With spring ball now eight days away, it’s time to get to the rest of our position reviews, and we’ll start today with the defensive line, which will be keyed again by Hau’oli Jamora (pictured in the Holiday Bowl in a Dean Rutz photo).
Now for the defensive line, a spot that UW coaches are more-than cautiously optimistic may be a lot better in 2011 than it was a year ago, when the Huskies were routinely run through for much of the season before becoming pretty stout late in the year.
The Huskies will return all four starters from the Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska, when UW held Nebraska to 91 yards on 41 carries, and seven of the top eight DLs from that game, as well as hoping to get the return of a couple injured players who were starters at other points during the year.
UW loses two DLs to graduation who played significantly at times last season — tackle Cameron Elisara, a starter for six of the first seven games before suffering a career-ending stinger, and DE De’Shon Matthews, who started two games, including the Holiday Bowl.
Everybody else returns, giving UW what on paper is a blend of experience and young depth it hasn’t had in a while.
Let’s look at the roster at this spot:
PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Everrette Thompson, 6-6, 244, Sr.
Talia Crichton, 6-3, 246, Jr./or
Andrew Hudson, 6-3, 231, RFR.
Sione Potoa’e, 6-2, 285, So.
Chris Robinson, 6-0, 258, So.
Semisi Tokolahi, 6-2, 297, So. (INJURED)
Alameda Ta’amu, 6-3, 330, Sr.
Lawrence Lagafuaina, 6-0, 344, RFr.
Hau’oli Jamora, 6-3, 238, So.
Kalani Aldrich, 6-7, 250, Sr./or
Josh Shirley, 6-3, 225, RFr.
The Huskies return six players who started multiple games up front last season — Thompson, Ta’amu, Potoa’e, Tokolahi, Crichton and Jamora — and 44 of the 52 player game starts from 2010.
Ta’amu will likely get some significant all-conference consideration heading into the season, and Jamora will at least be on the radar after coming on strong at the end of the season — he finished with nine tackles-for-a-loss, third on the team, despite seeing minimal time early in the season, taking over starting duties when Crichton was injured against Oregon State.
Thompson may also be ready to have a breakout season after staying healthy last season to start in every game as a junior. The question with Thompson could be where he plays. He started at both end and tackle last season, and with the Huskies potentially having more depth at end depending on how younger players emerge and health, may be needed more at tackle, the spot he played during the Holiday Bowl. I’ve listed him at end since that’s where he played more last year, but we’ll see as the spring progresses where he ends up.
Depending on what they do with Thompson, Potoa’e could be the other starting DT in the spring as Tokolahi is likely to sit out while still recovering from the ankle injury suffered in the Apple Cup. Tokolahi is expected to return for the season, however, and given the way he played in the three games that he started (UCLA, Cal, WSU) it would be little surprise if he ended up reclaiming the starting job there. Robinson is also likely to be limited in the spring, but UW fans will now get an even better look at the intriguing Lagafuaina, who redshirted last season but impressed with his play on the scout teams.
And other than quarterback Nick Montana, the two most-anticipated players coming off redshirt seasons and now eligible are in this position group — ends Andrew Hudson and Josh Shirley. Both impressed throughout the fall on scout teams and both were cited by strength coach Ivan Lewis as having particularly good winter conditioning seasons.
The play of those two prompted this quote from UW defensive line coach Johnny Nansen at mid-season: “I know we’ve got some issues with pass rush, but I think our future is bright. Now you see Josh is starting to get comfortable at the position. In high school he was more of a standup guy more than a down guy, and now you are seeing he is more comfortable and you are seeing the result of it.”
And if you recall, UW defensive coordinator Nick Holt was even more emphatic about his optimism for the defensive line after the Holiday Bowl. “You know what? I think we will be pretty good,” Holt said. “We’ll be where I expect our defense to be with a front four that can get after people, what I’m used to. You guys will see a big difference.”
Shirley was a late arrival last summer after being kicked off the team at UCLA. While he has also been listed at LB on the UW roster, he has played nothing but a down lineman spot (at the rush end position) since coming to UW and that is where he will be again this spring.
Crichton will be limited throughout the spring but will be in the mix for playing time once the season rolls around (though potentially playing more on the other side instead of the rush end spot). And Aldrich, who had a big play in the Holiday Bowl, is also back for his senior season, and if healthy, could be a significant contributor.
Another intriguing aspect of this position to watch in the spring is fact that the Huskies have stated they will experiment with more 3-4 looks on defense. Obviously, it will be interesting to see how that impacts who plays where up front.
For the first time in a while, however, UW appears as if it could have the depth to play whatever alignments it desires up front.
All the seemingly legitimate reasons for optimism, however, shouldn’t cloud that this is still an area where UW needs to improve — and on paper, pretty significantly. Despite the late-season upward swing (which skeptics could argue came against some of the worst offenses in the conference and among the worst among all BCS schools in the country) the Huskies finished 97th nationally against the run, allowing 190.46 yards per game.
That number will obviously have to drop in 2011 for the Huskies to improve on the record of 2010.