SEATTLE — Levi Onwuzurike could not have said it any clearer.
And, no, he didn’t need to wait for the end of the question.
It was 3:45 p.m. on Aug. 12 — an overcast Monday in Seattle — and Washington’s 6-foot-3, 293-pound junior defensive lineman stood in the southeast corner of Husky Stadium, providing a sound bite (and a spoiler?).
“You lose, obviously, guys who had been here,” a reporter prefaced. “But do you feel like, with the amount of depth that you have and available bodies, that this group can be better than the one —”
“We will be,” Onwuzurike responded, as if the answer should have been obvious. “Oh, we will be. We will be better.”
Onwuzurike was referring, of course, to the Huskies defensive line — which lost Greg Gaines, Jaylen Johnson and Shane Bowman this offseason. He was referring to a group featuring three seniors — two former walk-ons (Josiah Bronson and the since-injured John Clark) and a converted outside linebacker (Benning Potoa’e). He was referring to a unit teeming with true or redshirt freshmen with plenty of talent but precious little experience in Pac-12 play.
In 2018, UW ranked 15th nationally in rushing defense (116.1 yards per game) and 21st in opponent yards per carry (3.53), second in the Pac-12 behind only Utah.
And yet, this defensive line is supposed to be better?
“Why’s that?” the reporter asked.
“We’ve just got guys who are ready to go, guys that have been waiting to play,” said Onwuzurike, who’s looking to build on 34 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last season. “(Redshirt freshmen) Tuli (Letuligasenoa) and Taki (Taimani) have grown a lot.
“This past year has been a lot of growth, whether it’s in the playbook or in the weight room or on the field.”
The same can be said, a Huskies fan would hope, for the entire Washington defense — which returns just two of 11 starters from 2018. Defensive backs Byron Murphy, Taylor Rapp and Jordan Miller, linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven and defensive lineman Greg Gaines were all selected in the NFL draft.
It would be natural, then, to scan the UW roster and prepare for an inevitable regression.
But is it possible, even with all those draft departures, that UW’s defense might be more talented than it was in 2018?
“What I do like — I’ll try to answer it this way — I do like that we have talent here,” said defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake, when asked if his defense might actually be overlooked. “We’ve been able to redshirt guys — get guys bigger, faster, stronger. We’ve had a bunch of guys who have watched the pros and learned how they operate, and now they’re kind of taking over. They know how those guys worked.
“To answer your general question, it does feel good flying under the radar, because if people don’t respect us, then we’re excited for that opportunity either for them to come here or for us to go there.”
When it comes to Washington’s primary rivals, they’ll be coming here. UW gets to host USC, Oregon, Utah and Washington State inside Husky Stadium in 2019.
That will undoubtedly help. But a bit of fortuitous scheduling, by itself, won’t allow Washington to lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense for a fifth consecutive season.
To do that, a secondary led by senior Myles Bryant and juniors Elijah Molden and Keith Taylor will need to exceed Lake’s lofty standard. An inexperienced, admittedly thin group of inside linebackers — featuring rising senior Brandon Wellington — will need to overcome Burr-Kirven’s obvious absence. Outside linebackers Joe Tryon, Ryan Bowman and Ariel Ngata will need to pester Pac-12 quarterbacks more than they managed to last fall.
That stampede of physically formidable UW defensive linemen — Letuligasenoa (6-2, 318), Taimani (6-2, 321), Bronson (6-3, 291) and Potoa’e (6-3, 290), to name a few — will need to bring not just bulk, but bite.
And, of course, Onwuzurike will need to make good on his word.
“I’m not going to lie, we see it,” he said, referring to the perception that the UW defense could take a tumble in 2019. “We don’t care. It’s Death Row. We expect nothing less. We’re going to try to impress the guys (that came) ahead of us.”
That last part clears up a common misconception. The motivation for Onwuzurike, Bryant, Molden and all the rest, they say, is not to pile-drive the doubters and basement bloggers predicting their defense’s imminent downfall. It’s to grab the baton from Burr-Kirven, Rapp, Gaines, Murphy, etc., and keep running.
It’s to honor the program’s recent past by protecting it, and improving on it.
“We don’t really pay attention to that,” Lake said of any outside doubt. “The standard around here is so high. People want to live up to the person that was just in their position the year before. They want to live up to that standard. So that’s not really a point of motivation for us.”
Added Onwuzurike: “It’s a big challenge and it’s a big honor to take that on. So we don’t take that lightly. We’re just ready to go.”