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Spring Position Rundown: The Edge

No, not Bono’s guitarist and singer of the Rattle and Hum sleeper, Van Diemen’s Land.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Washington at Washington State Photo by Oliver McKenna/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to day *mumbles unintelligably* of our spring position previews. Today, we’re talking about the edge rushers, outside linebackers, defensive ends, whatever you want to call them.

2022 Redux

We’ve got quite a bit below so won’t go too long here, but the edge rushers were definitely a strongsuit on a defense that had some prettyyyyy, prettyyyyyy big weaknesses. They mostly continued on from progress made in 2020 and 2021, with Bralen Trice having a particular breakout year with 10 sacks and being named to a few All-American lists and many All-Pac-12 first teams. ZTF, meanwhile, continued working back to his absurd 2020 year after missing much of last season while rehabbing his achilles injury, and Jeremiah Martin continued to provide a less flashy but steady and impactful presence. Did you know he had 8.5 sacks? Many of us probably forgot since he was simply so valuable in less obvious ways by reading plays and being in the right place at the right time.

So that’s pretty much that.

Notable Additions and Departures

Arrivals: Sophomore transfer Zach Durfee, 6’5,” 251 lbs, freshman early-enrollee Anthony James, 6’5,” 264 lbs

Four star Anthony James finished the week of San Antonio’s All-American Bowl practices and game and then shortly thereafter came up to Montlake in January. A bit more unconventionally intriguing, though, is Durfee, who dominated at the DII — no, not FCS, you read that right, DII — level as a redshirt freshman before being courted as a transfer by many Power 5 FBS schools this December.

Departures: Jeremiah Martin

Other than Martin exhausting his eligibility and presumably moving on to the pros, we don’t have too much to cover here.

The biggest development, one could argue, isn’t even a development at all, but rather the lack thereof: the fact that Kalen DeBoer was able to convince all of Bralen Trice, Zion Tupuola-Fetui, and Sav’ell Smalls to stay at Washington. Between the former two excelling and the latter’s up-and-down production, it was reasonably speculated that we’d have at least one early NFL declaration and probably a transfer out too.

Instead, Washington heads into spring with three of their four edge rushers who saw the most time on the field still in the program. Nice.

With them still in the fold, that leaves the spring roster as follows:

So. Milton Hopkins, 6’4,” 226 lbs

rFr. Lance Holtzclaw, 6’3,” 224 lbs

So. Maurice Heims*, 6’5,” 246 lbs

Sr. Sekai Asoau-Afoa, 6’4,” 276 lbs

So. Jake Jennings, 6’4,” 236 lbs

Freshman Jacob Lane will also join for fall camp, and Maurice Heims suffered a pretty significant neck (or some sort of scary upper body) injury early on that will presumably leave him out for the rest of the spring, hence the asterisk.

Vibe Check and Things to Watch

Vibes: Pretty good.

It’s not unthinkable that the graduation of Jeremiah Martin has a greater effect than we’re all anticipating. Really, he’s kind of the perfect candidate for his absence being underestimated — not flashy, but a sneakily productive snap-munching mainstay. So perhaps the edge room has a bigger hill to climb without Martin than we’d expect.

Still though, this is a group that in an alternate timeline could be completely rebuilding, so the fact that they’re not only not doing that, but are actually able to build off last season’s momentum is pretty dang significant.

As for what we’ll be looking for this spring, Max already mentioned Voi Tunuufi’s positional ambiguity — having slimmed down massively, it feels unthinkable he could be a true defensive interior lineman, and yet he’s still listed as such.

Otherwise, what I’ll be looking at:

Zach Durfee has barely played defensive end, and still crushed it last fall at a lower level. Now what?

There’s obviously the caveat “against” hyping Durfee up too much, that his domination as a redshirt freshman came against a much lower level of competition. But equally intriguing — and overshadowed — is the caveat against not hyping him up, which it feels like hasn’t really been discussed that much:

Zach Durfee has only played defense for a year. That is a lot of developmental runway left to work with.

For as much as we all are telling ourselves to temper expectations as he adjusts not just to D1 but Power 5 football, there’s the opposite side of knowing he dominated his last level as essentially a defensive toddler, from the perspective of where his development was at.

Durfee was a quarterback in high school, redshirted his first year while they converted him to edge rusher, and then exploded last season. For as much as he’ll have a huge speed and strength increase to adapt to in his opponents at Washington, his own natural progression is still in its infancy. It’ll be quite interesting to see which of these factors initially wins out in spring, and how his development progresses.

What does Sav’ell Smalls’ progression look like?

The beginning of Smalls’ college career has been a bit more up-and-down than he or Washington fans would’ve preferred. Despite his high recruiting rating, this isn’t that crazy — we all knew he was a relatively raw five/high-four star who’d need a while to get things going, and it’s not like the absurd shifting sands of the Jimmy Lake era in which Smalls found himself were a particularly stable foundation in which to figure things out.

Last year as a sophomore, he definitely had some moments of losing contain, but those seemed to lessen as the season went on in place of more times where he demonstrated improvement in reading the offense and making a play. This season felt very much like we were watching the non-linear-ness of progression; there were some steps forward, a step back, etc.

Considering the unhelpful environment of his first two seasons and the fact that progress even in a good environment isn’t linear, that to me feels like it maybe, just maybe could be a foundation for some sneakily productive things to come from him. After all, for as much as we love edge rushers to just go wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines, they can only let loose so much if they have to “think” about their job any given play. Or at least, that’s the case if they don’t want to be a massive gap liability in the name of getting after the quarterback.

Last year was progress — albeit unflashy and imperfect, as the first steps of progress tend to be — what comes next?

With Heims out, do Hopkins or Holtzclaw (or James) show glimpses of establishing themselves?

That next second level of younger players in the room is always fun to keep an eye on — it feels like Trice was just there. Normally, Heims would be the headliner for lack of better words of this echelon, but he’s obviously out. Now what?

Despite being a PWO, Hopkins was always a really interesting case as a lanky quarterback in high school with lots of potential on defense, although unlike Zach Durfee he also played edge in high school too. Holtzclaw was a level above him coming out of high school, evaluation-wise, but is kind of a similar boat too as far as a tantalizing but not super polished player. He also played in three games last season and won the scout team MVP at the end of year banquet, which has boded well for players in the past.

While Durfee probably has the leg up on filling that soft fourth spot in the top edge rotation, I’ll be keeping an eye on practice reports to see who else of the young guys might take another step.

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