By JOHN SLEEPER
SEATTLE – It was one of the biggest questions of the preseason.
With its two multi-year starters gone in Mac Tuaiea and Jabari Issa, plus its top reserve in Toalei Mulitauopele, how could the Washington Huskies’ defensive line hold up in 2000?
Think of it. Besides Larry Tripplett, a second-team all-Pacific-10 Conference performer last season, the Huskies had no proven returner.
They had Ryan Julian, an imposing physical specimen who missed all but two games the previous season with tendinitis in his knees. They had Spencer Marona, a converted linebacker whose hamstrings were showing the strain of 15 pounds of muscle he gained in the offseason.
They had Ossim Hatem, another converted linebacker who saw spot duty on the line in 1999. They had Marcus Roberson, a JC transfer with promise but with no Division I experience.
The forecast was grim. But not within the team.
“I feel the concern was misplaced,” Tripplett said. “After two-a-days, I knew we’d be fine. I knew the guys. There were question marks, because no one knew the guys who were going to step in and play. I knew the guys. I knew we were going to be OK.”
Indeed, a perceived weak point has become a positive boon on a 9-1 team that’s ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press poll and fifth in the Bowl Championship Series standings. A win Saturday in Pullman against Washington State, plus an Oregon State victory over Oregon, gives Washington a Pac-10 title.
And, while most are heaping deserving praise on quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, a bevy of tailbacks and an astonishing ability for the dramatic, the defensive line has become an unsung success story in its own.
“None of us was worried too much about D-line,” Hatem said. “All of us just wanted to step up and work harder to get better. We need to get better, but we’re doing pretty well, better that what people were thinking.”
Much of Washington’s defensive philosophy involves the defensive line holding up blockers, allowing linebackers to make tackles on running plays. With Tripplett taking up two and sometimes three blockers much of the time, Derrell Daniels, for one, has been able to zero in on ball-carriers nearly unimpeded. Indeed, Daniels gives much credit to Tripplett for his team-leading 92 tackles, third in the Pac-10.
“That’s the guy that makes my job easier,” Daniels said. “He’s so quick. We saw it even when he came in as a freshman. He used to beat some of the veteran O-linemen.”
That group included Benji Olson and Olin Kreutz, who now are playing on Sundays in the NFL.
“We knew that his time would come and that he was going to be something special,” Daniels said. “This just happens to be that year where he’s beginning to shine.”
Yet, Tripplett isn’t the only one.
An unknown was Roberson, a hotly sought transfer from Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif. Most have trouble with the transition from a junior college to Division I, but Roberson is second only to Tripplett, with six sacks (Tripplett has 6 1/2), has eight tackles for loss and has forced two fumbles.
“He’s done a nice job for us,” defensive line coach Randy Hart said. “He didn’t have the luxury of easing into the lineup. He’s been thrown into the fire and made to respond. He has. He’s done a wonderful job.”
The Huskies use an eight-man rotation that allows fresh legs on virtually every snap. It has helped Julian, whose knees haven’t been a factor this season. The Huskies constantly shuffle guys in and out, regardless of the down or situation.
You’ll rarely see the same group on the field in back-to-back series.
“You like to A) get as many guys on the field as you can,” Hart said. “And B), you want everybody to get experience on the field, so they can help each other out. You want to give guys a break when you can.”
The mix-and-match approach has psychological implications, as well. None of the eight in the rotation thinks of himself as a reserve. Aside from the obvious exceptions of Tripplett and Roberson, playing time is distributed roughly equally.
“You can teach them what it’s like to compete with other starters,” Hart said, “because whoever’s out there with the first team is on the first team. I think guys play harder sometimes when they realize that they’re playing for all the marbles.
“Guys came to college to play. It’s not a lot of fun to be a second-teamer and you’re not playing.”
They’re playing, though. And playing well.
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