With personalities and athleticism as abundant as their frames, Washington's defensive line is driving the Huskies' rise into a Pac-12 power and a College Football Playoff threat.
It is an enduring rule of preseason camp, one followed dutifully by the members of Washington's defensive line: If you see a ride, take the ride. There is no reason to walk the 200 yards between the practice fields and the athlete dining room inside the Conibear Shellhouse, especially after you've just spent hours on your feet colliding violently with sleds and other Mount Rainier-sized humans. The idea is to travel as efficiently as possible. If that means a car must ferry along eight massive linemen at one time, so be it. And if the finite space in that vehicle requires one of those behemoths to ride on top of the Jeep doing the ferrying, then, well, everyone just hopes the roof is factory-tested for heavy cargo.
Months removed from this episode, Elijah Qualls is fuzzy on who the Jeep belonged to. And while the 321-pound junior has his suspicions, he cannot exactly recall which teammate became the world's largest ski rack. Qualls just knows someone rode on top, and that someone was not him. Because he was hanging off the side.
"Yeah, man," Qualls says. "We're unorthodox."
A formidable defensive front—a unit of outsized personalities, performance and waistlines—nevertheless offers a driving force for the undefeated Huskies. Three nimble, feral 300-pounders anchor the nation's No. 8 defense, according to Football Outsiders' S&P+ metric. Include the production from hybrid linebacker Joe Mathis, who regularly slides down to a defensive end spot to rush the passer, and Washington's front accounts for 24.5 tackles for loss through six games, including 14 sacks.
The capacity to disrupt an offense without the aid of regular blitzes is particularly vital; it allows the Huskies' already dangerous secondary to do its work at full strength nearly all the time. This at least partly explains why opponents have managed just 5.7 yards per attempt (10th lowest nationally) and five passing touchdowns all year.
A seismic effort in a 44–6 beatdown of Stanford on Sept. 30 effectively reset the Pac-12 paradigm, even before a follow-up 70–21 dismantling of Oregon a week later. Washington's defense physically throttled the notoriously sound Cardinal, allowing a mere 29 net rushing yards while compiling eight sacks, five of which were credited to the Huskies' front. "Their scheme is really sound," Stanford offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren says. "Combine that with the fact that their three defensive tackles are huge, and they present issues to move the ball in traditional ways. They're not just big space hogs. They're active and very good with their hands."
In short, as a visit from Oregon State awaits Saturday, Washington's beefy defensive line creates mass chaos. They are substantial enough to qualify for their own ZIP codes. The top three rotation contributors are the 6'2" Qualls, 318-pound sophomore Greg Gaines and 6'5", 332-pound redshirt sophomore Vita Vea. Their understudies check in at 280 to 287 pounds. Were they all in fact simple hole-pluggers, occupying blockers and clearing lanes for linebackers to attack, the defense might be sufficiently effective.
The Huskies' defense is championship-caliber, though, because things are hardly that simple. Vea, Qualls and Gaines all were high school running backs, and in theory, those days are buried beneath dozens of additional pounds added during their time at Washington. In reality, they see safety Budda Baker and linebacker Psalm Wooching do two-way duty and they then solicit coaches for roles in goal line offense. To sate his unit's appetite for ball-toting glory, defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe runs ball drills in which he throws his protégés interceptions they can return and celebrate or "tomahawk drills" in which the linemen rehearse their scoop-and-score skills, adding their own cuts and shimmies along the way. "I try to feed them a treat, so to speak," Malloe says. "But they ain't running backs no more."
Strictly speaking, no. But they've retained some of the basic footwork, vision and agility that permitted them to play the position. Vea, for one, was already a near-300-pound cannonball in the Wing T as a senior at Milpitas (Calif.) High, tasked to run with power yet somehow consistently finding his way to the perimeter. "I always wanted to like juke people out and outrun people," Vea says now. "Every time I saw there was no hole I'd go straight outside." So moving that enormous frame laterally or shifting it through small spaces has come naturally for some time. And those skills certainly apply to the less celebrated, present-day duties in the trenches for Washington. "They not only understand blocking schemes and how they fit in terms of a running back, they have the athleticism, the fast-twitch muscles, the change of direction, really good hips," Malloe says. "That's really, really special in terms of having that type of player with those types of capabilities."
It allows the Huskies to deploy, as Stanford's Bloomgren notes, a very active front. Though active might be understating it. It's no accident that Washington's defensive line performs with a destructive effervescence.
"We got a lot of crazy dudes on the defensive line that don't care about anything," says Mathis, himself a former high school running back, who becomes the relative runt of the bunch when he lines up as a 6'2", 255-pound edge rusher. "They're all like goofy little kids. They bring a lot of energy. If you didn't hang around them, you'd be like, 'Oh, they're different.' But that's what makes them great."Christian Petersen/Getty Images
When these particular college students gather, there is no such thing as a safe space. Another preseason camp tradition: Blaring WWE entrance music and…well, it's best to let Qualls describe it. "We take like beanbags," the junior says, "and just body slam each other on top of them." This past August, the Huskies ratcheted up the action by adding furniture to the proceedings. They put two beanbags on a table. Then someone lay on top of those beanbags. And then teammates laid two more beanbags on top of that person.
"And then somebody jumped on the bean bags and crushed everything through the table," Qualls says. "Coach [Chris Petersen] was pissed. But it was funny."
The approach extends into the meeting room, where monotony is similarly smashed to pieces by biting sarcasm. "It's O.K. not to be so intense every single moment," Qualls says. "If you do that, you wear yourself down and you take the fun out of it." But the acerbic tone serves a purpose. The Huskies aim to deflate egos while simultaneously preserving the confidence of players they know they'll rely on. If film demonstrates that someone is adept at defeating reach blocks, he might be deemed the Reach God, an exaggeration that acknowledges a job well done while suggesting the player shouldn't be too proud of himself.
On the other end of the spectrum, if a lineman botches an assignment badly, a piquant joke might underscore the need to do better while not quite undermining anyone's mental state. "It's a way of stabilizing," Qualls says. "You know you've done bad, but at the same time, we're not cussing you out for it. We're like, 'Hey, get it together…but that was funny as hell.'"
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Washington's defensive front derives its energy from all of that, but it derives its motivation from a past none of its current figures witnessed. After joining the Huskies staff last December following a stint as Utah State's defensive line coach, Malloe noted that the 2016 season would represent the 25th anniversary of the program's run to the 1991 national title. So he nudged his group toward a new slogan. D.L.O: Defensive Line Order. It was the mantra of the great defensive lines of the Don James era at Washington, and it implied both the imposition of will and the responsibility to carry certain tenets from one year to the next.
"They were going to try to be the toughest, the meanest, the smartest, the fastest, whatever it may be, to make them better than the next group," Malloe says. "That's what it took to become D.L.O. at the time."
There is a distance between then and now, and between this Washington defensive line and a national title. But its predecessors likely would approve of its demeanor as a starting point. Some generally good humor belies the ruthlessness and hunger —Qualls' words—that apply on Saturdays. Before that showdown with Stanford in September, no one cracked one-liners or broke tables. Hardly anyone on the defense uttered a word, the big bodies and big personalities on that front included.
"They were just ready to go hunt," Mathis says. There's nothing funny about that this year, if you're the hunted.