Fall Camp Preview: Defensive Line

Shelton is the rock in the middle (Dawgman.com)

As we count down to the start of fall camp, which kicks off on August 5th, it's time to take a position-by-position look at the Huskies. Today, we look at the defensive line. Washington needs to replace four linemen and there are some quality players returning from injury as well as some talented freshmen coming in. How they perform is going to be a big key heading into fall camp.

The Players:
Defensive Tackles:
55 Sione Potoae 6-2, 271, Sr. - It's no time like the present for Sione, who only has this fall to make good on a career that started out with so much promise. The former Lakes standout has been steady, but unspectacular in the purple and gold, and certainly hasn't lived up to the substantial hype. Now that's not his fault, but expectations for Potoae have always been high and he needs to come good this fall.
99 Josh Banks 6-2, 265, Sr. - Banks came in a little undersized to play inside but showed some tenacity and also some game last year. He only had one start in 2013, versus USC, but is expected to be a big part of Washington's future inside with the loss of Pio Vatuvei.
71 Danny Shelton 6-1, 317, Jr. - The anchor of Washington's defensive line, Shelton is their heart and soul inside. All All-Pac-12 performer in 2012, Shelton brings supreme strength and toughness to the position, as well as productivity; his 45 total tackles was just one short of leading the entire defensive line. You don't see that very often.
97 Lawrence Lagafuaina 6-0, 317, Jr. - Lagafuaina was on his way to being a serious contributor in 2012 before a knee injury versus Portland State derailed his season. Going into his fourth season with the Huskies, Lagafuaina has a chance to re-establish himself inside after the graduation of Semisi Tokolahi.
90 Taniela Tupou 6-1, 272, So. - This is the year for Tupou, a four-star standout defensive lineman from Archbishop Murphy in Everett. In 2012 he saw action versus Portland State, California, Colorado and Washington State, but Tani's role needs to be increased or else there's a chance he could be left behind the mix.
66 Damion Turpin 6-1, 256, RFr. - Turpin showed flashes in the spring of a guy that might be able to contribute in a limited role this season, but right now it's just too early to know whether the UW coaches are going to put a ton on his plate. There's no doubt playing time is available for one of the younger defensive interior players and Turpin could be one of those players that steps up and takes it.
11 Elijah Qualls 6-2, 293, Fr. - Coming in with a lot of fanfare - much of it generated because of his role as a recruiter in helping put together the 2013 recruiting class - Qualls comes to Montlake as already a fan favorite. There was also a YouTube video of Qualls doing a back-flip at 302 pounds, which should tell you all you need to know about his athleticism. While he comes in this fall as a player looking to compete for playing time, ideally it would be nice to redshirt the true frosh and have him ready to break out in 2014, but just looking at the numbers inside it's unclear the Huskies are going to have that luxury - especially with Vatuvei's dismissal.
Defensive Ends/Rush End Backers:
93 Andrew Hudson 6-3, 249, Jr. - With Jamora's absence from the field, Hudson has been the defensive end that has taken control. Another 2012 All-Pac-12 player, Hudson's game has developed to the point where he has become the most versatile lineman Washington has right now. He can legitimately play anywhere along the DL depending on down and distance, and has at some point in his UW career.
22 Josh Shirley 6-3, 230, Jr. - Through his sophomore season Shirley has 15 total sacks, so he's half-way to the all-time record of 30 sacks set by Daniel Te'o-Nesheim. While Te'o-Nesheim got his job done in a number of ways, Shirley is simply a sack specialist at this point. He will need to broaden his game to get the most out of his vast physical potential.
52 Hauoli Jamora 6-3, 260, Jr. - Jamora's UW career got off to a meteoric start, racking up nearly 50 tackles through seven starts as a true freshman in 2010. When the Huskies defeated Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, he was all over the place. The 2011 season was just getting off to a strong start when the junior was sidelined early versus California and hasn't played since. UW fans are rooting hard for Jamora's return, because he's a legitimate difference-maker on the field when he's right and feeling like himself.
42 Cory Littleton 6-3, 230, So. - A true hybrid player, Littleton came to Washington as a linebacker but was moved up to the line of scrimmage where he ended up starting at Oregon. The coaches did not hesitate to throw the true frosh right into the fire, so it's expected Littleton will come into 2013 as a player ready to take that next step in his development from Year One to Year Two.
91 Connor Cree 6-4, 245, So. - Cree is one of those players that has excelled the last two springs, but then hasn't really used that form as a springboard to success during the season. A rangy, athletic end, Cree showed glimpses of having a breakthrough early in 2012, playing in the first three games, but then disappeared. He's got the talent to contribute, so now is the time for it to show up.
95 Jarett Finau 6-2, 260, So. - Finau's physical maturation after his redshirt freshman season is the stuff of legend now at Montlake. He went from a good-looking 235-pound defensive end to a 260-pound monster, but his development on the field hasn't taken hold quite like it has in the weight room. Finau ended up playing in nine games in 2012, his most action coming on the road in their win over California - and like Cree his time is now. There's no reason Jarett can't be a guy Wilcox and the UW coaches can't rely on to provide solid depth.
5 Joe Mathis 6-4, 250, Fr. - As with the receivers, linebackers and defensive backs, the Huskies recruited extremely well with talent in numbers. Mathis, a U.S. Army All-American, has long had a reputation in southern California of being a beast along the defensive line, causing havoc whenever he plays. At 250 pounds, Mathis appears like he could be ready to contribute right away.
23 Marcus Farria 6-5, 235, Fr. - A Katrina transplant to Arizona, Farria was a prospect continually shrouded in mystery. Outside of the rare in-person interview, not much was known about the rangy, temperamental Farria. What was known was that Farria was a heckuva football talent with the potential to be a special player at the college level. Kudos to the UW coaching staff, and specifically Tosh Lupoi, for keeping Farria's recruitment under wraps. Some analysts believe Farria could be the gem of Washington's 2013 recruiting class.
The Depth: With seven upperclassmen, there are players along the defensive line with experience. But outside of Shelton, Hudson, and Shirley, it's hard to look at the line and think that it's a veteran group, especially when Hudson leads the defensive line in career starts with only 15. If Jamora and Lagafuaina come back from their respective knee injuries, that really could be a huge boost to this group because they offer up experience and versatility to the DL. Jamora is a leader the others look up to and it would be fitting for him to finish off his UW career with two healthy seasons leading the charge. His freshman and sophomore years offered up so much promise but it's unrealistic to expect a lot after back-to-back ACL's. With Pio Vatuvei's dismissal, Lagafuaina's return to the interior looms potentially larger. Qualls is the only other big body inside to spell Shelton, and while Danny has a chance to have a truly breakout 2013 campaign he can't play inside without help. Qualls is the future, so again it's unrealistic to place high expectations on his freshman year. That's where Lagafuaina's return is critical when offering up depth either spelling Shelton or playing alongside him in jumbo packages. Potoae and Banks are now veterans so the Huskies do have some options inside, but how much of a drop-off will there be when Shelton isn't in the game?

Outside there seems to be a lot more options and pieces to work with for defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox - but experience is somewhat wanting. The true defensive ends, like Andrew Hudson, Jarett Finau, and Connor Cree, are talented enough but there just isn't a lot of veteran depth there. Joe Mathis, who was recruited by colleges like USC and Alabama, is the future here along with Marcus Farria - arguably the most talented freshman to show up in 2013 for the Huskies regardless of position - but how much can they be counted on at a position that seemingly requires maturity in all forms to effectively compete at the highest levels?

And then there is the Rush spot, a position specifically created by UW for Josh Shirley. The player competing with him, Cory Littleton, is more of a REB, meaning he gets up the field but he's also adept at covering in space and holding the edge when asked. Littleton started to emerge later in the season and ended up playing in nine games, including two starts. Washington already has commitments from at least one player at this position for 2014 - Don Hill - but that doesn't help them much with this coming fall. It's clear the UW coaches see a lot of value in this spot with the advent of no-huddle, up-tempo offenses, but outside of Shirley and Littleton they don't have too many options here.

In general, the defensive line has a couple of things in common with their counterparts on offense. First, the starters are pretty well set but how deep can they realistically go without a significant drop in play? That's going to be a big key this fall. And like the offensive line, the defensive line appears stacked for the future, but I'm getting a bit ahead.

The Battles: There are seemingly two positions along the defensive line where the starters are set; Danny Shelton inside and Andrew Hudson. Hudson has shown during his UW career to be a versatile lineman; he could play next to Shelton or all the way outside. Either way, it certainly appears that his name on the participation chart for the Boise State opener has been written in ink.

A big battle this fall should be for the spot next to Shelton where graduates Semisi Tokolahi and Talia Crichton played. Hudson could fit in there or it could be other program veterans like Finau or Cree. It's simply too much to think Qualls is ready to start from Day One, and besides there aren't going to be too many generic down-and-distance situations where Wilcox will put that much beef inside. They are looking to play quick and have bodies that can keep up in the new hurry-up world defenders are now having to cope with in the Pac-12.

The other big battle to watch will be the one between Shirley and Littleton. In some ways this battle may not materialize at all if Shirley continues to be a one-trick pony. Don't get me wrong - he's extremely good at his trick (in fact he's on track to be historically one of the best as what he does), but if the sophomore can't consistently wreak havoc in the backfield he gets washed out too easily and loses his effectiveness with regard to his other responsibilities. Littleton, although still a very young player, is clearly one Wilcox and the defensive coaches love. How the competition shapes up between Shirley and Littleton, as well as how Wilcox evolves his thinking as to how and when he uses each player - including scenarios where both could be on the field at the same time - will be very interesting to watch starting next week.

Lastly, who steps up to provide that much-needed depth? Could it be Jamora and Lagafuaina returning from injury to fulfill their promise? Could it be Tupou, Finau or Cree stepping up as a part of their natural evolution within the depth to give the Huskies the quality in depth they require? Or will it be the true freshmen that take the reigns and signal an early look into the future of the Washington defensive line? There will be plenty of things to watch this fall when it comes to Washington's defensive line, no shortage of story lines and position movement.

The Future: Again, this is the one place where the defensive line holds a lot in common with the offensive line. That means the future is extremely bright. Both Potoae and Banks graduate, and in theory they can be replaced pretty easily with guys like Lawrence Lagafuaina, Damion Turpin, and Elijah Qualls. The future is even brighter on the edges, where the Huskies could legitimately have eight players returning with either starts or substantial playing time under their belts. That's significant. The Huskies have at least one greyshirt defensive lineman in Jaimie Bryant, and while it's not expected there is a chance Andrew Basham could join Bryant in the winter. That would certainly be a best-case scenario. The UW coaches are also looking at junior college options here, so that's one other angle to consider.

The one wrench in the works here is the future of Danny Shelton. If he has the season everything thinks he's capable of, it means he could be a very coveted defensive player for the 2014 NFL Draft. He could be the next Star Lotulelei, who was picked 14th overall in the first round of the 213 Draft. Shelton will be eligible to leave after 2013 if he wants to. If Shelton decides to leave early, it would be a crushing blow - and there's no way of sugar-coating it. Finding impact defensive linemen, especially those inside that consistently command double-teams and impact the game along the line of scrimmage as much as Shelton does, are not easy to find.

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