The Huskies are now two-thirds of the way through spring practice, Tuesday marking workout No. 10 of 15 the team is allowed.
And if there’s been a unit that’s been the star so far, it’s probably been the defensive line, which has been constantly disruptive and often immovable.
The caveat in any spring, of course, is whether that means the D-line is playing well or the O-line struggling. The reality is that t’s usually a bit of both, it’s just a matter of the percentage. In this case, undoubtedly the OL is adapting right now to life without three seniors from last season and one key play for next year currently sidelined (Senio Kelemete).
But the coaches are also giving the DL — led by tackle Alameda Ta’amu, shown last year against Oregon State in a Dean Rutz — high marks so far.
Said defensive line coach Johnny Nansen: “We are playing well, we are making less mistakes than we have in the past. Our effort could be better and we want to develop a couple of young guys to help us in the core. But it’s nice to see a kid like Chris Robinson pushing himself — you can just see he is getting better. Everrette (Thompson) is solid, a guy that we are always going to count on — smart, knows the defense, great leader. Same with ‘Meda (Alameda Ta’amu). But I’m happy where are pass rush is with the two defensive ends we’ve got, (Josh) Shirley and Hau’oli) Jamora. They are bringing something that we haven’t had since we have been here, and I think here in a long time, really. And then Hud (Andrew Hudson) is coming along, and he’s going to play a lot of football. I’m happy overall with where we are at but there is still room to grow and get better.”
Indeed, it’s the emergence of Shirley and Jamora in packages together that often is most noticeable.
UW coach Steve Sarkisian talked prior to the spring about trying to find ways to get each of them on on the field at once, and it’s become a fairly regular occurence, especially in what is essentially a five-man defensive line look, with Shirley and Jamora bordering three interior linemen. It’s essentially the same look that UW went with often in the Holiday Bowl, when linebacker Mason Foster would move up to the line, as Sarkisian explained in his post-practice comments on Tuesday.
“It’s huge,” he said of the impact of that alignment. “It’s something we really haven’t had here for two years – a consistent pass rush. In year one we got it from Daniel (Te’o Nesheim) and his relentless effort while getting double- and triple-teamed. Last year, it took a while, but it finally started to come late in the year with Hauoli and then using Mason (Foster) at defensive end and his ability to rush the passer. So now, what’s cool is that it’s not coming from just one place. We’ve got enough variety in there that it’s just part of us now, and hopefully we can continue to grow in that area because I think it will only help us on third down. I think we all can remember so many times where we couldn’t get off the field last year and drives were extended. It obviously helps us there, but it helps on the first down pass-rush too where we got hurt some last year where guys would have play-action pass and have so much time to throw the ball and it puts your DBs in hard positions as well when you have to cover that long.”
Sarkisian said what’s helped expand options up front is that alingments with Shirley and Jamora together have proven effective against the run, as well.
“I think one area for me that has impressed me is their ability to play the run,” he said. “They are playing the run well. I think so much, you see (Shirley) rushing the passer or (Jamora) getting the sack and you think that’s all they do. But the reality is they are in there on first and second down too and making their plays and defending the run. They’re young wo we’ve got to continue to put them in situations where they can raise their Football I.Q.”
Sarkisian said there is no doubt that the five-man line (which also mirrors a 3-4 in many ways, but in this case includes five players designated as defensive linemen) will be a regular feature of the defense next season.
“Oh we’re using it,” he said. “It’s been too good. Obviously, depending on the game and the opponent and situations it will play itself out more than at other times, but without a doubt it’s part of our defense.”
Nansen, meanwhile, also spoke more specifically about some individual players on the line:
On the progress of sophomore tackle Sione Potoa’e: “Sione is coming. He’s got some work to do. He’s still got to understand to play with a lower pad level. But he’s a kid that is so strong and I think he will be in the mix once again. But he’s not where we want him to be and I think in the next couple of weeks we want Sione to take the next step, and I think it’s just learning to not worry about the missed assignments and more playing hard all the time. If we can get that out of Sione he definitely can help us.”
On the progress of redshirt freshman tackle Lawrence Lagafuaina: “He’s coming along. He did some good things in the last scrimmage and I think he will help Meda out, giving him some plays off. And I think he is starting to understand football more. When he got here, everything was new to him, the verbage and how to play the game. But he is starting to pick things up and once he starts to understand football more he will be a solid football player for us.”
On whether Shirley is surpassing expectations so far: “He is ahead of where we thought he was going to be because he’s just a natural athlete — a strong kid. But he’s exactly what we thought he would be, that down straight-ahead pass rusher. I like where he’s at right now and in the next two weeks he’s going to even get better. All this stuff is brand new to him, learning the system, but as you saw in the last scrimmage, he had a great scrimmage and was all over the place. He’s another guy that just has to learn how to play football and I’m glad we redshirted him and didn’t have to play him with Hau’oli playing last year the way he did, that helped Josh out. So I’m very happy where Josh is at right now.”
On sophomore tackle Semisi Tokolahi’s prognosis for the fall after breaking and dislocating his ankle in the Apple Cup: “I think it’s so hard to tell where he is going to be because he’s still going through the rehab. But the doctors think he might be back for the season and hopefully he will be back and he can help us out. Semisi’s a kid it’s too bad he got hurt because he was just coming into his own and doing a lot of great things for us so hopefully everything works out — his rehab is going well from what I’m hearing. He’s a great kid and he could help us out.”
On incoming freshman Danny Shelton and where he might fit in: “It’s too soon to tell, just like any of them. He’s a strong kid, a big kid, and he will be in the mix of things. It will just be how fast he can grab the information and the scheme and things like that. But we are counting on him. Hopefully he can come in and help us out.”