SEATTLE — The story of what Washington’s defensive line will be in 2018 actually began four years ago.
UW hired Boise State’s Chris Petersen in 2014. Petersen and his assistants put together a class that would include Shane Bowman, Greg Gaines and Jaylen Johnson. All three players were given redshirts for that season and used the year to develop.
Push ahead to 2018. One of the biggest questions facing UW is how to replace projected first-round pick Vita Vea’s presence on the defensive line. While UW will use spring and fall to find Vea’s replacement, the Huskies have an experienced core of Bowman, Gaines and Johnson to anchor the unit.
They don’t expect a drop off.
“It’s just been really crazy just being able to grow together and see each other getting better every day,” Gaines said. “We all got goals that we want to accomplish this season. The way it’s looking right now, it’s looking pretty good for us to accomplish those goals.”
Bowman, Gaines and Johnson were at the heart of UW finishing the 2017 season as the No. 8 defense in the country. In all, the Huskies were fourth against the run, fifth in scoring defense, 14th in sacks and tied for 37th in tackles for loss.
There’s a belief the Huskies can replicate those figures, if not improve them. UW returns nine starters from last season’s unit while welcoming in a top-10 recruiting class featuring six signees who are four-star prospects, led by defensive tackle Tuli Letuligasenoa and defensive end Draco Bynum.
Johnson played in all 13 games last year and finished with 18 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Gaines, an All-Pac-12 second team selection, started every contest and amassed 30 tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss, three pass deflections and 2.5 sacks. Bowman was Gaines’ backup but still played in 10 games.
“I think we’ve carried over the same mentality that we had all season long which is ‘next man up,’” Johnson said. “We got hit with the injury bug last season and the mentality was the next guy has gotta step up and carry the flag. We carried that into the offseason. Vita was a big piece but now that he’s gone, we can’t harp over that. Just next man up and we gotta do our job.”
Petersen’s first class had big names with four-star prospects such as future second-round safety Budda Baker and Kaleb McGary, a redshirt senior, who is expected to be among the top right tackles in the nation going into next season. Three-stars like receiver Dante Pettis would become an NCAA record-holder while Sidney Jones became a second-round draft pick.
Bowman, Gaines and Johnson were all three-star prospects. Johnson was the No. 32 strongside defensive end while Gaines was the 48th best defensive tackle. As for Bowman, the Bellevue native was the No. 53 strongside defensive end.
The time spent on the practice field helped them grow within Petersen’s plan. But the effort made away from Husky Stadium, however, is what allowed the three to become closer and buy into the bigger picture.
“Everyone is pretty close and that’s a big key into where we play on the field. There’s a certain chemistry you don’t get with other teams,” Bowman said. “We do anything. This past summer, we were swimming a lot. There’s a beach club over here by my house. We do football stuff, mess around, eat, do barbecues and stuff like that.”
Huskies co-defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski flashed a big grin when he talked about how attributes like personality were instrumental when it came to recruiting Bowman, Gaines and Johnson.
Kwiatkowski said all three guys weren’t extroverted by any means but they did keep to themselves. Over time, they started talking more and developing a bond.
They’ve since turned into fourth-and-fifth-year players UW’s coaching staff can look to as an example of how to achieve gradual success
“Look back before the (three-and-out to the NFL), that’s what college football was all about,” Kwiatkowski said. “You go four or five years and have that rapport with your guys. That’s what this game is all about: relationships. When you’re able to do that, those guys are going to be life-long friends forever.”
And, possibly in the fall, one of the top defensive lines in the Pac-12.