Improving the pass rush will be a top priority for the UW defense in 2019.

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Can they do it again?

The Huskies have ranked as the No. 1 scoring defense in the Pac-12 Conference four years running, but Jimmy Lake, Pete Kwiatkowski and the rest of Washington’s defensive staff face perhaps their toughest challenge yet if they’re to lead the conference for a fifth consecutive year.

Nine regular starters from the 2018 defense are gone, including All-American linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, All-American safety Taylor Rapp, All-American cornerback Byron Murphy, Morris Trophy winner Greg Gaines and veteran leaders Jaylen Johnson, Shane Bowman, Tevis Bartlett, Jordan Miller and JoJo McIntosh.

UW Huskies 2019 outlook | What will the offense look like with Jacob Eason and Salvon Ahmed in the backfield? » ]

And yet, even with all those departures, the standard is such that no one should be surprised if the Huskies continue their defensive dominance in 2019.

The cupboard is hardly bare. The Huskies have excellent depth in the secondary, and many of the up-and-comers at all three levels of the defense have played quality snaps the past two seasons.

What’s in store for the UW defense next fall? Here is a projected depth chart and outlook for 2019:

DEFENSIVE LINE

Who’s back

Levi Onwuzurike, jr., 6-3, 282
Josiah Bronson, sr., 6-3, 280*
John Clark, sr., 6-4, 275*
Tuli Letuligasenoa, rs-fr., 6-1, 336
Sam Taimani, rs-fr., 6-1, 318
Mosiah Nasili-Liu, rs-fr., 6-1, 291
Draco Bynum, rs-fr., 6-3, 257
Jason Scrempos, sr., 6-6, 292

Who’s out

Greg Gaines
Shane Bowman
Jaylen Johnson

Who’s new

Jacob Bandes, fr., 6-2, 315
Noa Ngalu, fr., 6-1, 280
Sama Paama, fr., 6-4, 336
Faatui Tuitele, fr., 6-3, 304

*walk-on

Outlook: The leadership core of Greg Gaines, Shane Bowman and Jaylen Johnson has graduated, leaving Levi Onwuzurike as the lone regular returning. It felt as if Onwuzurike was just scratching the surface in 2018 when he posted 34 tackles, 3 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss. A first-team all-Pac-12 academic selection, he has a chance to be on the most productive D-lineman in the Pac-12. Josiah Bronson and John Clark were part of the rotation last fall and could see increased roles in 2019 too.

The real intrigue centers on the freshmen tackles. There’s a lot of them, and they’re enormous. In December, the Huskies signed their highest-ranked D-line class ever, led by top-five tackles Jacob Bandes and Faatui Tuitele. Add in Noa Ngalu and Sama Paama, and that’s some 1,235 pounds of mass added to the roster. How quickly can they get up to speed? Not to be forgotten are the two touted tackles from the 2018 class, Tuli Letuligasenoa and Sam Taimani. The Huskies need them to emerge as regular contributors this fall.

Linebackers Brandon Wellington (13) and DJ Beavers celebrate in 2017. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times, file)
Linebackers Brandon Wellington (13) and DJ Beavers celebrate in 2017. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times, file)

LINEBACKER

Who’s back

Outside
Benning Potoa’e, sr., 6-3, 277
Ryan Bowman, jr., 6-0, 263
Myles Rice, jr., 6-3, 243

Inside
Brandon Wellington, sr., 6-0, 222
MJ Tafisi, rs-fr., 6-0, 221
Edefuan Ulofoshio, rs-fr., 6-0, 226*
Ben Hines, rs-fr., 5-10, 228*

Inside
DJ Beavers, sr., 6-1, 219
Kyler Manu, sr., 6-1, 238
Jackson Sirmon, rs-fr., 6-2, 229

Outside
Joe Tryon, so., 6-5, 267
Ariel Ngata, so., 6-2, 217
Zion Tupuola-Fetui, rs-fr., 6-3, 253

Who’s out

Ben Burr-Kirven
Tevis Bartlett
Matt Preston
Jake Wambaugh

Who’s new
Miki Ah You, fr., 6-0, 207
Josh Calvert, fr., 6-1, 227
Laiatu Latu, fr., 6-4, 272
Bralen Trice, fr., 6-3, 220
Alphonzo Tuputala, fr., 6-2, 249

Outlook: Big questions at linebacker, particularly inside. Brandon Wellington, the former Eastside Catholic star, is an early favorite as the breakout player of the year on defense. Coming off a torn ACL late in the 2017 season, he emerged in the second half of 2018 and had one of his best games in the Rose Bowl (7 tackles, 1 TFL). Beyond Wellington, there’s uncertainty. DJ Beavers has missed a combined 18 games the past two seasons with various injuries. He went down again early in the Rose Bowl with what appeared be a significant lower-leg injury. The Huskies have to hope one of the redshirt freshmen (MJ Tafisi and/or Jackson Sirmon) emerges as a viable option inside.

On the outside, it almost goes without saying: The pass rush must get better. The Huskies had just 24 sacks in 14 games last fall, the program’s fewest since 2008. Safety Taylor Rapp led the team with five sacks, and the two Buck linebackers, Benning Potoa’e and Ryan Bowman, had only one sack each. Joe Tryon emerged late in his redshirt freshman season and finished with two sacks, and he’s another 2019 breakout candidate, along with Ariel Ngata.

Washington’s Kyler Gordon warms up before the Rose Bowl matchup against Ohio State. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
Washington’s Kyler Gordon warms up before the Rose Bowl matchup against Ohio State. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

SECONDARY

Who’s back

Cornerback
Keith Taylor, jr., 6-2, 200
Dom Hampton, rs-fr., 6-2, 200
Zechariah Brown, so., 5-10, 184*

Cornerback
Kyler Gordon, rs-fr., 6-0, 189
Julius Irvin, rs-fr., 6-1, 183
Dustin Bush, sr., 5-9, 178*

Nickelback
Myles Bryant, sr., 5-8, 182
Elijah Molden, jr., 5-11, 190
Angelo Sarchi, rs-fr., 5-10, 197*

Safety
Brandon McKinney, jr., 6-0, 201

Safety
Isaiah Gilchrist, jr., 5-11, 202
Alex Cook, so., 6-1, 185-x

x-position change from wide receiver

Who’s out

JoJo McIntosh
Jordan Miller
Taylor Rapp
Byron Murphy
Austin Joyner
Sean Vergara

Who’s new

Trent McDuffie, fr., 5-11, 187
Kamren Fabiculanan, fr., 6-1, 183
Cameron Williams, fr., 5-11, 183

Outlook: This ought to be fun. To say there are concerns in the secondary is probably overstating things a bit. At the very least, there is a curiosity about how well these young defensive backs can replace the likes of Taylor Rapp, Byron Murphy and JoJo McIntosh. But there’s no question about the talent Jimmy Lake has recruited to the secondary, and that should alleviate any significant concerns. The competition at the two outside cornerback positions will be really interesting throughout the year — throughout the next few years. You can pencil in Keith Taylor as one starting cornerback. Kyler Gordon is the favorite here to start on the other side, but it’s tight. Dom Hampton and Julius Irvin are right there, and all three figure to be key contributors are redshirt freshmen. And Irvin is versatile enough to perhaps even start at safety.

Getting Myles Bryant back for his senior season was important. He’s been one of the team’s surest tacklers the past two seasons, and he’s sneaky fast coming on a corner blitz. Elijah Molden is primed for an expanded role, and maybe he’s an option at safety too? Brandon McKinney and Isaiah Gilchrist are the only returning safeties on the roster. McKinney made his first career start in the Rose Bowl, and Gilchrist played sparingly the past two seasons.

Note: Story has been updated to include Alex Cook, who announced Wednesday on Instagram that he would move from wide receiver to defensive back this spring.

Huskies place kicker Peyton Henry, with punter Race Porter holding. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
Huskies place kicker Peyton Henry, with punter Race Porter holding. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

SPECIAL TEAMS

Who’s back

Kicker
Peyton Henry, so., 5-11, 195*
Van Soderberg, jr., 6-0, 195

Punter
Joel Whitford, sr., 6-3, 212
Race Porter, jr., 6-2, 185

Kick return
Sean McGrew, jr., 5-7, 174
Salvon Ahmed, jr., 5-11, 195

Punt return
Aaron Fuller, sr., 5-11, 186

Long snapper
A.J. Carty, sr., 6-2, 239

Who’s new

Tim Horn, kicker, fr., 6-2, 206

Outlook: There’s work to be done on special teams, but Chris Petersen would tell you the coverage units weren’t as bad as the statistics suggest. The Huskies were ninth in the Pac-12 in allowing 14.6 yards per game on punt return, and sixth in the league in kickoff return yards allowed (63.1 per game). Peyton Henry’s kickoffs resulted in a touchback just 32.9 percent of the time (11th in the Pac-12). At the very least, incoming freshman Tim Horn ought to take over on kickoffs. Henry had a fine debut season as the walk-on redshirt freshman kicker. He converted 16 of his 22 field-goal attempts, though the one heartbreaking miss at the end of regulation at Oregon obviously looms large.