We’ll continue our series of position overviews by turning to the defense, and specifically, the line.
It’s an area that could look a little different next season if the Huskies really do incorporate more 3-4 looks, as new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has said is a long-term goal. UW has played some 3-4 the past few years, so simply seeing that used a little bit won’t be something new, and Wilcox said they will need to get a good look at the personnel on hand before deciding how much to use it.
Not knowing exactly how the Huskies may use their personnel makes it a little more difficult to project exactly who will be where.
What is certain is that UW will have to replace what have been two stalwarts up of the line for the past two years — defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu and end Everrette Thompson. Each of the two started every game the last two seasons, and were regulars for each of the past four seasons — Ta’amu left UW having made 42 starts and Thompson 32.
Ta’amu, for all he may not have been at times, was also named UW’s Defensive Lineman of the Year the past two seasons.
Before going further, a look at the players (and I’ll just list ends and tackles for now):
Hau’oli Jamora, 6-3, 247, RSo.
Andrew Hudson, 6-3, 231, RSo.
Josh Shirley, 6-3, 229, RSo.
Talia Crichton, 6-3, 255, Sr.
Connor Cree, 6-4, 231, RFr.
Jarret Finau, 6-2, 254, RFr.
Corey Waller, 6-0, 221, RFr.
Kalei Auela, 6-1.5, 240, Fr.
Damion Turpin, 6-3, 255, Fr.
Pio Vatuvei, 6-2, 272, Fr.
Danny Shelton, 6-1, 334, So.
Semisi Tokolahi, 6-2, 334, Sr.
Sione Potoa’e, 6-2, 276, Jr.
Lawrence Lagafuaina, 6-0, 329, RSo.
Taniela Tupou, 6-1, 281, RFr.
Josh Banks, 6-3, 285, Jr.
(Walk-on Drew Schultz, 6-1, 256, RSo., was also on the roster at the end of the 2011 season).
A quick glance at the above listings reinforces the overall youth of the program heading into 2012 (and I know that’s something a lot of people are tired of hearing of, but it’s impossible to ignore when looking at the team objectively — there simply isn’t a lot left from the 2009 and 2009 classes, meaning most of the roster is made up of players in their first three years in the program).
Getting Jamora (pictured in an Erika Schultz photo) back healthy will be a real key. He suffered a season-ending knee injury against Cal and is expected to get a redshirt year for 2011 and return next season as a redshirt sophomore. That would give UW four players with what could be termed fairly significant playing experience returning at end in Jamora, Hudson. Shirley and Crichton. Hudson and Shirley, in particular, had some good moments near the end of the 2011 season (the two combined for all four of UW’s sacks in the Alamo Bowl, Shirley getting three to stand as maybe the main highlight defensive player of a game in which UW’s defense was obviously rarely a highlight).
Continued growth (physically, mentally, every way possible) by Shirley and Hudson, along with the return to health of Jamora, would go a long way toward answering a lot of questions at the end spot. Jamora might have been UW’s best defensive player at the time of his injury (and all reports have been that he is on track for a normal recovery which would mean he’d be ready for the beginning of the season). Shirley had his best moments last season as a pass rusher and needs to get better against the run. Hudson showed potential in all areas but also needs to get a little sturdier. Crichton struggled with nagging injuries throughout last season and a return to health from him would also help.
After that, though, it’s all true or redshirt freshmen. Cree, Waller and Finau all spent last year working on the scout team, so the spring will be a critical time to start earning a spot in the rotation. Of the frosh who will arrive in the fall, Vatuvei is generally considered the one closest to getting on the field.
A move to more of a 3-4 would mean taking one tackle off the field in favor of one more linebacker. Ta’amu served usually as a nose tackle (meaning over the center) during his UW career, though he moved more to a spot between guard and tackle at the latter part of the 2011 season when Shelton came on to officially get the start in the last two games. Shelton, whose play in the final games was one of the brightest spots for the defense, is the obvious candidate to take over permanently for Ta’amu. UW could get a lot more out of Tokolahi in 2012 as he never seemed totally back from the ankle injury he suffered in the 2010 Apple Cup — he could be much-improved with a return to full health. Lagafuaina played sparingly in 2011 but could be ready to take on a larger role.
Potoa’e, Banks (a JC transfer in the Class of 2012) and Tupou project more as defensive-tackle types (the spot Potoa’e has played primarily in his two seasons at UW). Potoa’e is a real wildcard, a highly-hyped player from Lakes who has yet to make the impact many expected. He’ll be one of the real intriguing players to watch this spring with a new scheme, coordinator and position coach. Banks won’t arrive until the fall but was signed with the idea of making an immediate impact and will get every chance to do so. Tupou was a highly-rated member of the Class of 2011 who redshirted last season.
The other newcomer up front is coach Tosh Lupoi. Much of the attention that greeted his hire was centered on his recruiting prowess. But those who followed Cal the last few years also spoke highly of his coaching ability — Cal’s defensive fronts the last few years have generally been considered among the best, if not the best, in the conference. While Ta’amu and Thompson will have to be replaced, there also appears to be a lot of talent at this spot (if the number of stars in front of a recruits name means anything, anyway), even if much of it is still young and relatively inexperienced. If Lupoi’s as good as his rep, Jamora comes back healthy and the young guys mature, this could be a position of improvement in 2012.