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Season in Review: Rushing Defense

Not great, Bob.

NCAA Football: Eastern Washington at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Intros? In this economy? Heck, you’re probably reading this to escape what is a moderately, um, meek-looking offensive coordinator hire that was just announced. So let’s just get to the words that matter:

What We Expected

While everyone knew the loss of Ben Burr-Kirven would be big, it was mostly accepted that senior ILB Brandon Wellington would generally minimize the loss, while one of the redshirt freshmen of Jackson Sirmon, MJ Tafisi, or Eddie Ulofoshio would probably eventually take over alongside them. Knowing Chris Petersen’s seniority-favoring tendencies, we all expected fifth-year senior Kyler Manu to begin fall camp and likely the beginning of the year as a starter before being beaten out by one of the aforementioned redshirt freshmen before too long. Otherwise, there was a possibility that one of the true freshmen — particularly Josh Calvert or Daniel Heimuli — could carve out a role on the inside.

Similar losses in the backend that we expected to have some level of negative effects on the Dawgs’ rushing defense was the loss of Taylor Rapp, whose value at safety extended far beyond pass coverage and clearly included fantastic instincts and tackling against the run.

Otherwise, our biggest concern was that, with Greg Gaines gone, Washington lacked a true, experienced zero or one tech gap-clogger for the first time in really all of Chris Petersen’s tenure. Sure, Levi Onwuzurike was a clear leader of the interior defensive line, but at 6’3” and 293 lbs, he wasn’t a prototype to play that far in the middle in the same way Gaines, Vita, Qualls, and Shelton had been. Or maybe one of the redshirt freshmen duo of Sam Taimani or Tuli Letuligasenoa would make a splash? Given their accolades out of high school, that wasn’t out of the picture and it was more likely than not that they’d become significant contributors sooner or later in 2019, but pinning your run-stuffing hopes on two 19 year-olds with minimal experience from the season before is always a bit nerve-wracking.

So, in general, it was safe to say 2019 would be somewhat of a step back, but surely it couldn’t be too bad. Right?

What We Saw

Wrong. Or, mostly wrong, at least.

It turns out, just because someone had been in the program for many a year and was more physically imposing than their predecessor, doesn’t mean they’re gonna be remotely productive as a starter. While the defensive line actually did their job pretty well and relatively quickly adapted to the loss of Gaines, it didn’t matter much since the heirs to the starting inside linebacker throne were rarely there to finish the play. While we were familiar with Manu’s speed limitations and had adjusted our expectations accordingly for him, Wellington’s propensity to so rarely be in the right place proved to be the kicker. Obviously nobody expected the sheer numbers of BBK to be repeated (or even come close to), but the dropoff in diagnostic ability, instincts, and speed were clear: Wellington had almost three times fewer tackles than BBK — over 100 fewer, from 176 to 67 (36 of which were against the run), to be precise. Manu, meanwhile, had 45, although played fewer snaps as the younger linebackers took up more time on the field. Furthermore, while his lack of speed seriously hindered his ability to be effective, his actual instincts appeared at times to be better than Wellington’s. Not that it mattered much, as the two senior linebackers quickly showed themselves as a substantial dropoff from the year before.

This was all exacerbated with redshirt freshman MJ Tafisi’s season-ending — and scary — injury against Arizona; while the duo of Tafisi and Sirmon weren’t that much of an improvement over Wellington and Manu, they at least showed somewhat better instincts, better speed, and, in Tafisi’s case especially, more of a “thumper” impact that the Dawgs hadn’t seen since peak Azeem Victor. Moreover, they were two teenagers in their first year taking meaningful snaps — even if they were only somewhat better, the marginal utility they received from being on the field far exceeded that of their seniors, and subsequently their return value for this season and future seasons was clear. With Tafisi gone, the main options were a rotation of Wellington, Manu, Sirmon, and, as the year went on, increasingly walk-on redshirt freshman Eddie Ulofoshio, who ended up receiving a scholarship this week. If there was one linebacker who intrinsically seemed to just see plays developing the best, plus have the physical ability to close when he diagnosed them, it became obvious that it was Eddie.

While the linebackers weren’t picking up the slack, and the defensive backs didn’t have any single guy who really showed off against the run like Rapp, the defensive line actually held their own while showing exciting glimpses of 2020 and beyond. The beginning of the year had Onwuzurike carrying much of the burden along with newly-converted DL Benning Potoa’e and former walk-on Josiah Bronson. And, as the redshirt freshmen duo of true 0/1 techs emerged in Tuli and Taki (6’2,” 318 lbs and 6’2,” 322 lbs, respectively), Washington’s run defense increasingly became an all or nothing affair; those two improved as the season went on at getting their hands on ball-carriers — in which case, there was usually nothing for their victims to do but go to the ground — but in the many instances where they didn’t, there was then lots of room to run where linebackers should’ve been.

In the end, it was not a pretty-looking result most of the time — and, with how much opponents’ rushing attacks affected the outcome of many losses, all of which were by tiny margins, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that, had Ben Burr-Kirven redshirted in 2015, this would be a 10-win or even possibly 11-win team. But he did play as a true frosh in 2015, graduated last year, and Washington had no experienced, playable linebackers to take his place.

Still, the Dawgs’ season stats look much better than the eye test would imply, with 126.4 yards per game and 3.81 yards per carry good for 28th in the country. Still, much of that was skewed by their dominant performances against Oregon State, WSU’s air raid, and Boise. But in losses against Cal, Stanford, Oregon, Utah, and Colorado, they gave up 192, 189, 154, 115, and 207 — including sacks.

What We Learned

Whelp, we learned to never underestimate a player as prolific as BBK just because he’s less physically impressive than his successor. And to not hitch your expectations to that fact, accordingly.

We also learned that Eddie Ulofoshio was the most complete player of the bunch and personally I’ll assume he continues to be so until someone else proves otherwise. We know MJ Tafisi can be a strong enforcer, Sirmon has some of that power as well both in the run and passing game, but the two of them still need to be quicker to diagnose plays. Once those two gain experience and the smarts that go with that, they could be fantastic.

And, as the year went on (especially now that Onwuzurike announced he’s returning for his senior season), we learned that the defensive line is in a very good spot.

Oh, and we learned that if you don’t redshirt any given freshman, he could become a really special player whose fifth-year presence would have been critically helpful when the players behind him weren’t cutting it.

What To Expect in 2020

The first game-changing difference between 2019 and 2020 is simply that the Dawgs will have linebackers who’ve shown improvement and at least vaguely functional instincts on the field. Sure, that unit will still likely be the relative weakness on the field simply due to the talent and experience in the secondary and on the line. Even with that, though, we know there’s at least one really dependable player to be the pillar there in Ulofoshio and two guys who showed flashes in Sirmon and Tafisi, plus the two redshirt freshmen most likely to contribute in Josh Calvert and Daniel Heimuli, both of whom, it’s reasonable to expect, will be very good before they leave UW. Then add in the other two redshirt freshmen of Alphonzo Tuputala (who himself played in four games this year) and Miki Ah You, and the depth and ceiling situation is significantly better than in 2019. It would be utterly shocking if we didn’t see the success of the run defense reflected therein.

This is all aided by the fact that, on the line, Levi Onwuzurike returns for his senior season while the middle of the line will have a huge amount of rotatable, high-end talent. Tuli and Taki, each with a year of playing under their belt, look like they’re on a really high-performing trajectory, while the Dawgs’ famed 2019 DL recruiting class can start to contribute and keep everyone fresh. This is particularly true of Faatui Tuitele, whose versatility allows him to play anywhere from 5 to 1 tech, and Jacob Bandes, who’s tailor-made for the middle of the line a la a higher level Greg Gaines.

While I’m rarely one to get overly optimistic or pessimistic about any developments, the personnel are well-positioned for the run defense to be at least marginally improved next year and, more likely, massively improved.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.