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Spring Position Preview: Defensive Line

You’re so lucky I didn’t just use this as an excuse to geek out over Jacob Bandes’ n00b-pwning potential for the 100th time.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Oregon at Washington Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After five years, one thing holds ever true: intros are stupid.

So let’s not.

Here’s not an intro:

Quick Lil’ 2020 Recap

Obviously 2020 — with all four of its football games (for Washington, anyway) — had some ups and downs including on defense. The interior defensive line reflected that. With Levi Onwuzurike opting out due to COVID to prepare for the draft and most-ready sophomore Tuli Letuligasenoa injured for all but the final game, fellow soph Sam Taimani was thrown into the fire alongside Josiah Bronson. Redshirt Freshmen Faatui Tuitele and Jacob Bandes also got more playing time than they would’ve had Tuli and Levi been available, as did fellow redshirt frosh Noa Ngalu occasionally. It’s not like this was Taimani’s first playing experience — he was rotated in a decent amount as a redshirt freshman in 2019 — but it was a significant upgrade in his responsibilities.

Between Bronson’s limitations and Taimani’s adjustment period, there was some ups (the second half against Utah, all of the Arizona stomping), and downs (the first half against Utah, the utter inability to win the line of scrimmage against Stanford). Like in 2019, the Dawgs had trouble stopping the run relative to their other defensive responsibilities. Similarly to 2019, a whole lot of that fell on the inside linebackers sans Eddie Ulofoshio — but the line didn’t make their job easier; far more often than Dawg fans want to see, the interior got minimal push on the line of scrimmage, didn’t clog holes, or didn’t occupy enough space to allow the linebackers to flow unimpeded. Alternatively, when they did look good, it felt like at least one of the inside linebackers was blowing it — not helped by the fact that at least one safety on any given snap was positioned so far back they might as well have been on the 522 on-ramp.

In general, against the run the whole defense didn’t mesh, including the interior line. On the other hand, they hardly sucked at their role generating pass rush. Did any of the aforementioned players have a sack? Nope. Was that their job? Nope. While Zion Tupuola-Fetui’s insanity run as a pass-rusher rightfully caught everyone’s eye, the interior did a pretty good job limiting quarterbacks’ escapability so that ZTF and other edge rushers could do their jobs.

And right as we were getting into the season and seeing how this team and young defensive line could evolve, it ended just like that.

Key Departures

Josiah Bronson — 6’3,” 300 lbs

After Levi Onwuzurike opted out, Bronson was The Veteran of the group. Unfortunately, while he had value simply as a natural 3-tech in a unit with more true interior guys than not, Bronson’s talent level was clearly a step below Onwuzurike and the younger, albeit less experienced, players. He wasn’t terrible or anything, but he was an example of “recruiting stars matter more often than not.” Any given snap, he was fine to not great.

His departure increases the average pure talent level of Washington’s defensive line but, because of his leadership value, it does present a situation that will force younger players to step up. More than anything, this loss feels like a big opportunity for one or multiple linemen to make strides in his place.

New Faces for Spring

Voi Tunuufi — 6’2,” 270 lbs

Kuao Peihopa — 6’3,” 300 lbs

All together, this means the defensive line room should look like this:

Spring Camp 2020 Defensive Line

Name Height Weight Class
Name Height Weight Class
Draco Bynum 6'4" 270 Jr
Tuli Letuligasenoa 6'2" 305 Jr
Noa Ngalu 6'1" 290 So
Sam Taimani 6'2" 335 Jr
Jacob Bandes 6'2" 315 So
Bradley McGannon 6'4" 270 rFr
Faatui Tuitele 6'3" 305 So
Kuao Peihopa 6'3" 300 Fr
Voi Tunuufi 6'2" 270 Fr

Expected Summer Additions

Siaosi Finau — 6’4,” 280 lbs

I could write a whole big thing on how fascinating Finau is. In fact, I did, only to belatedly realize he wasn’t an early enrollee and then delete all 500 of my carefully thought-out words. It was tragic.

Anyhoo, come fall camp he’ll begin his journey as the ultimate test for “Are Jimmy Lake and Co really this good at finding diamonds in the rough, or are they just acting like me during a fantasy football draft: trying too hard to outsmart the system?” But until then, we wait.

Storylines to Watch

Other than “How do the new enrollees look?” — which, let’s be honest, is such a generic and universal storyline with every team, every year, that it’s not particularly interesting — there’s a bunch more to watch for.

Are Taki and Tuli ready to be the guys, full stop?

While Taimani and the little bit of Tuli we saw were fine with flashes of quite-good-but-not-consistent, they were two guys whose responsibilities were significantly elevated from the past two years. That, all with only four games and one game to jump into that role, respectively. The norm is that players — especially relatively young ones, and especially in trench positions — need time and reps before coming into form; for every ZTF who explodes out of nowhere, there’s 100 players like Taki and Tuli who’s improvement visible to fans on gameday is little by little.

In some ways, you could argue that no group could’ve potentially benefited more from a full season of games than the interior defensive line, particularly these two. While not a perfect one-to-one comparison as they were a class older last season, their developmental timeline wasn’t too far off from Greg Gaines and Vita Vea circa 2015 — who, if you stopped the season four games in, wouldn’t have registered with any of us as the guys they were becoming. It’s not a given, but I don’t find it unlikely that, in a COVID-less world where Washington has a normal 2020 spring camp, fall camp, and full season, Tuli and Taki would’ve emerged as established, exciting stars going into next year.

But, since that hypothetical version of 2020 never existed, we get to keep an eye on their development for 2021.

What’s the progression of Jacob Bandes and Faatui Tuitele?

I mean... this one pretty much speaks for itself. Not wasting more words here, because words are stupid. Except “fart” and “shart” and “shark week.” Those are good words.

Speaking of, what’s the positional plan with Tuitele?

In high school, Tuitele was psychotically versatile, lining up anywhere from a 0-tech nose tackle to an edge rusher at 7-tech. Upon arriving at UW, his weight has changed a couple times in a way that implies his strength and conditioning plans were first intended for him to specialize in one position only for that plan to change later; initially his weight went down (which to a point isn’t uncommon given that freshmen often have to lose some “baby fat” as well as gain muscle their first few months at school) and, after a year or so, he was in the 280ish range, indicating the staff planned for him to be more of a Levi Onwuzurike 3-tech. Now going into his redshirt sophomore year, he’s up to 305 lbs.

On one hand, the needs of this team are more 3-tech than true interior. On the other hand, him getting back up above 300 lbs is at least putting him in a position to be available more inside. But on the other other hand, it’s not like his build or bulk level are up to the level where he’s an undeniably 0-tech cannon ball.

I didn’t have a super strong take on where he’d be playing most before writing this but, now that I’ve finished that above paragraph, my gut is that he’s being set up to utilize his versatility (albeit not to the extreme we saw in high school) while specializing in 3-tech-ish positioning.

Oh and one more thing with Tuitele: do we have to be worried about that old high school pec injury?

As a refresher in case you forgot, Faatui Tuitele had a pretty significant pec injury his senior year of high school and opted to not do recovery surgery. Outside of those directly involved in his wellbeing and career, none of us really know if there’s lingering effects — or, more accurately, if the lingering effects will impact his play.

Obviously, there’s no real way to ever confirm this, unless, ya know, Tuitele himself confirms it — which, if it ever happened, probably wouldn’t be for many years after he passes through UW. This is especially so what with the fact that it’s all but impossible to prove a negative. But as far as deductive reasoning goes, one of the added bonuses of a spring practice where he were to stand out would be that we could figure the effects of his high school pec injury are in the past.

Not only would it be an exciting development to see the former four star recruit take the next step for the sake of the defense, it would also just be fulfilling as a fan of empathy for other people, and ya know... their general health and happiness.

And lastly:

This isn’t a question but rather a command for the universe: Give me Jacob Bandes karate chopping offensive linemen into oblivion already, dammit.

I’ve been pretty open about how excited I am for this dude and his absurdly violent hands the last two years. And frankly I feel after a year of *gestures to the world*, the universe owes us this.

Okay now I’ve gotten myself mega-pumped for spring practice. Real-life footage:

(RIP Jessica Walter, you majestic beast.)

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