Analysis: Has UW football done enough to make significant defensive strides?

By Mike Vorel
Seattle Times staff reporter
Washington had a championship offense in 2022.
But not a championship team.
To remedy that, UW attempted to upgrade its sputtering secondary this offseason — adding three transfer corners (Jabbar Muhammad, Thaddeus Dixon and Darren Barkins) and five true freshmen (corners Caleb Presley, Curley Reed and Leroy Bryant, and safeties Vincent Holmes and Diesel Gordon).
A slew of standouts — including edges Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui, linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio and defensive lineman Tuli Letuligasenoa — also opted to return.
But will UW’s mix of potent pass rushers, serviceable run stoppers and unproven defensive backs combine to produce a more dominant defense?
Only time will tell.
So, with preseason practice starting Wednesday, let’s dive into UW’s defensive depth chart.
Defensive line
Tuli Letuligasenoa, sr., 6-1, 292, Concord, Calif.
Faatui Tuitele, jr., 6-3, 317, Honolulu
Voi Tunuufi, jr., 6-1, 260, South Jordan, Utah
Armon Parker, rs. fr., 6-3, 307, Detroit
Ulumoo Ale, sr., 6-6, 327, Tacoma
Jacob Bandes, jr., 603, 302, Pittsburg, Calif.
Jayvon Parker, soph., 6-3, 297, Detroit
Elinneus Davis, fr., 6-2, 322, Moorhead, Minn.
Analysis: UW’s defensive line is stocked with reliable returners — as Tuli Letuligasenoa, Faatui Tuitele, Voi Tunuufi, Ulumoo Ale, Jacob Bandes and Jayvon Parker have all contributed to some degree.
But is there an All-Pac-12 performer among them?
While Letuligasenoa is the most known commodity, Ale — a 6-6, 327-pound converted offensive lineman — has the highest athletic ceiling of the bunch. It’ll also be interesting to see if twins Jayvon and Armon Parker (the latter having sat out last fall with a torn ACL) take significant strides in their second seasons in Seattle.
Edge
Bralen Trice, jr., 6-4, 274, Phoenix
Sekai Asoau-Afoa, jr., 6-4, 263, Tacoma
Anthony James, fr., 6-5, 272, Lavon, Texas
Jacob Lane, fr., 6-5, 250, Puyallup
Zion Tupuola-Fetui, sr., 6-4, 254, Pearl City, Hawaii
Zach Durfee, soph, 6-5, 255, Dawson, Minn. (Sioux Falls)
Maurice Heims, soph., 6-5, 249, Hamburg, Germany
Lance Holtzclaw, rs. fr., 6-3, 225, Dorchester, Mass.
Analysis: In Trice (12 tackles for loss, nine sacks in 2022) and ZTF (5.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks), UW possesses perhaps the west coast’s premier pass rush duo.
But two is not enough.
The challenge for edge coach Eric Schmidt is developing depth, with several unproven options — Asoau-Afoa, Durfee, Heims and Holtzclaw — vying for rotational reps.
Don’t discount defensive lineman Voi Tunuufi — who has snared eight sacks in his first two seasons — shifting outside, either.
“Unfortunately Voi was a little dinged up throughout the spring, so he didn’t get as many reps out there [at the edge spot] as you would have loved to have had,” UW coach Kalen DeBoer said this month. “But he picked things up really quickly last year, in the first year of learning our defense. Starting out the season he’ll be more of an interior guy that can adjust to playing on the edge, then we’ll just kind of see how things go from there and who evolves as the next guys at that position.
“He’s ready. I see him working out and he’s focused and moving well and looking good. I think he’s excited about playing some of the edge position as well. He had success there at some critical times last year.”
Linebacker
Edefuan Ulofoshio, sr., 6-1, 236, Anchorage, Alaska
Ralen Goforth, graduate student, 6-2, 237, Long Beach, Calif. (USC)
Drew Fowler, jr., 6-1, 222, Bellevue
Alphonzo Tuputala, jr., 6-2, 240, Federal Way
Carson Bruener, jr., 6-2, 226, Woodinville
Deven Bryant, fr., 5-11, 216, Carson, Calif.
Jordan Whitney, fr., 6-0, 216, Oxnard, Calif.
Analysis: Similar to its situation on the defensive line, UW knows it has a steady stock of linebackers — led by veterans Ulofoshio, Alphonzo Tuputala, Ralen Goforth and Carson Bruener.
The question is whether this corps can close the gap between good and great.
That would likely require Ulofoshio to return to his 2020 form, after a pair of injuries (a partial tear of his distal bicep tendon and a torn ACL) shortened his last two seasons. It’s also unclear whether Goforth can become more than a steady rotational piece, after the USC transfer totaled 149 tackles in 40 games and 17 starts in Los Angeles.
Cornerback
Elijah Jackson, soph., 6-1, 191., Carson, Calif.
Thaddeus Dixon, jr., 6-1, 192, Los Angeles
Davon Banks, soph., 5-11, 184, San Jacinto, Calif.
Curley Reed, fr., 6-1, 198, Iowa, La.
Jabbar Muhammad, jr., 5-10, 183, DeSoto, Texas (Oklahoma State)
Jaivion Green, soph., 6-2, 207, Houston
Darren Barkins, soph., 5-11, 184, Spring Valley, Calif. (Oregon)
Caleb Presley, fr., 6-0, 177, Federal Way
Leroy Bryant, fr., 5-11, 178, Fairfield, Calif.
Analysis: After producing 48 tackles and a team-high 10 pass breakups at Oklahoma State last fall, Muhammad steps in as an assumed starter. UW’s other battle may primarily feature spring standouts Elijah Jackson and Thaddeus Dixon. Sophomore returners Jaivion Green and Davon Banks, Oregon transfer Darren Barkins and true freshmen Presley, Bryant and Reed will compete as well.
Regardless, UW must improve on a 2022 season that featured just 2.54 pass breakups per game — ranking 129th out of 130 teams in the nation.
The Huskies have more competition at cornerback.
We’ll see if that yields results.
“Husky” nickel
Mishael Powell, jr., 6-1, 210, Seattle
Tristan Dunn, rs. fr., 6-4, 197, Sumner
Dyson McCutcheon, soph., 5-11, 185, Claremont, Calif.
Safety
Asa Turner, sr., 6-3, 200, Carlsbad, Calif.
Kamren Fabiculanan, jr., 6-1, 196, Camarillo, Calif.
Makell Esteen, soph., 6-1, 190, Hawthorne, Calif.
Diesel Gordon, fr., 6-0, 164, Arlington, Texas
Dominique Hampton, sr., 6-3, 220, Glendale, Ariz.
Vince Nunley, soph., 6-1, 187, Oakland, Calif.
Vincent Holmes, fr., 6-0, 174, San Jacinto, Calif.
Analysis: UW has some old names in new positions, as Mishael Powell shifted from cornerback to the “husky” nickel spot this offseason and Dominique Hampton slid from “husky” back to safety.
Will any of it matter? That remains to be seen.
The safety position certainly doesn’t lack veteran voices, as Asa Turner, Kamren Fabiculanan, Makell Esteen and Vince Nunley return as well. And watch out for four-star freshman Vincent Holmes, who arrived this summer.
As in other spots, the challenge here is to transcend “serviceable” and develop genuine standouts — something UW’s safety position has lacked since Taylor Rapp left in 2018.
Kick returner
Giles Jackson, sr., 5-9, 178, Antioch, Calif. (Michigan)
Cameron Davis, jr., 6-0, 212, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
Punt returner
Jalen McMillan, jr., 6-1, 192, Fresno, Calif.
Giles Jackson, sr., 5-9, 178, Antioch, Calif. (Michigan)
Placekicker
Grady Gross, soph., 5-11, 209, Scottsdale, Ariz. OR
Addison Shrock, soph., 6-1, 188, Bellingham
Punter
Jack McCallister, soph., 6-0, 216, Edmonds
Adam Saul, soph., 6-6, 192, Gurnee, Ill.
Troy Petz, fr., 6-1, 172, Lynden
Long snapper
Jaden Green, jr., 5-11, 219, Gilbert, Ariz.
Alex Froelich, soph., 6-2, 210, South Pasadena, Calif.
Caleb Johnston, rs. fr., 5-11, 240, Ripon, Calif.
Analysis: All eyes here should rest on the kicking positions, where UW is holding open competitions for starting services at placekicker (between Grady Gross and Addison Shrock) and punter (between returning starter Jack McCallister and sophomore walk on Adam Saul).
Returners Gross and Shrock look to succeed departed starter Peyton Henry, who held the job for the last five seasons.
Granted, these positions don’t garner headlines.
But they’ll win or lose you games.

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