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Spring Position Preview: The EDGE

Will the new defense help a loaded position group bounce back?

NCAA Football: Washington at Arizona Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Following up yesterday’s Spring Position Preview breaking down our defensive line, we get to turn our attention to the the perimeter of the defensive front with Inge’s newly minted EDGE position. After a tumultuous 2021 season, its time to see if a recasting of this group can tap into the immense talent in the room

2021: Needing a Bounce Back

NCAA Football: Washington at Stanford Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 season was not great for the OLBs/EDGE group. From a production standpoint, the group took a big step back from the now flukey-looking 2020 season when ZTF tore through the COVID-shortened Pac-12 slate to the tune of 7 sacks in 4 games. With Zion and Ryan Bowman returning, plus talented players like Laiatu Latu, Sav’ell Smalls, and Bralen Trice waiting in the wings, it looked like the OLBs were going to be one of the strongest position groups on the team.

However, despite the depth of talent, the 2020-2021 offseason brought the group’s actual depth into question. ZTF suffered a Achilles injury during last year’s Spring Practices that looked like it’d sideline the team’s resident sack master for the entire 2021 season. To make matters worse, it was discovered that the medical condition that had sidelined Laiatu Latu for the 2020 season was in-fact career ending (at least at the time). While defense still had Ryan Bowman returning for his 6th season as the rock-solid, grizzled veteran, the staff knew it needed to bolster the group’s experience with another starting caliber talent.

Enter Jeremiah Martin from Texas A&M. The 3rd-year player was a top UW target out of high school, and despite tremendous talent, he never quite found a consistent role in Mike Elko’s 4-2-5 defense at TAMU. The hope was that Martin’s talent could be better utilized in UW’s 2-4-5/3-4 defensive scheme that would allow him to play more as a stand-up pass rusher, and he could hopefully step into ZTF’s role opposite of Bowman to allow the younger talent to gradually work their way into the rotation.

Unfortunately, things never seemed to gel on the defense in the way the staff was anticipating. The defense’s persistent issues stopping the run kept the group on their heels, and outside of Bowman, none of the OLBs proved to be stout anchors on the edge. Despite a shot in the arm provided by the miraculous late-season return by ZTF, he clearly wasn’t 100% and was missing a steady running mate like Ryan Bowman, who himself suffered a season-ending injury mid-season. Bralen Trice stepped into the rotation opposite of the constantly rotating lineup, and while he flashed at times, he didn’t quite live up to Ikaika Malloe’s hype from the preseason. In total, the group only managed 7.5 sacks in 2021’s 12 games after posting 8 sacks in 4 games the previous season.

Key Departures & Additions

NCAA Football: California at Washington Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

Departures: Ryan Bowman (Exhausted Eligibility)

Addition: Lance Holtzclaw (HS Signee, Summer Enrollee)

Bowman is the most significant departure or addition from the EDGE group this offseason by a wide margin. Over the course of 5 played-seasons and 49 career games, the former walk-on never stood out as the flashiest talent or the most productive pass rusher, but he was consistently our strongest edge setter/run defender in the OLB room, and he was an excellent compliment to the rotating group of star pass rushers opposite of him. Despite his stature being more akin to a light defensive tackle than an OLB, he turned lemons into lemonade by developing an inside-outside skillset that proved to be the key to a number of our sub-packages. We will struggle to find a player with a similar skill set on the roster.

Holtzclaw is the only scholarship player that joins the EDGE group, but his arrival (Spring or Fall) does not look to have a significant impact on the groups performance this year. A holdover from Lake’s recruiting efforts, Holtzclaw has the physical profile of a DB that’s been miscast as an EDGE player. Despite quick twitch athleticism, Holtzclaw comes in at 6’-3” and just a hair over 200lbs, so considering that Inge’s starting rotation of EDGE players at Fresno were all over 240lbs, I just don’t see a clear path for him to make an impact at EDGE for another 2 or 3 years.

The Roster

Spring 2022 Washington Huskies EDGEs

Name Jersey # Height Weight Class
Name Jersey # Height Weight Class
Jeremiah Martin 3 6-3 270 SR
Bralen Trice 8 6-4 260 SO
Sav'ell Smalls 17 6-3 250 SO
Maurice Heims 45 6-5 255 RS-FR
Jahleel Heath 50 6-3 230 RS-FR
Jordan Lolohea 51 6-2 265 SO
Milton Hopkins Jr. 52 6-3 215 RS-FR
Zion Tuupuola-Fetui 58 6-4 260 JR
Gage Harty 73 6-4 270 JR
Jake Jennings 88 6-4 210 RS-FR
Lance Holtzclaw - 6-3 201 FR

Sorting Out the 4-2-5 Transition

NCAA Football: Washington State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The most significant part about Spring Practices for this group will be how they take to the transition to Inge’s 4-2-5 defense. In theory, this is a departure from the 2-4-5 defense that Coach K brought to Montlake, and it’s certainly a change from the 3-4 fronts that we brought back last season under Gregory, but the 4-2-5 really shouldn’t be that big of a change for the EDGEs.

To the casual fan, the difference between Inge’s 4-2-5 and our old 2-4-5 is mostly semantics. Both defenses were built around an even front (4 on the LOS) and the OLBs/EDGEs are mixing in stand-up and hand-down stances, and both used similar types of athletes at OLB/EDGE (6’-2”+ and 245lbs+). However, in watching Fresno’s tape from last year, where the differences lie between our old OLB role and the new EDGE role are in their roles and responsibilities.

Unlike Lake or Gregory, Inge rarely dropped the EDGEs into coverage, even if they played a bunch of stand-up techniques. Instead, the EDGEs focus on the traditional 4-3 DE responsibilities, which are playing the edge against the run and rushing the passer. These were already the core competencies for our OLBs, so a renewed focus on these tasks without cluttering their responsibilities with pass coverage assignments should be a simplification of duties.

One interesting pattern that I noticed was that it seems like Inge sets his defensive alignments to be field-boundary. There was a field-side EDGE that played more in a hand-down stance with a somewhat greater focus on controlling the edge and a boundary-side EDGE that was usually playing as a stand up rusher. At Fresno, these two starting EDGEs happened to be listed as the exact same size (6’-3” and 246lbs), but I suspect that we will see a more distinct variance in athletic profiles. I expect us to put a bigger EDGE on the field-side to be a run defender like how we played Benning Potoa’e when he was at OLB. Guys like Bralen Trice, Jordan Lolohea, Jeremiah Martin, and converted offensive lineman Gage Harty could all conceivably play this role based strictly on their size.

In reality, Trice and Martin are both more likely to join ZTF, Smalls, and the rest on the boundary-side where athleticism and pass rushing comes at a premium. The boundary EDGE will have the easier transition between the two sides since so much of the technique overlaps with what we were running under the 2-4-5 and 3-4. Regardless of how the specific rotations shake out, a return to run defense fundamentals will be the key to earning playing time this coming season.

Predicted Post-Spring Depth Chart:

Starters: ZTF, Bralen Trice

Rotation: Sav’ell Smalls, Jeremiah Martin, Jordan Lolohea

The Rest: Maurice Heims, Lance Holtzclaw, Milton Hopkins, Jahleel Heath, Gage Harty, Jake Jennings

Let me know what you’ll be watching for from the EDGEs in Spring Practices in the comments below.

And as always,

Go Dawgs