With help from teammates, Onwuzurike emerging as a versatile contributor on the UW defensive line.
The physical talent is there. Levi Onwuzurike’s position coach goes so far to say that the young defensive lineman’s potential is “limitless.”
To cultivate some of that physical talent, to turn it into needed production for the Huskies’ defensive line, Onwuzurike’s fellow linemen have taken it upon themselves to get the redshirt freshman from Texas up to speed — to bring to balance his physical talent and his mental preparation.
“I’m proud of this group,” said Ikaika Malloe, in his second season as UW’s defensive-line coach. “They’re very selfless, and they’re all trying to help him. The faster he can get going in terms of knowing his responsibilities, all of his talent will put things into place.”
Vita Vea and Greg Gaines are massive tackles with All-Pac-12 — if not All-America — potential. They’re as good of a defensive-line combination as the Huskies have had over the past 25 years, and it’s their responsibility to set a physical tone for the Pac-12’s top defense the past two seasons.
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As much as anything, their most important responsibility this year is helping Onwuzurike realize his potential.
“Those guys are taking him aside and teaching him things and trying to pick up his game,” Malloe said. “Everybody’s trying to improve everybody.”
Jaylen Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 301-pound junior, said all veterans on the line are trying to become better teachers for their younger teammates.
“We’re a very strong unit, and we’re all really close,” Johnson said. “We don’t leave our young guys behind us at all. We tell everyone get ready to go as if you’re going to play on game day. Just like Levi, we have the other young guys — Ricky McCoy, Jason Scrempos, Jared Pulu — they’re all really good guys and really good players.”
Going through UW’s conditioning program for the first time, Onwuzurike (pronounced own-zur-EE-kay) gained 30 pounds of good weight this offseason, Malloe said. At 290 pounds, Onwuzurike can play just about anywhere on the defensive line, and Malloe said he will use him in a similar fashion with which he used Elijah Qualls last year.
“Levi is going to be a big-time contributor,” defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said Wednesday. “He’s got the tools to be a very good football player.”
Johnson emerging, too
Like Onwuzurike, Johnson is being asked to step into a greater role. A year ago, Johnson appeared poised for such breakthrough season, but those plans were disrupted by a knee injury sustained in a team scrimmage during fall camp.
Johnson missed the first month of the season with what he described as an MCL strain. It wasn’t until December that he finally felt healthy again — and it showed against Alabama in the national semifinal, when Johnson started and had the best game of his UW career (three tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss).
“That game was big for me mentally,” he said. “That was the first time I was confident in my lower half coming off the injury in the first half of the season. It just proved to me that I can compete a high level with some top-level guys. It just made me that much hungrier and that much more driven to push myself in the weight room and on the field to be even better this year and to stand out as the player that people want and expect me to be.”
Johnson has been a regular with the first-team defense this month.
“Ending the way he did against Alabama was really a good beginning for him, and it carried over into the offseason and into the summer,” Malloe said. “He’s definitely taken a step in the right direction in terms of his leadership and in his fundamentals. His fundamentals are on point. So he’s really taken advantage of the opportunities right now.”