Bob Gregory is shining a light on Washington’s weakness.
In 2019, UW’s defense allowed 4.03 yards per carry — the worst mark since Jimmy Lake arrived on Montlake six years earlier. And in four games last fall, that number further inflated to 4.54 yards per carry — ranking seventh in the Pac-12 and 80th in the country. Outside of a walkover win over toothless Arizona, the Huskies surrendered an average of 191 rushing yards against Oregon State, Utah and Stanford.
Gregory, UW’s eighth-year inside linebackers coach and first-year defensive coordinator, is making sure his players know these numbers.
“We’ve got to talk about it. There’s no doubt,” he said last month. “I think it was around 200 yards we gave up last year — which, we’re not going to win a lot of games if we give up 200 yards rushing. So talking about it, putting more emphasis on how we’re taking on blocks, striking blockers better, getting another guy up in the box to stop the run. It’s a philosophy. It’s a mentality. It’s teaching it more, spending more time on it, being more aggressive with it, getting another guy in the box scheme-wise. So it’s a little bit of everything.”
And it isn’t all talk. After traditionally relying on two defensive linemen in a system that emphasizes the secondary, Washington routinely added a third big body up front this spring. In those packages, sophomore Faatui Tuitele joined junior stalwarts Tuli Letuligasenoa and Sam “Taki” Taimani with the starters.
But how often will UW deploy its extra defensive lineman? And will that schematic adjustment yield the intended results? Will shining a light allow Washington’s defense to grow, or wilt?
While we wait for answers, let’s dissect UW’s depth chart on the defensive line.
Tuli Letuligasenoa, junior, 6-2, 310, Concord, Calif.
Faatui Tuitele, sophomore, 6-3, 310, Honolulu, Hawaii
Noa Ngalu, sophomore, 6-1, 300, East Palo Alto, Calif.
Voi Tunuufi, freshman, 6-1, 270, South Jordan, Utah
Sam “Taki” Taimani, junior, 6-2, 330, Salt Lake City, Utah
Jacob Bandes, sophomore, 6–2, 305, Pittsburg, Calif.
Kuao Peihopa, freshman, 6-3, 320, Makakilo, Hawaii
Draco Bynum, junior, 6-4, 280, Wilsonville, Ore.
Throughout the Chris Petersen era, UW depended on a steady stream of dominant defensive linemen: Danny Shelton, then Vita Vea, then Greg Gaines, then Levi Onwuzurike.
It’s unclear if anyone on Washington’s current roster is capable of taking that torch.
But Letuligasenoa — a 6-foot-2, 310-pound redshirt junior — certainly seems like the most likely candidate.
“He’s very, very passionate,” Lake said. “He’s obviously a really good football player. He does bring a lot of emotion to the defense. And now, he’s actually even better at keeping his poise. He was probably one of the main ones I had to hold back (from fighting) a few times here during training camp last year. But I love it. I love the guys that bring the energy, that bring the juice. That just is infectious to the other players around him.”
In his fourth year on campus, Letuligasenoa is learning to channel that emotion. And most importantly, he’s healthy, after missing two of the Huskies’ four games last fall. Dubbed “the twins” because of their instant connection, Letuligasenoa and Taimani both flashed this spring and will be counted on to stone the run and collapse opposing offensive lines. Tuitele and Jacob Bandes — a pair of sophomores and former four-star recruits — will likely contribute as well.
Junior Draco Bynum, meanwhile, missed the end of the spring with a foot injury and posted on social media that he had surgery, which could put his 2021 season in jeopardy. The 6-4, 280-pound Bynum has yet to record a tackle in four career games.
But, beyond the current core, Gregory also got an intriguing glimpse of UW’s future up front this spring. Freshmen Kuao Peihopa and Voi Tunuufi both enrolled early and occasionally flashed in 15 April practices. The 6-3, 320-pound Peihopa is an impressive physical force, while Tunuufi’s first step may be the best on the team. But at 6-1 and 270 pounds, Tunuufi could conceivably slide to outside linebacker as well.
“I’m really happy with those two guys,” Gregory said of Peihopa and Tunuufi. “They’re certainly going to be really good football players here. Kuao (who enrolled for the winter quarter) came a little bit earlier than Voi. But for two freshmen, we feel pretty pleased about those two guys.”
Still, barring injury issues, expect both to redshirt in 2021. The Huskies will likely rely on a rotation featuring Letuligasenoa, Taimani, Tuitele and Bandes, with sophomore Noa Ngalu (who had an impressive Purple vs. Gold game) possibly working into the picture as well.
Can that group flip Washington’s recent weakness into a run-stopping strength?
Time will tell. And after spending the previous two seasons in a quality control role, it’s up to first-year defensive line coach Rip Rowan to deliver consistent results.
“I think just preaching consistency day in and day out (is the most important thing),” Rowan said. “We’ve had games the past two years I’ve been here where we’ve been really good, and then maybe not so good the next week. I think they need to hear consistency. They’ve put good stuff on tape before, but not on a consistent basis.
“So that’s really in our room what we’re preaching day in and day out. We have to be consistent. We have to be the same. We have to bring it every day. I think that is the biggest thing.”
Coming tomorrow: inside linebackers