Onwuzurike's performance against Colorado earned him a spot on the Pro Football Focus national team of the week, along with teammate Ben Burr-Kirven.
The signs are there, and Washington senior defensive tackle Greg Gaines has noticed them more lately the more he has played alongside Levi Onwuzurike.
“Being a D-lineman, it takes time,” Gaines said Tuesday. “It’s hard to come in and be immediately super good. It’s a lot of instinct-type stuff; it takes awhile to develop that instinct and to know where the play is going and feel what the (offensive) lineman is going to do before it even happens.
“I have a weird instinct about that, and he’s starting to develop that.”
That development is happening at just the right time for the No. 15 Huskies (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12), who have counted on Onwuzurike more and more since senior Shane Bowman went down with a broken foot in late September.
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Onwuzurike, a 6-foot-3, 282-pound third-year sophomore from Allen, Texas, had four tackles, one sack and another tackle for loss in the Huskies’ victory over Colorado last Saturday. That performance earned Onwuzurike a spot on the Pro Football Focus national defensive team of the week, joining teammate Ben Burr-Kirven. (It’s Burr-Kirven second appearance on PFF’s national team of the week this season; cornerback Byron Murphy is the only other UW defensive player, from Week 3, recognized on the national team this season.)
PFF wrote that Onwuzurike was “at his best when rushing the passer. On just 17 pass-rush snaps, he recorded five pressures that included a sack and four hurries.”
“He’s really explosive,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “And the more consistent he can get and play at that level, I mean, he can really be something special.”
Already without Bowman, the Huskies were also without senior defensive lineman Jaylen Johnson in the first half against Colorado. Johnson had to serve a first-half suspension as a carry-over from his targeting ejection against Oregon the week before.
That meant the Huskies were asking more of Onwuzurike.
“I do it for Jaylen and Shane. If they’re not in, I’ve got to do it for them,” he said.
Onwuzurike said he’s gotten more comfortable the more he’s been on the field.
“Confidence, for sure, is a big part of it,” he said.
Two things stand out to defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe with Onwuzurike’s development; 1, Onwuzurike is trusting the techniques he’s learned; and 2, he has a better grasp of his assignments, which in turn has cultivated confidence.
“For him, the standard has been elevated,” Malloe said, adding: “He’s really, really strong. But then being strong and knowing when to use that strength, that’s what he’s trying to figure out right now.
“At times he flashes and it looks really, really good; and other times it looks like he’s learning football. So he’s slowly putting it together and I do believe he’s getting better every week.”
Already, Malloe is peeking ahead to 2019, when Onwuzurike will be a leader — perhaps the leader — of the D-line following the gradation of Gaines, Johnson and Bowman.
“I think he wants to take that stance and want teammates to feel that way about him,” Malloe said. “With that, he’s got to raise his game and be like Greg and Jaylen and Bowman.”