Facing a semicircle of cameras and recorders, with his face concealed behind sunglasses and a simultaneously graying and fraying beard, Chuck Morrell was asked how quickly Ulumoo Ale can become a force on UW’s defensive line.
“When’s our first game?” responded UW’s co-defensive coordinator Friday, following the Huskies’ second practice of preseason camp.
“Sept. 3,” said the reporter, playing along.
“OK,” came Morrell’s conclusive answer. “Sounds like a good day to me.”
Of course, the upside is obvious — as Ale stands at 6-foot-6 and 333 pounds, a monster truck trained to crush rows of compact cars. And yet, it remains a legitimate question, considering the Tacoma product’s relative inexperience on the defensive side. Ale signed with Washington as an offensive lineman in 2018 and started 10 games at left guard across the past two seasons, before being asked by the Huskies’ new staff to switch sides of the line.
Between April and August, Ale — the 2A Mountain Division defensive lineman of the year as a junior at Fife High School in 2016 — has completed 17 total practices as a defensive lineman, after more than four years removed from the role.
But UW’s staff — which has placed Ale alongside junior Tuli Letuligasenoa with the starters in each of the first two preseason practices — is hoping he remembers how to ride the bike.
“We’re just really pushing him out there and trying to help him reach his ceiling as fast as possible,” UW head coach Kalen DeBoer said Thursday. “His growth is supported by how hard he has pursued this. It wasn’t a ‘test the waters’ thing when this decision was made to move him over. He was all in from the beginning. He’s been rewarded because he deserves it.
“Putting him out there with the ones quite a bit today … if he can keep that growth happening, man, he could be a difference maker. Because his body is tough to move. He takes up a lot of space and he’s so powerful and strong.”
Granted, he doesn’t take up quite as much space these days — and that’s by design. Ale was listed at 362 pounds when he arrived at Washington in 2018, and played at 355 in 2021. He has dropped 22 pounds in the last few months and hopes to hover around 330 this fall, with the strength to capsize rushing lanes and the quickness to corral opposing quarterbacks.
Ale’s weight loss secret is surprisingly simple.
“Just say no,” he said. “Just say no to the food.”
Rather than surviving off sporadic but gargantuan feasts, Ale has transformed into a small — but frequent — feeder.
“I used to eat maybe twice a day, but I’d have big meals,” said Ale, who consumes a steady diet of yogurt and bananas. “We have [director of football performance nutrition Alison VandenBerghe], who has been a great resource. She’s been showing me how to spread it out throughout the day. I find myself needing to eat less because I eat so often.”
He’s hoping to eat more often against opposing offensive lines.
And that would be a welcome development for UW, considering veteran starter Sam “Taki” Taimani transferred to rival Oregon this offseason. Sophomores Faatui Tuitele, Voi Tunuufi and Jacob Bandes, and redshirt freshman Kuao Peihopa are all in the running for increased defensive line reps as well.
Regardless of the eventual rotation, the Huskies will have to improve upon a pitiable 2021 season in which they ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in opponent yards per carry (4.76) and 11th in rushing defense (194 yards allowed per game).
It would help to have a 330-pound wrecking ball regularly swinging on UW’s defensive line.
“Right now I feel comfortable,” Ale said. “For the most part I get told what to do. It’s not like the offense where I had to really think. I get told where to go, where to set up, and from there I try to make my reads and play my aiming points.”
Of course, it isn’t that easy — but Ale, for one, embraces change. The fifth-year junior was born in Samoa but moved at a young age to Australia, where he became a three-time Golden Gloves heavyweight champion boxer. He also excelled in rugby, before moving to Tacoma before 10th grade and trying discus, shot put and, eventually, football.
After going by a nickname — M.J. — for his first several seasons in Seattle, Ale decided on yet another change.
“I take my dad’s name, and I thought it’d be nice if my dad could hear his name when I take the field,” said Ale, who now asks to be referred to by his legal name, Ulumoo. “I know it’s a mouthful, but that was really the main factor.”
If Morrell gets his wish, that name will ring through Husky Stadium in the season opener Sept. 3 against Kent State.
That would be a good day indeed.
- Though sophomore defensive lineman Voi Tunuufi — who tied for the team lead with three sacks last fall — dropped 17 pounds this offseason, DeBoer said the 6-1, 258-pound remains an interior defensive lineman (for now). “I know that we need him there [on the interior] and we feel good about our edge position,” DeBoer said. “But he has certainly got that body type that could go either way. He was causing some problems in the backfield today, I know that. He’s so quick off the ball and still so strong. I really was impressed with him. He was a defensive lineman who was in the backfield quite often today in different ways, both against the run and the pass.”