The combination of Elijah Qualls, Greg Gaines and Vita Vea has a chance to be the best interior defensive line in the Pac-12.
Last year, the Huskies’ defense held opponents to a Pac-12-low 18.8 points per game, the first time UW led the conference in scoring defense since the Don James era. The bulk of that defense is back, with eight regular starters returning for 2016. Continuing our fall-camp previews, today we look at the defensive line.
Projected depth chart:
DE — Jaylen Johnson, so., 6-3, 285/Shane Bowman, so., 6-4, 290/Benning Potoa’e, rs-fr., 6-3, 271/Jason Scrempos, rs-fr., 6-6, 279/Levi Onwuzurike, fr., 6-4, 262/John Clark, rs-fr., 6-4, 271*/Jared Pulu, rs-fr., 6-4, 260*
NT — Elijah Qualls, jr., 6-1, 321/Vita Vea, so., 6-5, 329
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DT — Greg Gaines, so., 6-2, 318/Ricky McCoy, rs-fr., 6-2, 302/Damion Turpin, sr., 6-3, 284/
2015 review: One of the team’s biggest question marks going into 2015, the defensive line ended up being the Huskies’ most pleasant surprise. Having to replace the entire starting unit from 2014 — including All-Americans Danny Shelton and Hau’oli Kikaha, plus the underrated Andrew Hudson and Evan Hudson — the line helped lead the charge for the Pac-12’s best defense. Senior Taniela Tupou (now in Seahawks camp) emerged as a versatile team leader, and nose tackle Elijah Qualls was playing at an all-Pac-12 level before an October leg injury kept him out for a month. Redshirt freshman Greg Gaines filled in for Qualls and impressed enough to earn all-Pac-12 honorable mention. The line’s success helped coach Jeff Choate land his first head-coaching job at Montana State. To replace Choate, Chris Petersen brought former UW safety Ikaika Malloe back to Montlake.
2016 outlook: The combination of Qualls, Gaines and Vita Vea has a chance to be the best interior of any line in the Pac-12, and UW coaches will try to find creative ways to get all three on the field together (especially in obvious run downs). There’s quality depth, experience and versatility throughout the line, and it’s fair to expect this group can maintain the standard set the past two seasons. Qualls is the emotional leader of the defense, and coaches have worked with him to channel those emotions into positive behavior.
“We’re never satisfied with anything. That’s my blessing and my curse: I’m never satisfied with anything in general,” Qualls said this spring. “I always want more, which, for the most part, makes me very ambitious. But there’s also times where it gets me in a little trouble (laughs) and makes me a little distracted. But no, man, we always want to be better, we always want to be the absolute best. Even with the offense, if we hold them out (of the end zone) all practice, if they got a first down that practice, we’re upset. Because that could be that first down that somebody else needs and we gave that up. So we’re never content. We’re always working toward perfection. So are we close to where we want to be hopefully by the time the season starts? Not really. But at the same time, are we close to where we need to be right now? Absolutely.”
Jaylen Johnson is the line’s No. 1 breakout candidate this season. Freshman Levi Onwuzurike is an intriguing candidate for early playing time, and it will be interesting to see if redshirt freshman Benning Potoa’e sticks at end after playing outside linebacker during his redshirt season last year. Jason Scrempos and Jared Pulu, meanwhile, missed spring ball while recovering from injuries.