If standout safety Budda Baker is the face of UW’s top-ranked defense and hard-hitting linebackers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria are the heart and soul, then Elijah Qualls is the Huskies’ booming voice that never stops chattering.
With his helmet in one hand and his long curly locks flowing out of a purple bandanna, Elijah Qualls stood on the far side of the practice field adjacent to Husky Stadium yelling derisive comments at teammates.
It’s a common scene at Washington’s spring football practices.
Qualls calls it fishing and he hoping to entice someone in a little playful banter to get the competitive juices going during a two-hour morning workout.
“I like to talk during practice, but I’m not really like yelling at the team or anything like that,” he said. “I like trying to get in other people’s heads. I try to get in the offense’s head all the time.
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“Aside from giving them the best look I possibly can by doing the best I possibly can at what I do, helping them get their mental game prepared is my other way of trying to get our offense better.”
Often times, tight end Darrell Daniels takes the bait.
“I just know if I can get a reaction out of anybody and somebody that’s going to reciprocate, it’s going to be Darrell because he’s so competitive,” Qualls said. “If you throw anything at him, he’s going to bring it right back. And I love it. That makes the game so much more fun.”
During Wednesday’s sun-kissed practice on Montlake, Qualls unexpectedly hooked an unlikely suspect – soft-spoken quarterback Jake Browning.
“I was so happy when I got Jake talking back,” Qualls said, flashing a toothy grin. “That was an accomplishment.”
And what does Browning’s trash-talk sound like?
“He’s funny,” Qualls said. “Jake is funny. I don’t remember what he said. But Jake is quiet funny. He’ll throw his little two cents in. Even when we’re hanging out or whatever, he’ll just say some little stuff but it’s like hilarious.”
Aside from his duties at nose tackle, Qualls – a bowling ball of a man who stands 6 feet 1 and weighs 321 pounds — believes part of his job is to be an agitator at practice.
If standout safety Budda Baker is the face of UW’s top-ranked defense and hard-hitting linebackers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria are the heart and soul, then Qualls is the Huskies’ booming voice that never stops chattering.
He gives the Huskies an edgy personality that contrasts with UW’s other and perhaps more accomplished defensive stars such as cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Kevin King and defensive tackle Greg Gaines.
No one doubts Qualls’ star potential, but there’s no guarantees he’ll emerge as UW’s next great defensive lineman.
“Elijah is a great player, but he still has some maturing to do,” said former UW defensive tackle Taniela Tupou said. “Mature as in being that guy.
“Be a guy that everyone knows he’s the one that is going to step up and take things by the handle and be able to lead them. He’s a phenomenal player and a great guy. I just think he needs to step up and take the reins.”
Qualls, who has two years of eligibility remaining, racked up 26 tackles and 4.5 sacks last season. He started the first eight games, then missed the next three due to an ankle injury. He played the final two games as a reserve.
It was a solid year, but nothing like the eye-popping performance of his predecessor Danny Shelton, a first-team All-American who tallied 93 tackles and eight sacks in 2014.
“I’ve tried to distinguish myself from Danny, but if that’s what people want to keep referring back to then it’s not a bad thing,” Qualls said. “He was a first-round (NFL) pick — top 15. So I don’t mind it.
“Danny was one of the strongest people I’ve ever seen and that’s not strength that a lot of people have. And in all honesty, I don’t have that. But I am faster and quicker than Danny. So I try to do what I do while implementing some of what I picked up from him.”
Admittedly, Qualls learned a lot during the year he teamed with Shelton and he’s trying to share his knowledge with the younger Huskies.
Sometimes he wraps a massive arm around a struggling defensive lineman and shares stories of his troubles in 2014, when he contemplated quitting football.
Other times, he motivates with trash talking.
“We’re not out here just to make ourselves better,” Qualls said. “This is a team game. If me helping somebody else – even if that means making them take my job – we’d still be winning and I’d be absolutely fine with that.”
• The Tyee Club is seeking donations to erect a statue at Husky Stadium honoring former coach Don James. The fundraising effort seeks to raise $150,000 by July 1. To make donations, call the Tyee Club office at 206-543-2234 or go online at uwtyeeclub.com.