What’s a fair expectation for UW’s defense?

Elijah Molden said, “Hmm,” and considered the question, allowing a not-so-subtle smile to creep across his face. It’s as if he had pocket aces and couldn’t conceal his excitement.

Plus, he had to wait an extra week to turn over his cards.

“I’m thinking physicality, for sure, first and foremost,” said the senior nickelback, after taking a full five seconds to ponder his response. “I’m thinking quarterback pressure, for sure. I mean, our guys are getting off the ball really fast. We’ll see on Saturday.”

But UW’s defense on Saturday might also deceive. After all, in last November’s 19-7 win over Oregon State, the Beavers’ lone touchdown came via a Jacob Eason pick-six. They managed 88 passing yards, 31 rushing yards, 1.4 yards per carry and six total first downs. Molden snagged a fourth-down interception, outside linebacker Joe Tryon piled up 4.5 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks, and inside linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio added nine more tackles and 1.5 sacks to earn Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors along the way.

In all, it was UW’s most dominant defensive performance in a somewhat underwhelming season.

So, what happens Saturday — when the Huskies hope to beat the Beavers for the ninth consecutive time — could be little more than a Montlake mirage.

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But, to produce a satisfying sequel, UW will have to slow down Oregon State running back Jermar Jefferson all the same.

“He’s another one of those big running backs that you guys know I like,” UW head coach Jimmy Lake said of the 5-foot-10, 217-pound Jefferson, who produced 170 total yards and three touchdowns in last weekend’s 38-28 loss to Washington State. “He runs powerful. He runs behind his pads and he’s nifty with his feet at that size. Their O-line and their offensive scheme, they do a really good job of covering people up and pushing guys off the ball.

“He is definitely one of the top running backs in our conference, and the stats show it. You can just tell he’s also going to be a player that, if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to play at the next level as well. We will have our hands full on Saturday night.”

And they may have their hands full with Tristan Gebbia as well. In his second career start at Oregon State last Saturday, the former Nebraska quarterback completed 34 of 48 passes (70.8%) for 329 yards and a touchdown.

“(He’s a) talented player,” Lake said. “I remember seeing this player when he was coming up as a recruit. He played sparingly last year. He’s athletic. That’s the big difference from the quarterback they had last year (Jake Luton). Nothing against him. He’s obviously a really good player. He’s in the NFL now.

“But (Gebbia) can run and he can spin it. He’s got good size, and any quarterback that can really extend the play with their feet always causes defenses issues.”

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But, beyond the Beavers, let’s get back to the bigger picture: what can a deep UW defense accomplish in 2020? Considering their secondary experience — including Molden, cornerbacks Trent McDuffie, Keith Taylor and Kyler Gordon, and safeties Asa Turner, Alex Cook and Cameron Williams, etc. — the Huskies’ ceiling could conceivably stretch into the clouds.

But they must prove capable of replacing senior standout Levi Onwuzurike along the defensive line. Last month, co-defensive coordinator Ikaika Malloe conceded that, “obviously with Levi, what he brought to the table, that’s like two guys trying to combine to be Levi. Replacing him will be nearly impossible. But what we can do is build and hopefully find the next Levi.”

Of course, returning contributors Josiah Bronson, Tuli Letuligasenoa and Sam Taimani will all be counted on to fill that void. And Faatui Tuitele and Jacob Bandes — a pair of redshirt freshmen and former four-star recruits — could potentially carve out roles in the rotation as well.

The end goal remains improving upon a unit that allowed 4.03 yards per carry in conference play last season — the worst figure by far of the Chris Petersen era. But the defensive line can’t do that alone.

A marked improvement will also require UW’s inside linebackers — namely, Ulofoshio and Jackson Sirmon — to outperform what seniors Brandon Wellington and Kyler Manu produced last fall. Ulofoshio, specifically, is expected to take significant steps after exploding for 47 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and a forced fumble in his redshirt freshman season.

And even if all that happens, the Huskies must produce an improved pass rush as well. Without redshirt junior Joe Tryon — who led UW with 12.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 2019 — outside linebackers Laiatu Latu, Ryan Bowman, Sav’ell Smalls and Zion Tupuola-Fetui will be under pressure to create some of their own.

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Remember, despite Tryon’s relative ascendance, UW ranked just seventh in the Pac-12 in sacks per game (2.23) and ninth in tackles for loss per game (5.46) last fall.

As a unit, the Huskies finished third in both scoring defense (19.4 points allowed per game) and total defense (348.6 yards allowed per game) — behind 12-2 Oregon and 11-3 Utah, who just so happened to meet in the Pac-12 title game.

So, what’s a fair expectation for UW’s defense?

The team’s success (or failure) may depend on the answer.

“In every position group, I think we can be great — the best Washington defense we’ve had since I’ve been here, I believe,” Molden said prior to the beginning of fall camp in September. “We’re pretty young in some areas, and especially with Levi and Joe leaving, it’s a good challenge. But I think we’re up for it.”

Added senior cornerback Keith Taylor on Tuesday, when asked the same question: “I feel like it’s going to be a good year for our defense. I’d just say, expect a lot from us.”