfortunately got appendicitis, causing him to miss time and lose some weight. But, all indications are that he’s healthy and ready for fall camp.

  • This was more a pre-spring move, but Benning Potoa’e is now listed as a DL and not an OLB. He played with his hand in the dirt a lot before, but now he’s officially on the line.

  • Seniors John Clark (walk-on) and Josiah Bronson (transfer from Temple) were put on scholarship.

And a quick reminder of the depth as it stands. Light on experience, but heavy on talent in the freshmen/redshirt freshmen ranks:

Defensive Linemen

Name Year Height Weight Games Played 2018 TFLs 2018 Sacks
Name Year Height Weight Games Played 2018 TFLs 2018 Sacks
Jacob Bandes Fr 6'2" 307 0 - -
Sama Paama Fr 6'4" 336 0 - -
Tuli Letuligasenoa RFr 6'2" 318 2 0 0
Sam Taimani RFr 6'2" 322 1 0 0
Benning Potoa'e Sr 6'3" 285 40 (at OLB) 6.5 1
Draco Bynum RFr 6'4" 258 0 - -
John Clark Sr 6'4" 280 15 0 0
Josiah Bronson Sr 6'3" 290 12 1 1
Levi Onwuzurike Jr 6'3" 287 26 6.5 3
Noa Ngalu Fr 6'1" 280 0 - -
Faatui Tuitele Fr 6'3" 304 0 - -

Time for Levi to Lead

Levi Onwuzurike has seen his playing time increase steadily over the past two seasons until he was a regular in the rotation last year. With the departure of Greg Gaines, Levi is the clear star of the unit. His quickness, ability to time the snap, and get into the backfield make him a dangerous player for offensive lines to deal with. While he’s not the classic wide-body DT we’ve come to see anchor UW defenses, Onwuzurike is a classic 3-tech who can cause havoc in the backfield. The question is, will his production continue to rise when he’s playing the majority of the snaps?

Then there is of course Benning Potoa’e, who will see a lot of time as UW needs experienced bodies inside (UW didn’t recruit a DL in 2015, got Levi 2016, and 2017 was the Marlon Tuipulotu fiasco) to play with their hands in the dirt. This is probably a great move for him, because he was always pretty big for an OLB, pushing 280 pounds, so his size lends itself more to the interior. He also never quite became the pass rush menace on the outside we all wanted, and instead excelled at setting the edge and at run defense - exactly what he’ll need to do more of on the DL.

Both Onwuzurike and Potoa’e play similar-ish positions, so how exactly the rotation shakes out, or if we see them on the field at the same, will be something to keep an eye on this fall.

Talkin’ about Taki

Every year under Petersen, there’s been a big man (or men) in the middle: from Danny Shelton, to Vita Vea, to Greg Gaines, the Husky DL has typically been anchored by a big space eating DT whose job is take on double teams - a true two gap player. After starring in spring practice, it sounds like redshirt freshman Taki Taimani could be that player. At a svelte 322 pounds, he shows surprising quickness to go along with his run stuffing strength. With no experienced 300+ pound players, Taki could find himself starting as a freshman this fall, right in the interior of the DL. The most exciting part is that he focused a bit more on offensive line in high school, so he is just scratching the surface of his potential on the other side of the ball.

Tuli Letuligasenoa is another intriguing option here. He’s even bigger and more wide-bodied than Taki, but not quite as a quick (he’s a little more a pure run stuffer). He played a handful of snaps last year and expect to see him in the rotation a lot. While we’re on the subject of young players, there’s also the true freshmen: Bandes, Paama, Tuitele, and Ngalu. Paama might have the highest ceiling of any player in the 2019 class, but at only 17 years old he’s likely a couple years away from real playing time. Ngalu needs some seasoning as well. Bandes was here for spring, and could play, but I think Faatui Tuitele is the freshman too talented to keep off the field. His versatility, size, and insane athleticism are going to give the coaches a lot of options. He had played his senior year with a pretty sever arm injury so this is pending him being healthy.

Final Thoughts

I asked above about Levi and Benning possibly being on the field at the same time. I imagine the coaches want to find a way to make that happen, and get two of their most experienced guys on the field. But, that leaves them a little light on the interior. To combat this, I think we could see Levi and Benning at the 3-tech spots, then either Taki or Tuli as the DT, right across the center. But, the “true” alignment of the defense has been something like a 2-4-5, with the “2” being of Greg Gaines/Veta Vea mold. How they mix and match the 2 and 3 down linemen fronts with a combination of Levi, Benning, and Taki will be intriguing during fall camp. Where Tuli fits into that as the space eater will be something to watch as well.

On Bronson, he provided some solid depth and snaps last year, and will likely feature as a backup to one of Onwuzurike or Potoa’e. I also think we see plenty of John Clark, especially early in the season. Because of recruiting woes from 2015-2017, the depth is not ideal and Petersen likes to play the older, more veteran players. The much publicized and very positive news however, is the haul of DTs brought in the last two cycles. There are some great players in that group who will be counted on this year for meaningful time.

I think we know who will be playing the most snaps: Benning Potoa’e, and Levi Onwuzurike, followed by Taki Taimani. We’ll see John Clark early, but I think his reps will taper off (as we saw last year with him and some of the walk on LBs, Jake Wambaugh and Matt Preston). Tuli could be next in line, with Josiah Bronson mixed in. As a senior, he has a chance to put his stamp on the rotation this year after giving solid work last year. Draco Bynum feels buried in the depth for now, and the redshirt freshman making a move for real snaps during fall camp would be one of the bigger story lines to emerge.

What will the rotation ultimately look like? The UW defense changes slightly each year depending on personnel and ability, so what will the Huskies roll out with this fall? All the bodies are there to have another DL that leads the Pac-12, it’s just a matter of time when the young guys emerge.