Washington returns nine defensive starters from the unit that defeated Boise State 38-7 in the 2019 Las Vegas Bowl. It returns nine starters from the group that finished 15th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 19.4 points per game. It returns proven Pac-12 performers on every level of new head coach Jimmy Lake’s 2020 defense.
The expectation, then, should be to dominate. UW’s defense should settle for nothing less.
And that all starts up front. So let’s embark on a position-by-position primer for UW’s 2020 defense, beginning with the defensive line and linebackers:
Levi Onwuzurike, sr., 6-3, 293
Tuli Letuligasenoa, so., 6-2, 318
Josiah Bronson, sr., 6-3, 291
Sam Taimani, so., 6-2, 321
Faatui Tuitele, rs-fr., 6-3, 300
Jacob Bandes, rs-fr., 6-2, 318
Draco Bynum, so., 6-4, 268
Noa Ngalu, rs-fr., 6-1, 292
Sama Paama, rs-fr., 6-4, 347
Outlook: Washington’s defensive line was occasionally dominant, yet frustratingly inconsistent, in 2019. The Huskies finished 28th nationally in rushing defense (126.38 yards per game), 39th in opponent yards per carry (3.81), 58th in sacks per game (2.23) and 87th in tackles for loss per game (5.46) last fall. It’s true, to accurately diagnose UW’s deficiencies, you must also wrap in the linebacking corps. But the fact remains that Washington allowed 192 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per carry to Cal, 189 rushing yards and 4.4 yards per carry to Stanford and 207 rushing yards and 5.0 yards per carry to Colorado — all in losing efforts. There is improvement to be made.
And defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe — who was also named co-defensive coordinator this offseason — has the bodies to break through in 2020.
That starts, of course, with senior defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike — who was named to the All-Pac-12 first team in 2019. The 6-foot-3, 293-pounder could have declared for the NFL draft and potentially went in the first three rounds. Instead, he opted to return for his senior season, instantly adding stability and proven production in the middle of the UW defensive line.
But there’s depth here as well. Josiah Bronson, who started 11 games and contributed four tackles for loss and two sacks in 2019, was granted a sixth season of eligibility and will compete for a starting spot. Massive redshirt sophomores Tuli Letuligasenoa (6-2, 318) and Sam Taimani (6-2, 321) earned significant experience last season and should take further strides this fall. Letuligasenoa, specifically, seemed to excel as the season wore on. And let’s not forget four-star redshirt freshmen Faatui Tuitele, Jacob Bandes and Sama Paama, who could be primed to break into the rotation in their second seasons in Seattle.
It appears UW will fail to sign a defensive lineman in the 2020 class, and that’s never an ideal outcome for an FBS contender. But Malloe and Co. have built the depth to withstand that blow. They’ve also built the depth, talent and physical prowess to overwhelm opposing fronts next fall.
Joe Tryon, jr., 6-5, 262
Laiatu Latu, so., 6-4, 275
Bralen Trice, rs-fr., 6-3, 236
Edefuan Ulofoshio, so., 6-0, 231
M.J. Tafisi, so., 6-0, 235
Daniel Heimuli, rs-fr., 6-0, 217
Miki Ah You, rs-fr., 6-1, 215
Ben Hines, so., 5-10, 234*
Jackson Sirmon, so., 6-3, 238
Josh Calvert, rs-fr., 6-2, 223
Alphonzo Tuputala, rs-fr., 6-2, 224
Drew Fowler, rs-fr., 6-1, 210*
Ruperake Fuavai, rs-fr., 6-2, 230*
Ryan Bowman, sr., 6-0, 277
Zion Tupuola-Fetui, so., 6-3, 266
Hunter Hansen, rs-fr., 6-4, 191*
OLB Sav’ell Smalls, fr., 6-4, 244
OLB Jordan Lolohea, fr., 6-1, 247
ILB Cooper McDonald, fr., 6-2, 215
ILB Carson Bruener, fr., 6-2, 201
Outlook: Since it’s Understatement Season, let’s just say this: Washington’s inside-linebacker play left something to be desired in 2019. That’s not all Kyler Manu and Brandon Wellington’s fault, either; the medical retirement of D.J. Beavers, unexpected departure of Ale Kaho, transfer of Milo Eifler and season-ending injury of four-star freshman Josh Calvert all swirled together into a perfect storm of sorts.
But are the Huskies actually better off in 2020?
That’s the question, one of few potential soft spots in a daunting UW defense. The late-season emergence of Edefuan Ulofoshio certainly helps; the 6-0, 231-pound redshirt sophomore, who rightfully earned a scholarship this offseason, posted 47 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss and three sacks and should be an early favorite to start in 2020.
But who will start alongside him? That’s where this gets interesting. Sophomores Jackson Sirmon and M.J. Tafisi and redshirt freshmen Calvert, Daniel Heimuli, Alphonzo Tuputala and Miki Ah You are all intriguing options. Of course, it’s possible (though unlikely) that three-star freshmen Cooper McDonald and Carson Bruener could arrive on campus and instantly impress as well. That’s a whole lot of scholarship candidates with plenty left to prove. But it remains to be seen whether there’s another breakout linebacker in the bunch.
Of course, the opposite can be said on the outside, where UW has both a pair of proven starters (Joe Tryon and Shane Bowman) and a fleet of young, possibly emerging pass-rushers (Laiatu Latu, Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Sav’ell Smalls, Bralen Trice, Jordan Lolohea). The 6-5, 262-pound Tryon’s production finally matched his physical potential last season, as he led the Huskies in both tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (8). Bowman produced a bounce-back junior campaign as well, utilizing a relentless motor to fill the stat sheet with 34 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception.
The 6-4, 275-pound Latu, who played in 12 of 13 games as a freshman, should be a more consistent force in his second season in Seattle. But the real wild card here is Smalls, the five-star 2020 UW signee and Kennedy Catholic standout. Can the Huskies’ most prized recruit in recent history make an instant impact on Montlake?
The Huskies might not need him to … but that doesn’t mean he won’t.