This group on the UW Huskies defense is ‘healthier, stronger and faster,’ has impressed in camp

·7 min read
Cheyenne Boone/cboone@thenewstribune.com

Three plays into Tuesday morning’s fifth fall practice at Husky Stadium, senior edge rusher Jeremiah Martin ripped into the backfield.

The “sack” was the first of the day for the Washington defense during an 11-on-11 scrimmage period.

Two hours later, on the final play before the Huskies wrapped up camp for the day, Martin rushed over to the left sideline, stuck his hands out and batted down a pass attempt.

More happened in the backfield in the scrimmage series in between, as it has been the past week.

The two plays summed up where UW’s edge rushers have been the first five days of camp — everywhere.

“I feel like from the spring, guys have done a good job of studying the playbook and staying on top of things in the summer,” Huskies special teams coordinator and edges coach Eric Schmidt said.

“So, I’ve felt like we’ve had a good start here, just as far as guys being able to understand schemes and start to get a lot more into the details as far as (they’re) not just worried about what their job is, but understanding now what everybody else is doing around them and how the offense is trying to attack them.”

Certainly, the edge rushers have made their presence known, and have been pointed to by coaches more than once in the past week.

When camp opened Thursday, Huskies coach Kalen DeBoer said the group is “probably the position as a whole that just impresses me probably beyond what I realized we had.”

DeBoer noted that group looks “healthier, stronger and faster, too, than what they were a year ago for different reasons, right — injuries or just another year into their career.”

“So, a lot that’s happening because of the hard work they put in,” he added.

DeBoer and UW co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chuck Morrell, when he was asked about the group Friday, both mentioned three returning contributors in the group that have stood out in Martin, sophomore Bralen Trice and junior Zion Tupuola-Fetui.

“I think you’ve got, really, three really high-end guys,” Morrell said. “Jeremiah Martin — old, savvy veteran, super physical, brings his top game every day. ZTF is an elite pass rusher. And then Bralen Trice has got a combination of being able to do a lot of a number of things.

“So, I think the challenge for us as we get into stuff later on is to get those combinations of guys on the field together a bunch, and I think that is something that will definitely happen.”

Martin appeared in 11 games last fall in his first season with the Huskies, including starting in the Apple Cup, played 217 defensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus, and collected 13 tackles, one sack and one quarterback hit.

He spent his first three seasons at Texas A&M, playing in 31 games for the SEC program.

Schmidt said Martin, listed at 6-foot-4, 267 pounds, is as “strong and physical in the run game as anybody we have.”

Trice debuted last season, and appeared in all 12 games for the Huskies, starting the final two and logging 192 defensive snaps, 14 tackles, five for losses, two sacks and a fumble recovery.

“He’s a smooth athlete that’s really powerful,” Schmidt said.

Then there’s Tupuola-Fetui, who appeared in five games last season due to injury — he added eight tackles and one sack — but has been a staple in UW’s pass rush during his career.

Before an Achilles injury limited him last season, Tupuola-Fetui was an All-American and All-Pac-12 first-team selection for the Huskies in 2020.

He has tallied more than 500 defensive snaps in 23 games at UW the past four seasons, and said Tuesday he feels as healthy and strong as he has been.

“Obviously a different deal from last camp,” he said. “I was just focused on my rehab, focused on my leg, but now we’re just out here having fun flying around, learning this playbook.

“It’s good. We’ve got a lot of our playbook in already, so now it’s really reps. My room has really come together collectively, and I personally feel like I’m playing some of the best ball I’ve played yet.”

Tupuola-Fetui has stormed into the backfield often the first week of practices, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“He’s a problem,” DeBoer said. “You’d have to have an answer for him, I know for sure, if you’re going against him.”

And the Huskies are looking to see his impact beyond the pass rush as a three-down presence.

“No question he’s going to need to go forward and be one of our best pass rushers, but if he can do some of those other things, too, and expand on his game, it’s just going to make our defense better,” Schmidt said.

Martin and Trice have worked most often with the No. 1 defense the first week, while Tupuola-Fetui has primarily taken reps with the No. 2 defense, but has played alongside the first-team defense, too, as the Huskies continue to work out who will take starting reps on Sept. 3.

“They know at the end of the game that they’re going to be playing a lot, that there’s going to be packages where all three of them are on the field together,” Schmidt said. “I think there’s situations where three of those guys are in our top 11, and that’s our job as coaches to make sure they’re on the field in those situations.

“So, it’s a work in progress yet, but ultimately, in our base stuff, it’s going be two out of the three, and whoever gives us the best chance to win is going to start the game.”

Each of the three has shown early in camp their ability to make an impact.

“I think they all bring some variety, and you can plug those skill sets into different spots in our defense and situationally, and ultimately all of those guys are going to play a lot of football for us,” Schmidt said.

“After that is where we’ve really got to start figuring out where the next reps are coming from in our in our depth chart.”

However starting reps and playing time are divided up when games begin, Martin said he is “confident in everybody in that room.”

Beyond Martin, Trice and Tupuola-Fetui, the only returner with game experience is former five-star recruit Sav’ell Smalls, who has appeared in all 16 games since signing with UW out of Kennedy Catholic in 2020.

He has played 379 defensive snaps during his two-year career, per PFF, and last season adding 11 tackles, two quarterback hits and a fumble recovery.

“He’s very powerful,” Schmidt said. “He’s constantly working on what he feels are some of his weaknesses. He’s one of those guys that’s really self-aware, and he’s not afraid to be like, ‘Hey, man, just let me know what you think I need to work on and I’ll work on it.’

“And whether that’s in the weight room, whether that’s flexibility, whether that’s rushing the passer, dropping into the flat — whatever it is — he just wants to get better, and I think anytime you have that type of approach, you’re going to have an opportunity to be able to become a better player.”

Former three-star recruit Maurice Heims also returns after signing with the Huskies in 2021, but has not appeared in a game.

UW added another edge rusher in its 2022 class in three-star recruit Lance Holtzclaw, who signed in the early period in December. Former Fife lineman Sekai Afoa-Asoau also joined the Huskies this summer. He committed to UW in May after spending the past two seasons at College of San Mateo.