The look said it all.
Midway through the third quarter of Washington’s 17-16 win at Hawaii last Saturday, Huskies defensive linemen Danny Shelton and Hau’oli Kikaha exchanged a glance before the snap. It was a nonverbal cue that signaled what was going to happen next.
“Usually he likes doing his one-on-one rush,” Shelton said of Kikaha. “I looked at him to see if he needed it. We had to call it off because there was a tight end in the mix.”
Kikaha added: “It was the right read against that look and he (Shelton) went in and got the sack. Danny is intelligent. Physically, he has a big advantage against offensive linemen, and now he’s adding a new dimension to his repertoire.”
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It was just one game, but Shelton’s season-opening performance — a career-high 12 tackles, six solos, three for a loss and a personal-best two sacks — perhaps signaled the start of a breakout season for the senior nose tackle who has been saddled with oversized expectations matching his 6-foot-2, 339-pound frame.
The two-time first-team Academic All-Pac-12 performer has always been a standout in the classroom, while his on-field prowess has been steady, but not spectacular. He played in every game as a freshman in 2011 and started the past two seasons.
Despite appearing on several preseason watch lists for postseason awards and being tabbed as a potential first-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft, critics say Shelton’s inconsistent effort has prevented the emotionally volatile defender from being a dominant player.
It appears as if the scouting report needs to be amended.
“He’s light years away from what he used to be,” Kikaha said. “He’s come so far with his style of play and his consistency. His effort has improved so much. He knew what he could do before. Now he’s turned it up to a whole new level where he’s always at 110 percent.
“I don’t want to make it sound bad, but his attitude toward practice has changed from a mentality to where he was going along with it to where he’s controlling it and dominating it. And we know the way you practice is the way you play, so I’m expecting big things from him.”
In previous years, Shelton made his mark as a run-stuffer who often left the field on obvious passing situations, which partially explains why he had just 2.5 sacks the previous three years.
However, all of that has changed this season.
Against Hawaii, Shelton played 72 of Washington’s 97 snaps, which is impressive for a 300-plus pounder, especially since the afternoon was warm and temperatures reached 88 degrees.
“When you’re in a tight game like that, you have to have your best players on the field,” UW defensive line coach Jeff Choate said. “He was finishing plays in the fourth quarter, chasing down screens on the perimeter. I think that speaks to his level of conditioning and the work that he put in in the offseason.”
Shelton’s newfound pass-rushing skills will likely be put to the test Saturday when Washington (1-0) faces pass-happy Eastern Washington (2-0), an FCS powerhouse ranked No. 2 nationally, in a noon home opener at Husky Stadium.
In their last meeting, a 30-27 UW victory in 2011, the Eagles attempted 69 passes.
“They’ve got guys up front that we have to be concerned about,” Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. said. “They have a guy on the edge (Kikaha) who had a lot of sacks last season, and now it looks like their big guy in the middle (Shelton) gets a pretty good push as well.”
Shelton spent most of the summer working on pass-rushing techniques with Kikaha, who had 13 sacks last season — second-most in UW history.
“Anyone watching his film can see right away he’s a technician,” Shelton said of Kikaha.
“He’s quick with his hands. Working with him, I realized I needed to start being more efficient with my hands.”
Before the season, Shelton and Kikaha made a wager that was supposed to remain private until Shelton revealed it last week.
“It’s just a little competition between me and him,” Shelton said.
“He did his thing last year, and we’re going to compete to see where we can take our games this season. It’s a competition in production.”
So far, Shelton leads Kikaha, who had five tackles and one sack last week.
“I thought we were joking when we made that bet,” Kikaha said smiling. “And it was supposed to be just between us.
“But I’m not surprised he’s leading. He played lights out. Nobody could block him. Look at him. And it’s not just his size. His hands have gotten so much better. There aren’t too many centers in the country that can hold up against him.”