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Consulting the Chart: 2019 UW Defensive Line Review

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How did Washington fare replacing Greg Gaines?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Washington at Stanford

Welcome back to consulting the chart as we shift our focus from the offensive side of the ball to the defensive side starting with the line. Check out past entries on Quarterbacks/Offensive Line, Running Backs, Tight Ends, and Wide Receivers.

The only one of the defensive stats that fans may not be familiar with are defeats. A defender gets credit for a defeat when they make a tackle short of the sticks/break up a pass on 3rd/4th down, get a tackle for loss, or force a turnover. It’s a way to measure impact plays across position groups as defenders at all 3 levels have the potential to pick up a defeat.

2019 UW Defensive Line Stats

Player Snaps Tackles Sacks Pressures Defeats Missed Tackles Pressure % Defeat % Missed Tackle %
Player Snaps Tackles Sacks Pressures Defeats Missed Tackles Pressure % Defeat % Missed Tackle %
Onwuzurike 501 45 2 15 9 0 5.6% 1.8% 0.0%
Bronson 411 23 2 11 4 1 5.1% 1.0% 4.2%
Potoa'e 404 30 4.5 12 8 3 5.9% 2.0% 9.1%
Letuligasenoa 241 23 1 5 3 3 4.4% 1.24% 11.5%
Taimani 210 16 0 2 0 1 1.8% 0.0% 5.9%

Levi Onwuzurike

Washington always rotates bodies frequently along the defensive line so while Onwuzurike led the unit in snaps he still only played a little over half of the time in 2019. But when the season was on the line the coaching staff kept him out there as Levi played 79% of the snaps against Oregon and 71% of the time versus Utah. Clearly opposing coaches noticed as Onwuzurike was named 1st team all Pac-12 for his play.

In recent seasons Levi played primarily alongside a massive nose tackle such as Greg Gaines or Vita Vea but he had to play more at the nose in 2019 with only freshmen that had the ideal body type. Onwuzurike was still incredibly effective. I charted him with 0 missed tackles despite leading the position group in overall tackle attempts. He also narrowly finished behind Potoa’e for the position lead in pressure percentage even though Potoa’e is a converted pass rusher.

It’s not a surprise that Pro Football Focus which also does thorough game charting likes Onwuzurike as well as he has ranked 8th and 11th in the country among interior defensive linemen in the past two seasons while excelling against both the pass and the run. Opposing offenses’ success rates were almost identical whether passing or running the ball with Levi in the game. The 42.6% mark with Onwuzurike on the field was the best of any defensive lineman and it got worse at 45.9% when he wasn’t playing.

While Onwuzurike didn’t put up eye popping stats he played perhaps the toughest spot in Washington’s defense to put up numbers and still managed to show on film as one of the best Husky players on that side of the ball. If Levi plays less nose tackle this upcoming year as the young behemoths get more shine then expect to see Onwuzurike see a spike in his pass rushing productivity in 2020.

Josiah Bronson

Bronson has worked hard to get to a position where he could be a major contributor for Washington after transferring from Temple and having to earn a scholarship. He started his career as a 4-3 defensive end and has had to gain 25+ pounds in order to shift inside and fill in as depth at defensive tackle. Bronson played 2/3rd of the snaps against Oregon but otherwise consistently played between 35% and 50% of the time.

Bronson’s numbers don’t exactly pop off the page at you but he was still reasonably effective. He was most effective as a pass rusher as his pressure % was close to that of Onwuzurike, Potoa’e, and even OLB Ryan Bowman. Opponents were successful on 43.8% of pass plays with Bronson in the game which was close to the mark put forth by Onwuzurike.

The flip side is that Bronson was not a good run defender. Opponents were successful on 50% of runs with him in the game. Bronson’s usage was not primarily as a short yardage player so I don’t think that figure is skewed by when he was in the game. He had just two tackles for loss on 166 running plays all season. You would hope that number to be a little higher.

Bronson was granted an extra year of eligibility so he will return as a 6th year senior in 2020. It’s nice to have that kind of depth at such a critical position. But Bronson’s productivity in his time at Washington has shown that he’s probably best as an interior pass rusher on passing downs and hopefully he has his usage scaled back a little in 2020 to let the young guys develop.

Benning Potoa’e

Potoa’e entered Washington as a potential OLB stud pass rusher and never quite lived up to that promise. He continued to get bigger and it eventually became clear that the coaches intended to move him inside with the lack of experienced bodies along the defensive line. Benning’s usage was fairly consistent as he played between 40% to 50% of the defensive snaps in 8 of UW’s 13 games and never more than 53%.

You would expect as a converted pass rusher that Potoa’e would be most effective playing against the pass and you would be right. He led the defensive line in pressure rate at nearly 6% and was #1 at the position in sacks with 4.5. The ability to penetrate from the interior and get tackles for loss gave him an even higher defeat percentage than Levi Onwuzurike with 1 fewer defeat overall but in almost 100 fewer snaps. Opponents were successful on just 40.5% of pass plays with Potoa’e on the field which was the best among any of the primary 3 defensive linemen.

While there was a drop off in play against the run it wasn’t quite as dramatic as for Josiah Bronson. Potoa’e struggled with 3 missed tackles in 33 potential opportunities but he put himself in position to make the play a little more often than Bronson did. Losing Potoa’e off this roster is definitely a blow but the hope is the next few players on this list will be able to step up and make up for it.

Tuli Letuligasenoa

There were clear flashes when Tuli started to show his immense potential by using his immense girth. At 318 pounds Tuli is a mountain of a man and has the perfect body type to play nose tackle in Washington’s system. There was a year in between the transition of Vita Vea to Greg Gaines to Tuli but it seems clear that he will step into that role next season. He ended up playing between 20% and 35% of UW’s snaps in 10 of the 12 games in which he was healthy as they slowly increased his responsibilities.

Tuli’s pressure percentage was higher than backup outside linebackers Laiatu Latu and Zion Tupuola-Fetui which is clearly impressive. He possesses a bull rush move that is difficult for all but the stoutest of interior linemen to defend. Ultimately, it resulted in 1 sack which is realistically about as much as you could have hoped for given Tuli’s snap count and usage.

You would expect for Tuli to be a dominant force in the run game but that wasn’t really the case looking at success rate. He missed 3 tackles against the run and opponents were successful on 52% of running plays with Tuli on the field. At first I thought that might be a side effect of increased usage in 3rd and 1 type situations where only a single yard is needed to gain a first down. But opponents had a success rate of 47.9% running the ball with at least 2 yards to go with Tuli on the field and 43.4% with him off of it.

When you isolate it to just runs up the middle though the numbers are more encouraging. Opponents ran for 4.2 yards per play with a success rate of 40.3% up the middle with Tuli on the field. Those numbers were a little worse at 4.4 yards per play and 44.2% up the middle when he wasn’t in there. Opponents also were less willing to go straight up the gut with Tuli on the field (38% with versus 45% without).

Sam Taimani

Taki and Tuli are easy to view as a package deal considering their similar size, age, and usage on the field. Taimani ended up playing just a little bit less than Tuli this past season despite getting into one extra game. That extra game was the bowl against Boise State which Tuli missed due to injury and it allowed Sam to play his second highest percentage of snaps of the season (only behind Eastern Washington).

There’s no question that Taimani was the least effective pass rusher of any of the defensive linemen this season. He finished the season with just 2 pressures and 0 tackles for loss. Sam embraced the role of eating up as many blocks as possible but didn’t show a knack for creating penetration if left 1v1 inside. That is a clear area of his game that he’ll need to work on in order to avoid any of the younger DTs from leaping him on the depth chart. Yet despite all of that opponents were successful on just 38% of pass attempts with Taimani on the field.

The success rate numbers against the run carry a similar split to Tuli but are even worse. Opponents were successful on nearly 59% of run plays with Taimani on the field. Let’s do the same analysis we just did above to see what the deal is. Unfortunately the results weren’t as favorable. Opposing rushers gained 4.7 yards per carry on runs up the middle with a success rate of 55.3% with Taimani on the field and 4.3 yards per carry and a success rate of 39.5% with him out of the game.

While they had nearly equal usage patterns the stats bear out that at least right now Tuli clearly has the leg up for playing time entering the 2020 season.

Everyone Else

The combination of Faatui Tuitele, Draco Bynum, Jacob Bandes, Noa Ngalu, and Sama Pa’ama combined for 50 snaps this season but with 0 tackles or pressures. Washington only loses Potoa’e along the defensive line for next season which means that there’s likely only room for 1-2 of these players to enter the rotation next season. Tuitele and Bandes would seemingly have the leg up as the two highest recruits in the bunch but Draco Bynum has an extra year of experience and a different body type which might let him break in as an interior pass rushing specialist. No matter what, that’s a lot of young talent that will be ready to produce come 2021 after the graduations of Josiah Bronson and Levi Onwuzurike.