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30 Day Countdown: Day 16 — Breakout Defensive Player

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Lots o’ options here.

Eastern Washington v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

As part of our 30 Day Countdown, yesterday Jeff took a shot at who’d be UW’s breakout player on offense.

Isn’t it just crazy that today we’re talking about who will be the defense’s breakout player?

Anyways, intros are dumb so here’s your candidates:

Dominique Hampton — Safety

Washington’s used to having safeties that kick ass and strike fear in opponents. The last couple seasons they haven’t had that component, and it’s shown.

Enter Dom Hampton.

Now, this all begins with the caveat “Who even knows if he’ll earn a starting safety spot” since he, Julius Irvin (more on him in a sec), Cam Williams, Asa Turner, and Alex Cook are all in a safety battle right now. But with the rotating trio of Williams, Turner, and Cook playing most of the snaps the last two seasons and having underwhelming results to show for it, Hampton is in a really good spot to take control.

Williams and Turner, while a grade younger than Hampton, initially forced themselves into starting/playing a bunch roles as true freshmen two seasons ago, but since then have been not terrible but wanting. Williams’ most obvious weakness was often taking poor angles on both the ball and on tackles, leaving him as a not completely reliable last line of defense; Turner has yet to bring the physicality necessary to be a top safety. Hampton was always a project, but it appears he just might have hit the point in his development where he’s an upgrade.

As Trent McDuffie said, picture Kam Chancellor but with McDuffie’s speed. Holy — pardon my French — shit.

Now having those physical characteristics doesn’t mean he’ll necessarily also have improved angles on Williams or a better nose for the ball than Turner, but if he’s just a hair better than those two players at those two things, then he’s potentially a lot better overall when you then factor in what his rare physical qualities could allow him to add on to that. And based on reports from fall camp, it sure sounds like the light has turned on for him. If Williams and Turner haven’t also noticeably improved, the door’s open for Hampton to take one of those jobs — and just based on his size and his speed and how physics works, that could be fun to watch. Well, for Husky fans anyway...

Julius Irvin — Safety

Similar to Hampton, Irvin also benefits from how unsettled the safety positions are. Unlike Hampton, though, Irvin was never a project coming out of high school. He was a highly sought after four star and son of a four-time NFL All-Pro defensive back — it was reasonable that he’d be able to contribute sooner rather than later.

His late start with the Dawgs was mainly attributable to poorly-timed injuries (are there every well-timed injuries? Whatever...). But a theoretically healthy Irvin (knock on wood) and an open safety battle? Yes please.

Irvin doesn’t have the same crazy physical traits as Dom Hampton. But in fairness, pretty much nobody has the crazy physical traits of Dom Hampton. If Hampton could be the Huskies’ Kam Chancellor, then Irvin would provide the instincts and cover ability that would complement that beautifully. All this is contingent on him being in form to be an improvement over Turner and Williams, but that’s all quite achievable. The safety position has a relatively “meh” floor coming into this season, but it’s highest ceiling is a combination of in-form Hampton and Irvin. Considering the last two years of that position, this hypothetical outcome would be a game changer.

Bralen Trice — Edge

Ya remember Joe Tryon? Big guy, long arms, recent first rounder who last weekend committed murder in Cincinatti?

Well according to Jimmy Lake, Bralen Trice will be better than Joe Tryon.

So of course, obviously that is now gospel and there’s no way Trice won’t become an All-American this year. Coaches never overhype players or anything. Surely this couldn’t backfire. Surely not only will Bralen Trice live up to that prediction, but he’ll live up to that prediction from the first snap of 2021.

Obviously, obviously I’m being facetious. There is a big ol’ chance Trice is a supporting cast member this season and not a star. Heck, there’s a big ol’ chance Trice doesn’t really show up that much at all. But there’s “hyping up a player in fall camp,” and then there’s “telling us emphatically, multiple times, unprompted, that a player will be better than your most recent first round pick.” Even if Trice never becomes “better than Tryon,” how can he play apparently that well in practice and not at least partially have that translate to gamedays?

Personally, I’m trying to lower my expectations simply because if I took the Bralen Trice Fall Camp Praise of 2K21 as gospel that’s setting yourself up for disappointment. But with ZTF out for at least the first two months or so of the season, that’s a massive opportunity for the class of 2019 edge rusher. Combining that opportunity with him fulfilling even half of the expectations that have been set for him from the fall camp praise, and that’d have to be considered a breakout, right?

Sav’ell Smalls — Edge

Same as Trice but different. In fact, kind of the same as the Hampton-Irvin entries for safety, but for the edge.

Trice was a high ceiling project out of high school in Arizona. Smalls was one of the best players in the country coming out of high school. While we probably won’t see them on the field at the same time very often — if at all — this year, they have the opportunity to both be liberally rotated in at outside linebacker.

My impression of Smalls last season was that he looked very much like you expect from a true freshman as talented as he was; he didn’t look out of place on the field, but he also was still getting used to the transition to college ball. My memory was that this was particularly true against the run.

But to his credit, I was pleasantly surprised when re-watching the Stanford and Arizona games to see that my memory of Smalls wasn’t entirely accurate. Obviously he had a long way to go to reach a level of play that would reflect his potential, but he actually did better than I remembered. This was particularly true against the run, where my impression had originally been that he was — as is expected from a true freshman pass-rushing specialist — somewhat of a liability. While he wasn’t super strong holding the edge against the run, he actually was more impressive than I recalled originally. And especially against Arizona, he did actually manage to be disruptive when called upon to go after the quarterback.

Smalls will need to improve his edge-setting plus strength and pass rush creativity, but he played pretty well as a true freshman who only got four games to show what he’s capable of. And we know how high his ceiling is. If he takes another step in those realms as one could reasonably expect, that would look, in the words of Borat, very nice.

Tuli Letuligasenoa — Defensive Tackle

It feels a bit cheating to put Tuli here. It’s not like he’s some nobody on this team (not to imply the other four are). That being said, he only played two of last year’s four games and was, reasonably so, a bit rusty, and the year before he was a redshirt freshman who was holding his own adjusted for his youth, but was still a redshirt freshman and it showed somewhat.

So while Tuli’s been a significant part of this team the last two years, he’s not even reached close to his potential. An explosive cannonball of a human being, he was rated a top 100-ish four star coming out of high school for a reason; that reason being that his ceiling is “making enemy interior offensive linemen hate their life.”

The last two years, UW’s run defense has been by far the biggest weakness on that side of the ball. In fact you could make the case that it’s been the most crucial weakness of the whole team. Granted, a huge part of that is that the Dawgs’ inside linebackers not named Eddie Ulofoshio were almost always two steps too slow to the ball (not to mention not having a post-Taylor Rapp thumper at safety), but the defensive line didn’t make their job much easier. Unlike what we’d gotten used to seeing, they didn’t particularly impose their will in the trenches; they didn’t get much push off the line, nor did they plug gaps particularly well when scheme dictated it. So while I — just like probably most of you — primarily place the run defense’s struggles on their inside linebackers, it’d be naive to not point out the interior defensive line’s role in that the last couple seasons.

Furthermore, a few years ago, the sentence “UW’s pass defense is super well-positioned from the edge, but they could be extra lethal if the tackles could collapse the pocket too” would sound nuts. We were so used to dynamite interior defensive linemen and inconsistent outside pass rush play until so recently, that to see the situation flipped is pretty bizarre. While UW’s defense rotates tackles liberally, I’d argue Tuli is the de facto most important player there until proven otherwise. So if he improves in that realm, Washington’s pass defense could be one of the best we’ve seen under the Pete-Lake era.

Poll

Who will be Washington’s breakout player on defense?

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    Dom Hampton
    (100 votes)
  • 9%
    Julius Irvin
    (41 votes)
  • 15%
    Bralen Trice
    (64 votes)
  • 25%
    Sav’ell Smalls
    (108 votes)
  • 25%
    Tuli Letuligasenoa
    (106 votes)
419 votes total Vote Now

The Verdict

Bralen Trice — Edge

I know I said this about my last 30 Day Countdown piece, but this one really feels up in the air.

My gut is that Irvin and Hampton win the starting-ish safety spots (especially with Asa Turner out at the moment and missing valuable reps), but that won’t be known until a while after this piece is published. If that’s the case, either or both of them could make a huge difference both against the pass and run compared to what we saw the last two seasons. But in the meantime, the nature of UW’s defensive rotation and ZTF’s absence for at least the first 8-10 weeks of the season means Trice has a huge opportunity for playing time and impact.

Now obviously this means Smalls does too seeing as they play the same position, but my gut is that Trice’s extra year in the program and the repeated, effusive praise we’re hearing for him out of fall camp is worth heeding. Again, I’m not gonna expect Trice to necessarily live up the sheer magnitude of the comparisons he’s receiving because that’s setting myself up for a bad time, but there’s a huge opportunity to be had and I’m expecting him to make something of it.

In other words, uh, who knows and I’m probably wrong.

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