Levi Onwuzurike is looking to build off the blocks.
The first came on Sept. 4, 2015, during Allen (Texas) High School’s 56-20 win over Viera. Onwuzurike — then a consensus three-star senior defensive lineman — crouched between the center and right guard as Viera lined up for an extra point. When the ball was snapped, the 260-pound torpedo split a double team, burst through the line and swatted the attempt with two hands. Then he chased the bouncing ball, scooped it up at the 25-yard line and outran everybody into the opposite end zone.
Think about that. He outran wide receivers. He outran tight ends and linebackers. He outran opponents at least 75 pounds lighter, crossing the goal line 10 yards ahead of his closest competitor. Then he kept right on running, out of the end zone entirely. In this case, an 87-yard return wasn’t nearly enough.
In a street race, an armored tank bested a fleet of compact cars.
“It was unreal. It was a weird feeling,” Onwuzurike said of the return on Tuesday. “It’s like when you’re in a car, you’re going fast and everything’s going by you. It’s just weird. I can’t even explain it.”
That’s understandable. In the moment, there were few who could.
“He’s a very, very athletic kid,” said former Allen High School head coach Tom Westerberg, currently the athletic director and head coach at Barbers Hill (Texas). “You can see his athleticism in the D-line and movement and chasing quarterbacks and pass rush and stuff like that. But when you see a big guy in the open field running away from people … that was the first time some people had seen stuff like that.”
The coaches at Washington certainly saw it, and Onwuzurike opted to sign with the Huskies over scholarship offers from Georgia, Michigan, Miami, Oklahoma, Oregon, Stanford, Missouri, Arizona State, Arkansas, Baylor, Texas Christian, Texas Tech and more.
Which brings us to our second block. Roughly four years and 33 pounds later, Onwuzurike settled on the line of scrimmage as Arizona prepared to punt on Oct. 12. When the ball was snapped, the 6-3, 293-pound redshirt junior shrugged off a block, literally leaped through a double team and smothered the ball in his massive mitts. As outside linebacker Ryan Bowman dived on the football, Onwuzurike flexed, strutting off the field like a lion immediately following the feast.
In both cases, Onwuzurike proved that he can penetrate. Now he needs to do it on a more consistent basis.
“Just blowing up plays, really,” Onwuzurike said, when asked where he’s hoping to improve.
Still, Onwuzurike has been perhaps the steadiest piece of an undeniably inexperienced defensive line. In eight games this season, he has contributed 29 tackles and two tackles for loss, after emerging for 34 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last season. Senior Benning Potoa’e has added 19 tackles, six tackles for loss, four sacks and one forced fumble in his first season after being converted from outside linebacker. Senior Josiah Bronson has registered 20 tackles with four tackles for loss and two sacks, and redshirt freshman Tuli Letuligasenoa has made 18 tackles with two tackles for loss and one sack.
On the whole, Washington’s defensive line has impressed and underwhelmed — almost in equal measure.
“I think there’s some guys in there making some nice strides,” coach Chris Petersen said of UW’s defensive front seven. “I think Levi Onwuzurike is one of the better D-linemen in the conference. I do. I think he can do some things. I think Tuli is doing a nice job. He’s a guy that I look at that, from the start of the season till now, he’s improving and getting better.
“I think the other guys are still growing. I do. I don’t think anybody has taken a step back or anything.”
The UW defensive line — Onwuzurike included — will need to take a massive step forward on Saturday, when the Huskies host No. 9 Utah (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) at 1 p.m. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in rushing offense (219.38 yards per game) and rushing touchdowns (21) — most recently running through California for 231 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry and three touchdowns in a dominant 35-0 win.
Bruising senior running back Zack Moss leads the way, with 728 rushing yards, 6.6 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns in seven games. Onwuzurike said on Tuesday that Moss brings “just tenacity, really. He’s a big back. We don’t see a lot of backs running the way he does. The only other ones are maybe Chris Brown from Cal or CJ (Verdell) from Oregon. But he’s an all-around back to me.”
Senior quarterback Tyler Huntley has also become a more complete player. In eight games, the 6-1, 205-pound signal caller has completed 73.1% of his passes, throwing for 1,778 yards with 10 touchdowns and one interception, while adding 229 rushing yards and three more scores.
On the other side, Washington (5-3, 2-3 Pac-12) is allowing a whopping 179.6 rushing yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry in conference play. The Huskies also rank 106th nationally and 10th in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss per game (4.88).
There is plenty left to prove.
And, if he has his way, Onwuzurike will become a regular in the backfield.
(And not just to block a kick.)
“We’re ready to play. The bye week was too long,” Onwuzurike said. “Everybody’s ready to go. We just want to play football.”