Washington is looking for a new defensive coordinator.
And whoever Huskies coach Jimmy Lake hires will inherit a whole lot of returning talent.
In the defensive front seven specifically, UW struggled at times last season but brings back everybody but graduate student defensive lineman Josiah Bronson. In a shortened four-game 2020 campaign, inside linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio and outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui emerged as two of the West Coast’s premier defensive players.
Still, there are questions to be answered — both regarding the coaching staff and UW’s defensive personnel. So, as our 2021 position primer series continues, let’s take a look at the Huskies’ linebackers and defensive line.
Tuli Letuligasenoa, rs.-so., 6-2, 305
Sam “Taki” Taimani, rs.-so., 6-2, 335
Faatui Tuitele, rs.-fr., 6-3, 305
Jacob Bandes, rs.-fr., 6-2, 315
Noa Ngalu, rs.-fr., 6-1, 290
Draco Bynum, rs.-so., 6-4, 270
Kuao Peihopa, fr., 6-3, 300
Voi Tunuufi, fr., 6-2, 270
Siaosi Finau, fr., 6-4, 280
Outlook: The experience is there, as is the talent.
But Washington football fans still are waiting for results.
Last season, the UW defensive line inarguably underwhelmed — ranking fifth in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (161.25 yards allowed per game) and seventh in opposing yards per carry (4.54), by far the worst numbers since Jimmy Lake arrived in Seattle in 2014. UW defensive linemen combined for a grand total of two tackles for loss with zero sacks and zero forced fumbles in four games.
In their final two games, against Utah and Stanford, the Huskies surrendered 406 rushing yards and 4.95 yards per carry.
“We’re not where we should be, at all, from the standards that we set to the standards of Husky football, and every D-lineman out there knows what it is,” UW co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe said the week after the Stanford defeat. “I talk to (former UW defensive line coach) Randy Hart still to this day, and I guarantee he’s not pleased with (how the defensive line has played). We’ve got our work cut out for us.
“What the fans expect of a Husky defensive line, I promise you, they understand it and they expect it and they accept it. But we’ve got to go out and perform. We’ve got to show Husky Nation as well as ourselves that we can be what everybody knows to be the standard of defensive lines here at the University of Washington.”
Of course, the Huskies’ continuity could allow for significant improvement this fall. Despite the departure of Bronson, three other seasoned contributors and former four-star recruits — Tuli Letuligasenoa, Sam “Taki” Taimani and Faatui Tuitele — will return in 2021. Redshirt freshman Jacob Bandes might earn a role in the rotation as well.
As for true freshmen, 300-pound early enrollee Kuao Peihopa and 270-pound pass-rusher Voi Tunuufi could realistically find the field this fall, while Renton product Siaosi Finau appears primed for a redshirt season.
Regardless of who plays, UW needs to more consistently win at the point of attack.
Edefuan Ulofoshio, rs.-so., 6-0, 230
Jackson Sirmon, rs.-so., 6-3, 230
M.J. Tafisi, rs.-so., 6-0, 230
Alphonzo Tuputala, rs.-fr., 6-2, 225
Daniel Heimuli, rs.-fr, 6-0, 215
Miki Ah You, rs-fr., 6-1, 210
Josh Calvert, rs.-fr. 6-2, 235
Carson Bruener, fr., 6-2, 215
Zion Tupuola-Fetui, rs.-so., 6-3, 280
Ryan Bowman, rs.-sr., 6-0, 280
Laiatu Latu, so., 6-4, 265
Sav’ell Smalls, fr., 6-3, 250
Cooper McDonald, fr., 6-3, 235
Bralen Trice, rs.-fr., 6-3, 240
Jordan Lolohea, fr., 6-2, 270
Will Latu, fr., 6-2, 230
Maurice Heims, fr., 6-6, 245
Outlook: The Huskies’ standout linebackers hail from outside the continental United States.
Edefuan Ulofoshio — a 6-foot, 230-pound former walk-on from Anchorage, Alaska — was named a second-team All-Pac-12 performer and a Phil Steele and Pro Football Focus honorable mention All-American following a season that saw him lead Washington with 47 tackles in four games. The ascendant inside linebacker added four pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and a sack as well, and should serve as the Huskies’ defensive heartbeat for the next several seasons.
But UW’s best defensive player in 2020 came as even more of a surprise. An injury to sophomore outside linebacker Laiatu Latu cleared the way for Zion Tupuola-Fetui — who sputtered in a reserve role the previous fall but then promptly produced 13 tackles, seven sacks, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in four games last fall. The 6-3, 280-pounder from Pearl City, Hawaii, was named a first-team All-Pac-12 performer and second-team All-American by The Athletic and Walter Camp after leading the nation with 1.75 sacks per game.
But, apart from Ulofoshio and “ZTF,” who else will emerge? On the inside, redshirt sophomore Jackson Sirmon started all four games last season but struggled to establish himself as a standout performer. Redshirt sophomore M.J. Tafisi and redshirt freshman Alphonzo Tuputala each worked into the rotation as well.
With another offseason to build strength and absorb their assignments, it’ll be interesting to see whether Tuputala or redshirt freshmen Daniel Heimuli, Miki Ah You and Josh Calvert can step into a starting spot. Expect four-star true freshman Will Latu to utilize a redshirt season to become closely acquainted with UW strength and conditioning coach Tim Socha.
Meanwhile, the Huskies bring back every one of their scholarship outside linebackers — including starters Tupuola-Fetui and Ryan Bowman. A sixth-year senior, Bowman is equally adept at rushing the passer and stuffing the run and is capable of sliding inside on passing downs. When Bowman missed the final two games last season, his presence was desperately missed by UW.
After sitting out the entire 2020 season with an unknown injury, the status of Laiatu Latu — a 6-4, 265-pound sophomore and former four-star recruit — is somewhat unclear. If healthy, he should pair with emerging second-year freshmen Sav’ell Smalls and Cooper McDonald to provide quality depth and pass-rush prowess at the outside linebacker position.
Outside linebacker signee Maurice Heims — a native of Germany who is athletically impressive but undeniably raw — will almost certainly redshirt this fall, but he shouldn’t be needed.
Behind Tupuola-Fetui, Bowman, Latu, Smalls and Co., the Huskies should be set on the outside — even without departed defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Pete Kwiatkowski.