August 13, 2008

Can Talent Overcome Inexperience?

The jury is out on the Huskies' defensive line. Washington lost three of it's starting front four from a season ago. But then again, the defensive line didn't quite meet expectations in 2007. However, Washington's best defensive lineman returns in junior Daniel Te'o-Nesheim. The 6-foot-4, 263-pound defensive end notched 57 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks last season. For his efforts, Te'o-Nesheim was named the team's defensive MVP and the John P. Angel Lineman of the Year. Te'o-Nesheim will be a difference maker, mark it down.

As for the rest of the defensive line? A familiar word comes to mind - inexperience. Te'o-Nesheim aside, no other defensive lineman has started a game. Starting opposite Te'o-Nesheim, at the other defensive end spot, will likely be 6-foot-3, 255-pound junior Darrion Jones. Jones played in six games during his true freshman season from the linebacker position. He then redshirted in 2006 after making the switch from linebacker to defensive end. Last season, Jones played in four games, notching one tackle in the process.

Nothing is set in stone, but you might as well go ahead and pencil in sophomore Cameron Elisara as one of the starting defensive tackles. The 6-foot-3, 290-pounder has a lot of upside, but is still very inexperienced, having totaled only two tackles in 12 games last season. The other starting defensive tackle spot remains open, but it appears either sophomore De'Shon Matthews or true freshman Alameda Ta'amu will fill that void. Matthews saw action in three games last season, but didn't record any statistics. It may worry many to hear that a true freshman might start at defensive tackle, and truthfully, it should.

Speaking of true freshman, highly touted recruits, defensive tackle Craig Noble and defensive end Senio Kelemete have yet to qualify academically. Noble is awaiting test results for the California High School Exit Examination, while Kelemete is currently one math credit away from graduating - something he is in the process of working on. As I said, you don't want to have to rely on true freshman, but the fact of the matter is that both Noble and Kelemete would have provided solid depth to a thin defensive line.

But Husky fans can take solace in something Ta'amu possesses more of than any other Washington defensive lineman- size. Ta'amu tips the scales at a whopping 350-pounds! The adjustment from high school football to Pac-10 football has been a steady one for the mammoth freshman.

"Adjusting to the size, the speed - everybody is just as strong as you. The plays - there's a lot of plays you have to learn. We never really looked at the playbook in high school, but now the playbook is like a dictionary," explained Ta'amu of the biggest adjustments to the college game. "I'm doing pretty good out here though. I'm just trying to learn the plays. Sometimes I get mixed up when we do scrimmages, but I'm getting the plays down for the most part so far. Coach says that I bring depth on the line - I take up a whole bunch of space and stop the run. It's all experience, that's all I need is experience, and I feel like I'll do pretty good. I didn't know I could hang with the bigger boys out here, so it feels good."

Washington Head Coach Tyrone Willingham likes what he has seen from Ta'amu thus far.

"Doing well, doing very well," said Willingham of Ta'amu's progress. "Obviously he brings something to the table that a lot of the guys don't have. He's a massive man, and that's a very positive thing. He brings that to the table, and that's a great start. That's what we said when we recruited him, that we felt like we could now have a presence in there that is just a massive man that forces offenses to do certain things that they would like not to do."

Ta'amu suffered a broken foot as senior in high school and missed the last three games of the 2007 season, but the injury does not seem to be bothering him anymore according to Willingham, who also discussed the possibility of Ta'amu earning playing time as a true freshman.

"The foot doesn't seem to be a problem, and I don't think the foot has been a problem since camp. Obviously there's usually some compensation that takes place when you have a joint or an area that's kind of limited to some degree, but the foot has not been a problem," explained Willingham. "I like what I've seen from him. I think our defensive coaches like what we've seen from him. He still has a lot to learn, but I think he's having a lot of fun learning it and we're having a lot of fun watching him learn."

Not trying to pour on the pessimism, but another worry regarding the Husky defensive line, is the lack of what Ta'amu possesses much of - size. If Ta'amu does not start, there's a strong possibility the starting defensive line will read 263-pounds, 290-pounds, 270-pounds and 255-pounds across the board. However, Defensive Line Coach Randy Hart feels that sheer size does not necessarily translate into an advantage.

"It will always be leverages. It's whoever can get their pads down underneath people and work from that aspect," explained Hart. "Sometimes being big and angular is not a help on the defensive line. The guys who carry themselves well, who are strong enough to handle the big guys, who do maintain good leverage, move their feet and keep their hands above their eyes - they've got a chance to be a good player."

Jones expects the defensive line to surprise people this season.

"After last year's class graduated, everybody thinks that the defensive line is probably the problem, but I don't see us as a problem, I see us as a strong point of the defense," said Jones. "I don't think we're a problem at all, if anything. I know we're going to be solid no matter how big or small we are."

Elisara also has reason to believe the defensive line will do good things in 2008.

"I've noticed a lot of aggression. It seems like a more aggressive approach when I watch the film compared to last year. The guys last year were aggressive too, but for some reason, I feel we look like we're all out there attacking a lot more," explained Elisara. "That's what a defensive line is supposed to do, is really get some pressure in there on the passes and clog up the runs, and I think we're doing a good job of both."

The Husky coaches have stated various times that there may be plenty of rotation among the defensive line this season.

"What we're doing is we're working all of them with different groups, different patterns, to figure out what is our best combination," explained Willingham. "I would anticipate that we're going to see a lot of guys play in there. The one's that give us the best combination and the best productivity may be determined by how they play in the games more so than what we do in practice."

The idea of a steady rotation amongst the linemen is something that's welcomed by the big bodies up front.

"It's good. Technically there are starters, but it's going to take a rotation to keep us fresh. I can't really complain, because there's points in games where you get tired going a few plays in a row," explained Elisara. "It will be nice. There will be a main core of guys and then there will be the guys who will substitute in, so I'm happy with that."

"I like the idea. Everybody has to get experience, because if somebody goes down, you need to have confidence in the person behind you. They need to know what they're doing, so they won't get out there and look like a deer in headlights," expressed Jones. "I like the idea of rotating people. It keeps everybody fresh. Everybody gets game experience. And it makes it harder for the offense because different people play different ways, so you have to adjust to different people on the field. I like the idea, there's nothing wrong with that to me."

Elisara will be completely new to the role of a starter, but he will be looked upon as a leader - something he is ready to accept.

"I need to put myself into the position where I need to be the guy inside. I need to be the man inside, I need to hold my ground and I need to be the big guy," expressed Elisara. "That's the kind of role that I've been trying to work myself into in practice. I'm trying to establish my name. Especially once Oregon comes. Once that game comes, I need to really put it down."

Hart expects Elisara to handle the added responsibility fairly well, but also expects him to show signs of a first-time starter.

"It's very familiar ground for him, it's just more plays now. It's his turn to be the guy. Of any of the newer guys, he's probably the guy who most knows what's going to happen and how it's going to play out," said Hart. "He's the guy who's eyes aren't going to be as big as they could be, but they'll be big on that first game, I guarantee. It's his time to step up from the first snap."

Matthews moved to the defensive tackle spot after playing as a defensive end last season. The move was rocky at first, but Matthews has since settled down after gaining around 15 pounds.

"I'm starting to feel more comfortable. At first, it was a real different type of feel, because I was so underweight," explained Matthews. "But now I'm starting to get used to it. I've gained some weight and I've learned some techniques to help me inside, so I'm getting used to it now."

Senior Johnie Kirton has been a journeyman in his time with the Huskies. Kirton was originally recruited as a running back, but moved to tight end after redshirting his true freshman season. Kirton remained at tight end for three seasons before moving to defensive tackle for his final season at Montlake.

"It's been good," said Kirton of the switch to defense. "I think one thing that people misunderstand is that I made the switch, it was my decision. The switch has been easy. It wasn't really a big deal to make the switch. The toughest part is the double teams. Getting double-teamed is hard because you have around 700 pounds pressing on you for eight seconds - that can be tiring at times. I get on myself about it, but sometimes you can't help but to just fight it off. You're going to get beat every once in awhile. Other than that, the switch has been good."

Kirton's move to the defensive side of the ball was no surprise to Coach Hart.

"He's got a great opportunity, because he played the position in high school, and that was one of our choices when we recruited him. Ultimately, he's winding back where we thought he would start - he's gone full circle," explained Hart. "It's an opportunity for him to show his wears so to speak. He has the size and physical tools to get the job done. Now it's a matter of putting things together and using some of the skills that he learned as an offensive player to counteract some of those skills as a defensive player. He's got good knowledge and it's truly up to him to come along as fast he can, to gain that experience and be as good as we think he can be."

Jones feels Kirton's move has gone well so far.

"He's taking it all in stride, but he adjusted very well. I guess just by being around football, he has a general idea of what he should be doing," expressed Jones. "It's the coach's job to come along and help polish and make the finished product, but Johnie is coming along fine - he's going to be great."

First-year Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell has positively influenced the defensive Huskies, which is evident when you speak to them.

"It's changed the whole defense's approach, because Coach Donatell brings a whole new attitude to the defense, and I think everybody is liking it a lot," explained Elisara. "There's a lot more jokes and laughing - a lighter mood in the meetings, which makes for a better learning curb. Everyone wants to learn more when they're in a good mood. Donatell has brought a lot so far and I'm excited to see how it affects how we play."

Other players to keep an eye on this season are redshirt freshman Kalani Aldrich, true freshman Everrette Thompson and redshirt freshman Tyrone Duncan.

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