By Christian Caple The News Tribune
SEATTLE — Jeff Choate looks at the Washington Huskies’ defensive line and sees the same things an outside observer might.
UW’s D-line starters — and nine days into camp, that’s a fluid distinction — have been in college long enough to be able to find their way blindfolded from the Quad to the Ave. Danny Shelton, Evan Hudson, Andrew Hudson, Hau’oli Kikaha — they’re all seniors. And with the exception of Shelton, they’re all fifth-year seniors.
Behind them are a batch of capable but unpolished prospects, high on potential but low on experience.
“I really see there’s kind of two groups for us — we’ve kind of got our veteran crew that’s working to improve on the details of the game,” said Choate, UW’s defensive line coach, “and then we’ve kind of got a younger crew behind them that’s really all kind of in the same spot as far as trying to figure out, ‘how do I line up? How do I go from four to six, from A to B as fast as I can, and keep Coach Choate from losing his voice?”
Due to some offseason attrition, that younger crew might be relied upon to fill out the Huskies’ depth chart. Fifth-year senior end Josh Shirley transferred to UNLV, and promising sophomore Marcus Farria was dismissed from the team prior to camp.
One intriguing prospect whose name continues to surface as a quick learner is freshman Will Dissly, a 6-foot-4, 273-pound native of Bozeman, Montana.
Dissly is one of three true freshmen who have been taking consistent repetitions with the No. 2 defense — defensive backs Budda Baker and Naijiel Hale are the other two — and he was named as one of the unit’s standouts during Monday’s closed scrimmage. So, too, was fourth-year junior Taniela Tupou, an Archbishop Murphy alum who has been around since 2011 but has played sparingly.
“He’s real smart. So he’s kind of figured out what’s going on,” coach Chris Petersen said of Dissly, who was rated a 2-star recruit by Scout.com. “I think when he kind of figures out the pace and tempo of the college game, plays a little more physical, he’s going to do some really good things. He’s done a nice job up to this point.”
Chaote said Dissly has taken advantage of the opportunity presented by some other linemen being dinged up early in camp. But he expects him to contribute early.
“The guy’s gonna help us, no question,” Choate said. “He’s gonna play some football for us. It’s probably going to be sooner than later.”
Petersen said after Tuesday’s practice that Tupou was one of Monday’s stars, knocking down a quarterback and forcing a fumble — it was live action for everyone, QBs included — that linebacker Travis Feeney picked up and returned for a touchdown.
Shelton and Evan Hudson independently named Tupou as one of the scrimmage’s top performers, too. And Tupou has been working consistently with the No. 2 defensive line, along with Dissly, redshirt freshman Elijah Qualls and third-year sophomore buck linebacker (think hybrid defensive end) Psalm Wooching, who was a fullback his first two seasons. Sophomore Joe Mathis and fourth-year junior Jarrett Finau should eventually factor into the fight for playing time, too.
Shelton was impressed not only with UW’s two-deeps on Monday, but also with the play of other freshmen such as Shane Bowman and Jaylen Johnson.
“They definitely had some production in our first scrimmage,” Shelton said. “They had a few alignment errors but other than that, their effort to the ball, playing the football, just having that mindset to get to the ball and make a play is something you don’t really see in young guys.
“I don’t really see our depth being a problem. It’s more us coming as a unified defense.”
Shelton mentioned that the first-team defense spent “about 18” consecutive plays on the field during Monday’s scrimmage, an endurance test issued by the coaching staff to remind them, as Choate said, “that they’re not in football shape yet.”
And besides, Choate said, “it was 17. Danny’s exaggerating by one.”
Close enough. If Shelton’s evaluations of UW’s young linemen are as accurate, the Huskies will take it.