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Washington 2019 defense primer: Can a new cast of characters produce familiar results?

UPDATED: Wed., July 31, 2019

Washington's Elijah Molden reaches for the ball during an NCAA college football practice Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Washington's Elijah Molden reaches for the ball during an NCAA college football practice Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The names have changed, but not the expectations.

When Washington’s defense sprints onto the Husky Stadium turf on Aug. 31, All-American linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven won’t be there. The same goes for All-American safety Taylor Rapp, All-American cornerback Byron Murphy, Morris Trophy winner Greg Gaines and senior leaders Jaylen Johnson, Shane Bowman, Tevis Bartlett, Jordan Miller and JoJo McIntosh.

But Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski will still be standing on the sidelines.

So why shouldn’t the Huskies aim to lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense for the fifth consecutive season? After all, they return no shortage of available talent, even if much of it has yet to feel the searing heat associated with a starting spotlight.

Starting in September, these young Huskies will sink or swim on Montlake. A relatively new cast of characters will be counted on to produce familiar results.

Here’s an outlook and analysis of the 2019 UW defense.

Defensive line

• Levi Onwuzurike, jr., 6-3, 293

• Josiah Bronson, sr., 6-3, 291

• John Clark, sr., 6-4, 289

• Benning Potoa’e, sr., 6-3, 290

• Sam Taimani, rs-fr., 6-2, 321

• Tuli Letuligasenoa, rs-fr., 6-2, 318

• Draco Bynum, rs-fr., 6-4, 268

• Jacob Bandes, fr., 6-2, 313

• Sama Paama, fr., 6-4, 347

• Faatui Tuitele, fr., 6-3, 300

• Noa Ngalu, fr., 6-1, 292

Outlook: The Washington defense has long relied on its ability to stop the run. The Huskies finished 15th nationally in rushing defense (116.1 yards per game) and 21st in opponent yards per carry (3.53) in 2018, second in the Pac-12 in both categories behind only Utah.

But without Gaines, Bowman and Johnson, can the Huskies’ defensive line realistically reach the same standard?

Ikaika Malloe certainly thinks so. UW’s defensive line coach said last spring that he expects the 2019 unit to be better than the one that pummeled Pac-12 offenses last fall. And for Malloe to be right, Levi Onwuzurike will have to continue making strides. The 287-pound junior flashed some considerable potential last season, posting 34 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Senior Benning Potoa’e is also currently listed as a defensive lineman, though he may operate as a hybrid and shift between the line and his former outside linebacker spot.

Josiah Bronson and John Clark – two seniors who were awarded scholarships this offseason – should earn a role in the rotation as well.

Don’t forget, either, that UW signed seven defensive linemen – five of which were four-star prospects, according to the 247Sports composite – in its last two classes. Of that group, expect redshirt freshmen Sam Taimani and Tuli Letuligasenoa to push for playing time, followed by true freshmen Jacob Bandes and Faatui Tuitele.

Linebacker

Outside

• Ryan Bowman, jr., 6-0, 277

• Ariel Ngata, so., 6-3, 213

• Myles Rice, jr., 6-3, 250

• Bralen Trice, fr., 6-3, 236

• Hunter Hansen, fr., 6-4, 191*

Inside

• Brandon Wellington, sr., 6-0, 226

• MJ Tafisi, rs-fr., 6-0, 235

• Josh Calvert, fr., 6-2, 223

• Edefuan Ulofoshio, rs-fr., 6-0, 231*

• Ben Hines, rs-fr., 5-10, 234*

• Drew Fowler, fr., 6-1, 210*

Inside

• Kyler Manu, sr., 6-1, 246

• Jackson Sirmon, rs-fr., 6-3, 238

• Miki Ah You, fr., 6-1, 215

• Daniel Heimuli, fr., 6-0, 217

• Alphonzo Tuputala, fr., 6-2, 224

Outside

• Joe Tryon, so., 6-5, 262

• Zion Tupuola-Fetui, rs-fr., 6-3, 266

• Laiatu Latu, fr., 6-4, 275

*walk-on

Outlook: Where to even begin?

On its entire roster, Washington is most thin at inside linebacker, where Burr-Kirven and Bartlett are gone and D.J. Beavers medically retired this offseason. That presents a starting opportunity for senior Brandon Wellington, who piled up 16 tackles in his final three games last season.

But who will start beside him? Senior Kyler Manu – who has made 12 tackles in his four seasons on campus – earned that honor this spring, but it’s hard to imagine him suddenly sprouting into a standout performer. Redshirt freshmen M.J. Tafisi, Jackson Sirmon and Edefuan Ulofoshio could all push for playing time as well, along with four-star true freshmen Josh Calvert (an early enrollee) and Daniel Heimuli.

The outlook on the outside is considerably sunnier, and that may come as a surprise – considering that Washington’s 1.71 sacks per game last season ranked exactly 100th nationally. Still, the Huskies may have two ascending pass-rushers in sophomore outside linebackers Joe Tryon and Ariel Ngata, who scored two sacks apiece in the Spring Preview. True freshman Laiatu Latu – all 6-4 and 272 pounds of him – could also figure into the mix.

It’s unclear, however, whether Ngata will permanently find a home as an inside or outside linebacker. Regardless, UW defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake expects him to make an impact on Montlake this fall.

“He’s had a big-time spring,” Lake said immediately following the Spring Preview. “He’s one of the guys that really progressed from Day 1 all the way to Day 15. I’ve been extremely impressed with him. I’ve seen him up in the offices, watching way more film than he’s ever watched, and it’s all paying off now.

“I think he’s going to be an electric pass-rusher for us. Coach (Kwiatkowski) has done an unbelievable job of getting that next level out of him, which you guys saw today. But I also think he can move inside and be very productive for us. So I think Ngata sees what he can do and I’m excited to watch him in a real game here coming up.”

Secondary

Cornerback

• Keith Taylor, jr., 6-3, 195

• Dom Hampton, rs-fr., 6-2, 208

• Kamren Fabiculanan, fr., 6-1, 181

• Zechariah Brown, so., 5-10, 195*

• Mishael Powell, fr., 6-1, 204*

Cornerback

• Elijah Molden, jr., 5-10, 190

• Kyler Gordon, rs-fr., 6-0, 190

• Dustin Bush, sr., 5-9, 183*

• Trent McDuffie, fr., 5-11, 185

Nickel

• Myles Bryant, sr., 5-9, 185

• Isaiah Gilchrist, jr., 5-11, 208

Safety

• Brandon McKinney, jr., 6-0, 201

• Alex Cook, so., 6-1, 203

• Asa Turner, fr., 6-3, 187

Safety

• Julius Irvin, rs-fr., 6-1, 191

• Cameron Williams, fr., 6-0, 191

• Nick Juran, fr., 6-0, 194*

Outlook: Elijah Molden has a secret, but I’m going to go ahead and spill it.

You know that new-look Washington secondary?

It’s still really, really good.

“I don’t want to say too much,” Molden said with a knowing grin last spring. “But as a DB crew we were in the same position two years ago. We had two DBs taken in the second round (of the NFL Draft). The opportunity we have this upcoming year in the secondary is going to be special.”

There’s an opportunity for Molden, who looks set to start – and star – at either corner or nickel. It’s the same story for senior Myles Bryant, who practiced both at nickel and safety last spring. Junior corner Keith Taylor continues to hunt his first career interception, and redshirt freshmen Kyler Gordon and Dominique Hampton are vying for reps on the outside as well.

The Huskies are less deep on the back end, where versatile redshirt freshman Julius Irvin is expected to settle at safety after playing corner last fall. Junior Brandon McKinney has been waiting several years for a full-time starting opportunity, and early enrollee Cameron Williams was one of the breakout stars in his first spring on campus. True freshmen Trent McDuffie, Kamren Fabiculanan and Asa Turner will all compete for opportunities in the secondary as well.

There are lots of moving pieces, and that’s how Lake likes it. The best players will play – regardless of position.

“We’re going to continue to move guys around, bounce them from corner, to nickel to safety,” Lake said. “All over the place. You’ll see guys doing different stuff. Then when you see a certain guy starting in a game next fall in Game 6 or Game 7 you shouldn’t be surprised, because you saw him doing that in spring football and in training camp.”

Special teams

Kicker

• Peyton Henry, so., 5-11, 197*

• Tim Horn, fr., 6-2, 211

• Van Soderberg, jr., 6-0, 200

Punter

• Joel Whitford, sr., 6-3, 209

• Race Porter, jr., 6-2, 183

Kick Returner

• Sean McGrew, jr., 5-7, 186

• Salvon Ahmed, jr., 5-11, 196

Punt returner

• Aaron Fuller, sr., 5-11, 188

Long snapper

• A.J. Carty, sr., 6-3, 243

• Luke Lane, jr., 6-0, 202

Outlook: Washington brought in one of the best kickers in the 2019 class for a reason. It wasn’t for Tim Horn to sit inside Husky Stadium on fall Saturdays and admire the beautiful scenery from the bench.

Still, there will be a spirited competition in training camp. Sophomore Peyton Henry connected on 16 of 22 field goal attempts last season and was consistently solid throughout the spring. Horn may be the perceived favorite, but the player who makes more practice kicks in August will likely earn a starting spot in September.

The Huskies were also ninth in the Pac-12 in allowing 14.6 yards per game on punt return, and sixth in the league in kickoff return yards allowed (63.1 per game). Henry’s kickoffs resulted in a touchback just 32.9 percent of the time (11th in the Pac-12). At the very least, expect Horn to assume kickoff duties.

Elsewhere, a small militia of Huskies – Aaron Fuller, Sean McGrew, Salvon Ahmed, Myles Bryant, Richard Newton, Trey Lowe, Andre Baccellia, Kyler Gordon and Chico Mcclatcher, to name a few – caught kickoffs or punts during spring practices. We’ll see who Petersen pegs to take the return reins this fall.

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