Post-Spring Review: Defensive Tackles

Alameda Ta'amu (Kim Grinolds/Dawgman.com)

If Spring Football didn't go according to plan, just blame Alameda Ta'amu. Steve Sarkisian jokingly referred to the senior defensive tackle at the beginning of April, hoping Ta'amu wouldn't 'ruin' spring for the team. Sark's jibe was actually a great compliment, as well as a comment on what Alameda had done on the field in 2010, especially at the end of the season.

Any Washington fan that watched the 2010 Holiday Bowl will remember fondly Victor Aiyewa's hit on Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez early in the game - but it was what happened next that was truly memorable.

Ta'amu - standing 6-foot-3 and 330 pounds - pounced on the scene, snatching the football from the turf like Lester Hayes - but no stickum here. His hands are just that big. But more than that, the athleticism and coordination at his size to pull off that play full speed was incredible.

Later in the game he had a 10-yard sack and forced a safety after the lineman from Nebraska had to hold him in the end zone to protect Martinez from getting sacked again. It was a dominant performance, any way you looked at it.

And as far as 'ruining' spring? Ta'amu did just the opposite. He pushed a burgeoning offensive line to get better, as well as the defensive linemen around him. And most importantly, he got all his work in, never missing a snap of play. He finished April fresh, healthy, and full of confidence.

The promise of Alameda's game isn't so much what he can do on his own, but what he can do for the other linemen when he's at his best. As a true two-gap nose, Ta'amu can play the center head up, manhandling him and caving in the middle of the pocket. That obviously forces the quarterback to try to slide past him while he's coming upfield - never an easy escape - or it pushes the quarterback outside, where hopefully Washington's defensive ends are there to clean up the mess.

It's crazy to think that there are already 2012 mock drafts online, and one I recently saw had Alameda Ta'amu going No. 30 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now hypothesizing on pick position is crazy enough, but prospects too? Either way, if there's enough faith in Ta'amu's ability right now among national pundits - much of that driven through his Holiday Bowl play - who knows where he could end up if he plays up to his potential. Top-10 pick? Could he go even higher than Jake Locker did in this most recent draft? (Locker went No. 8 to Tennessee)

It's very possible, given the way 3-4 defenses in the NFL covet impact nose tackles.

Ta'amu's understudy inside is redshirt freshman Lawrence Lagafuaina (6-0, 344). Lagafuaina is still in the process of undergoing the same physical transformation that stunted some of Ta'amu's on-field growth early in his career. And just like Alameda, Lawrence took part in all 15 spring practices, so he should be good and ready to go when fall camp begins in August.

Lagafuaina has a great first step off the ball, but it's what happens next that has been slowing him down. He's still very much learning the position and the nuances involved. When he was a standout DT at 'Aiea High School in Hawaii, Lagafuaina had a lot of freedom to push upfield, and he was physically imposing at that level. Now it's a much fairer fight with the offensive line, so he's having to find different ways to vary his game and improve. He's getting there, and he will definitely play a lot this fall - but for those UW fans expecting little dropoff when Ta'amu comes off the field for a breather, be patient. Lagaufuaina - like Semisi Tokolahi last year - will probably need most of the 2011 season to really get his feet wet and comfortable with the speed of the game at the Pac-12 level.

Could Lawrence have a Ta'amu-like impact starting in 2012? It's certainly possible, and he'll have lot of 2011 experience to fall back on as he takes over the position - but for right now expect him to anchor things inside with his massive frame and stay around the action. He may not come up with the spectacular play, but he's going to be a load for people to deal with when it comes to running between the tackles.

The other defensive tackle spot along Washington's defensive line isn't as clear-cut - although during spring it was pretty easy to see that Sione Potoa'e, the former U.S. Army All-American from Lakes High School, would be the man to play alongside Ta'amu if the Huskies' opener versus defending FCS Champions Eastern Washington was tomorrow. That, or the Huskies would move defensive end Everrette Thompson - now 100 percent healthy - inside like Daniel Te'o-Nesheim used to, and have a quicker, albeit smaller, lineman to balance Ta'amu's size and explosiveness.

Potoa'e emerged as a starter due to a few factors. He was there every practice, playing his butt off, and did all the things he needed to do to show that he's ready to take that next step in his on-the-field maturation. Physically he got bigger, faster, and stronger in the off-season, and how all that needs to catch up is his understanding of the nuances of what he's being asked to do. That way he can play as fast as possible.

The other factor is that the position was minus one of last year's starters - Semisi Tokolahi. He earned that starting spot beginning with the UCLA game, and showed well enough that he kept that spot through the California win and also to the Apple Cup. But it was in Pullman where he really stood out. He had a tackle for loss and forced a fumble before breaking his ankle and dislocating it at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

Getting Tokolahi back into the UW defensive tackle rotation is huge for a couple of reasons: The biggest reason is that they need the numbers. With the junior from Hilo, Hawaii in their lineup, the Huskies have four scholarship DT's; if you bring Thompson inside from time to time, that's five. With Chris Robinson's future at Washington iffy right now because of a bad knee, and if Tokolahi can't go in the fall - a distinct possibility, although Sarkisian said at the end of spring that 'all signs are pointing' toward Tokolahi returning - it means they would either have to push true freshman Danny Shelton into the mix, or go with a walk-on - Pete Galbraith.

The other reason why Tokolahi is vital to Washington's defensive success up front is that he was really coming into his own at the end of last season. The tandem of Ta'amu and Tokolahi was proving to be a formidable one for opposing offenses. With him out, they absolutely lose something that's hard to replace.

One intriguing aspect to what happened with the defensive line during spring was the inclusion of a five-man front, something Sarkisian talked openly about during camp. Typically it would have Hauoli Jamora and Josh Shirley at the ends, and Ta'amu, Thompson and Potoa'e holding down the middle. Clearly the coaches feel confident they have some 'man beaters' along the defensive line, and want to try and create as many one-on-one opportunities for them as possible. The more they do this, the more it stretches their resources inside - but it could have some devastating benefits if proven successful.

As you can obviously tell, the depth along the DL right now is on a razor's edge, and could go either way. If one of them goes down, it immediately puts a lot of their hard work in jeopardy of being demolished in a heartbeat. Quality and quantity at these critical inside positions is being sorely tested - but if they can beat the injury bug and rally around newly chosen co-captain Ta'amu and fellow senior Thompson, this line has a chance to do some great things.

Defensive Tackle Depth Chart (Per UW, released 5/4/2011)

Defensive Tackle
Alameda Ta'amu (Sr.)
Lawrence Lagafuaina (RFr.)

Defensive Tackle
Sione Potoa'e (So.) OR
Semisi Tokolahi (Jr.)

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