It's cliche to say that the game of football is won or lost in the trenches, but it's also been…
Mid-Spring Review: Defensive Line
It's understandable the team is still in the beginning stages of their relationship with the coaching staff, and vise-versa - but as it is with the offensive line, Kwiatowski and DL Coach Jeff Choate have a wealth of talent and experience to draw from, making their jobs certainly that much easier. There are six seniors along the Washington defensive line, accounting for 90 career starts among them.
Kwiatkowski did, however, give UW fans some thoughts as to how he would run his defense in spring, and what he was expecting from everyone under his charge. "It comes back to mentality," he said when asked specifically about the defensive linemen. "They need to be physical. They need to want to be physical. And then competitors. You're not going to win every battle, but once you get knocked on your tail get up and do it again. Here I come. That type of attitude and mentality.
"We're going to be up-tempo. We're going to be physical, we're going to play fast, and we're going to compete. If we do those three things everything else will take care of itself."
Choate went into a little more detail.
"We try to break things down into core fundamentals," he said. "There's only two possible types of stances; a speed stance and a power stance. Are they in those proper stances when we need them to be there? Are their eyes where they need to be? Are they giving us great effort? Right now we haven't proceeded much past that. A good stance, are your eyes where they need to be, and are you playing with good effort…there's other things we've got to build on down the road but that's the starting point for everything that we're doing.
"That's going to be the heartbeat of our team, how our line produces and plays. The best teams that I've been on have had great d-line leadership and play."
71 Danny Shelton - Sr.
80 Evan Hudson - Sr.
22 Josh Shirley - Sr.
8 Hauoli Kikaha - Sr.
93 Andrew Hudson - Sr.
57 Drew Schultz - Sr. Walk-On
90 Taniela Tupou - Jr.
95 Jarett Finau - Jr.
5 Joe Mathis - So.
23 Marcus Farria - So.
66 Damion Turpin - So.
28 Psalm Wooching - So.
11 Elijah Qualls - RFr.
What have they done in practice? - So far - as Kwiatkowski and Choate said would be the case - it's been a lot of technique and individual drill work. "There's always things to work on," Choate said when we spoke to him two weeks ago. "But up to this point in time they've been very eager, they've taken to coaching. That's probably the thing that's impressed me the most…it can be tough to go through a coaching transition and these guys have been awesome in terms of embracing what we've been trying to get them to do."
During the second week the offensive line and defensive line started doing some one-on-one periods once the pads were on, but again - these competitions can really vary from day to day in terms of who is really on it in practice and who is stepping up. For the most part, it's a chance for both sides of the line to work on the techniques they've been given, so there's not a ton of 'cutting loose' and just playing the game instead of thinking and reacting.
That being said, the usual suspects continue to shine. Kikaha, Shelton, Shirley and the Hudsons lead the pack. Farria shows moments where he's absolutely the physical freak everyone expected when he first came on campus. Obviously the biggest change has been the inclusion of Andrew Hudson back to the defensive line. Despite 15 career starts to his name, the senior from Redlands, Calif. didn't seem to be in Justin Wilcox's plans, preferring to walk with the other seniors last fall and pursue a fifth-year option at another school. At least that was the plan before Chris Petersen showed up. Petersen offered Hudson a clean slate, a chance to start fresh and finish off his career the right way.
"For most of it, the overall vibe I feel from the coaching staff is that they are here for us, they are here to help us grow and help us be the best we can be," Hudson said a couple weeks ago about the new staff. "There's no getting on and cussing the athletes out. That just makes a huge overall difference. No one takes any shots personally and can grow from those things.
"From an individual level of coaches that I deal with - between the defensive line coach and coach K (Kwiatkowski) - the third d-line coach I've been working with since I've been here. The beginning is the same. You work with them, they work with you and take what we've got and go with it because we're already behind…but yeah. It's been great. It's been awesome."
Where does the position stand after two weeks? - Shelton and Kikaha are the unquestioned leaders of the group. The 6-foot-2, 332-pound Shelton is on track to become a first-round 2015 draft pick if he continues to play like he did last year. He's had to miss a little bit of some practices due to a class conflict, but Choate isn't concerned about his development.
"Danny is a veteran guy, I think he's a really smart football player," he said of the senior from Auburn. "He's got a really high football IQ. Danny probably needs the reps for conditioning more than he does from the mental standpoint. Even though we may use some different verbiage, a lot of the techniques are the same from what they've done in the past here. And there's only so many ways that you can play blocks anyway. So he's had a lot of those reps. From a conditioning standpoint we have to get him ready to play more than 2-3 downs at a time."
The same goes for Kikaha, who missed more than a season and a half due to knee injuries but played all of 2013 pain-free, producing one of the most productive seasons ever for a Washington defensive end.
Andrew Hudson and Josh Shirley have been anchoring things outside to start, but both Farria and Joe Mathis have been showing they belong in the rotation as well. The wildcard so far has been Psalm Wooching, who was moved to the defensive side of the ball from fullback. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Wooching has the same frame Hauoli Kikaha had when he first showed up on campus, and he also has the same defensive disposition Hauoli possesses. That means he isn't shy about sticking his head in and getting in the mixer, and he definitely isn't afraid about getting chippy. More than a few times I've seen Psalm with some 'afters' post-whistle. Mind games? Perhaps. But I've always believed Wooching played the game with a defensive mentality even when he was being recruited to play offense, so I think this switch is well-suited to his temperament. Now it's just a matter of how quickly he makes the transition. If Evan Hudson is the benchmark, Wooching's impact on the defensive line could happen sooner, rather than later.
What to look for in the second half of spring - Choate noted during the first half of spring how the younger interior players - players like Tani Tupou, Damion Turpin and Elijah Qualls - were going to have to grow up in a hurry because they would be needed in the fall, so I expect to see continued emphasis on getting those players as many meaningful reps as possible. Obviously Wooching's development is going to be another storyline to watch as spring progresses.
The Huskies are expected to welcome in a new player to the DL corps starting April 1st, former Tumwater standout Jaimie Bryant. He won't be able to go full pads for a few days per NCAA acclimatization rules, but once he does we'll see if the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Bryant can make an immediate impact. Ideally he'll be redshirting, but if he's ready to go and shows he can play with the big boys from the outset, there's definitely a need inside.
With Jarett Finau the only player out for spring ball, the defensive line might be the one position on the team, that hasn't been seriously affected in spring by either injury, suspension, or the NFL draft. That means - as Kwiatkowski rightly pointed out - plenty of opportunities for the coaches to get practice film with ones playing next to twos and threes and all sorts of intriguing combinations can be the result. This is just one more way Choate can see how the younger players react to playing with the big boys.
Even though it's just spring football, conditioning is just as important as anything else - and the competition and turnover gassers simply reinforce Petersen's idea that you perfect the details that reflect how you play on the field - and if you don't, you run. It's a very simple concept to grasp, and it's one that's already caught on if the fire and zeal shown by the players during the competition periods is any indication.
The conditioning is an even more important aspect of spring for the bigger bodies, and it's clear this UW staff takes their responsibility for this aspect of development seriously. From the running to the nutrition bar every player has to stop by on their way to the locker room to pick up a drink or a snack, the building of the functional football player's body just doesn't happen in the weight room.
With the defensive line running, keeping their bodies in order and their minds being honed to play fast, physical football, spring football going forward will be much the same from what we've seen to date. Where the difference start to appear is when the coaches let these guys go and see how they react when the pads start popping. That's probably not going to really happen until the fall, so as of now it's more of the same - conditioning, focus on technique, details of the position, and mastery of the playbook.
And not necessarily in that order, depending on the day.
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