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Huskies’ defensive front provides heavy challenge

USC quarterback Cody Kessler, left, is sacked by Washington’s Elijah Qualls last season. (Wally Skalij / Tribune News Service)
USC quarterback Cody Kessler, left, is sacked by Washington’s Elijah Qualls last season. (Wally Skalij / Tribune News Service)
By Percy Allen Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Where are you going to run?

Certainly not in the middle of the field. Not with nearly 1,000 pounds – 971, to be exact – forming a purple and gold wall of muscle, bone and attitude along the line of scrimmage.

It’s a rhetorical question Elijah Qualls poses to opposing offensive coordinators scheming to deconstruct Washington’s massive defensive front that’s anchored by three 300-pound behemoths.

“And that’s just the start of the defense,” he said. “We’re going to eat up lines with just three people. That’s going to cause a whole lot of confusion and frustration and anger to opposing offenses.”

Qualls, a 321-pound junior defensive tackle, starts alongside 318-pound sophomore nose tackle Greg Gaines and 280-pound sophomore defensive end Jaylen Johnson.

The addition of supersized sophomore sub Vita Vea, perhaps the UW defensive lineman with the brightest future, gives the Huskies a gigantic Jumbo package with Qualls and Gaines that’s drawn comparisons to Steve Emtman’s defensive line that led Washington to the 1991 co-national championship.

“I don’t know about the Steve Emtman days,” Gaines said, chuckling. “I don’t know if any of us are that good. But I know we’re all really big dudes.

“I’m the smallest guy, and I’m 317 pounds. We got a big front, and we’re all pretty athletic too. Elijah is fast and quick. Vita is the fastest one, actually, and he’s 335.”

Qualls added: “It’s fun just knowing that every time we step up to an offensive line, they’re going to look at us like, what is this?”

Gaines knows that look.

Last week several members of the UW defensive line –big young men with large appetites – created a bit of a stir when they strolled into an all-you-can-eat restaurant in Tukwila, Washington.

“They were pretty scared when they saw us walking in,” Gaines said. “We ate a lot of food there. We all had six plates. … At the end, people were taking pictures with us. It was kind of cool.”

Vea chimed in: “Normally people eat and leave. But we ate, told stories and ate again. Ate dessert. Ate some more food. And ate some more dessert.”

In all honesty, Vea – the heaviest Husky on the team – is still getting used to being so big. At times the 6-foot-5 nose tackle feels awkward carrying around so much weight.

He was between 270 and 280 pounds after graduating from Milpitas (California) High in 2013. He needed to take a few online classes to gain eligibility and enrolled the following year.

During the time off, Vea gained around 70 pounds and arrived at Montlake close to 350.

“I let myself be lazy for a little bit and I let myself go for a little bit, and that’s how I gained all of the weight,” he said. “It just happened. It was one of those things where you stop one day and look and you’re like, how did this happen?”

When asked the impetus for changing his diet and work habits, Vea said, laughing: “Just looking down and seeing how big my stomach got. … I hit rock bottom.”

He redshirted in 2014 and used the time to get in shape. That was the year former UW defensive line coach Jeff Choate famously said Vea had more talent than Danny Shelton, the former standout Husky nose tackle taken 12th overall in the 2015 NFL draft.

It’s a lofty compliment that also saddles Vea with high expectations.

“I just try not to let him down,” said Vea, who had just 17 tackles in 13 games last season. “He’s always told me I had a lot of talent. I’ve been just trying to work hard. Sometimes I’m inconsistent at it, inconsistent at being the best that I can be. But I feel like I’m a work in progress.”

The same might be said for Qualls, who moves from defensive end to tackle.

He was on pace last year for all-conference accolades before missing three late games because of an ankle injury and finishing with 26 tackles and 4.5 sacks.

Qualls, who is projected by many NFL observers as the team’s second-best draft prospect behind safety Budda Baker, is more concerned about maintaining the Huskies’ title as the Pac-12’s stingiest defense (20 points allowed per game) and improving their 7-6 record.

“I can’t worry about any of that other stuff, I have to narrow the focus, concentrate on what I can control and try and get better every day,” said Qualls, who can bench-press 440 pounds and squat 600. “I’m getting more control of my strength, but I still don’t know how to use it in every aspect of my game yet. That’s something I’m still working on.”

Gaines is the most decorated UW defensive lineman. He earned honorable mention all-conference honors last season after recording 26 tackles.

“Greg is a little cannonball that can move fast,” Qualls said. “He’s got great leverage. The dude is smart. He’s actually a lot more elusive than a lot of people expect. Not a lot of people at plus-300 pounds can move like we do.”

Gaines added: “I can trust both of them. I know they’re going to do their jobs, and they know I’m going to do my job. It all works together really well. Trust is the biggest thing.”

All three were running backs in high school, which Vea believes gives them a unique perspective on stopping opposing ball carriers.

“I like to think you get the best of both worlds with the three of us,” he said. “It’s a versatile group – speed, power and quickness.

“And we’re pretty big too.”

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