Jeff Choate knows his coaching task will be different — and, in many ways, more challenging — this season.
So did the UW fan he met a while back in Palm Springs.
Choate was there for a booster function and introduced himself as the Huskies’ defensive line coach, to which the gentleman replied: “I guess we’ll find out if you can coach this year.”
Choate replied: “Yeah, I guess we will.”
Guess so. The Huskies are replacing their entire starting front four, a group that included All-America nose tackle Danny Shelton, All-America outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha and two other seniors, Andrew Hudson and Evan Hudson, who started every game in 2014.
With so much experience, Choate joked last season that the most prudent move for him at times was to simply back away and let UW’s veteran defensive line handle its business.
But there is far more teaching going on this spring, ahead of a 2015 season that will feature six new starters in the Huskies’ defensive front seven.
“Hey, I think that we were very, very fortunate to have the guys that we had,” Choate said after UW’s Friday practice at Husky Stadium. “I think we did do a good job of putting them in positions to showcase their talent and allow them to play fast. Now, we’ve got a different challenge of really finding out who those guys are, but still having the same mindset — put them in a position to be successful, (and) play to their strengths so they can go play fast and produce.”
So far, there has been plenty of “mixing and matching,” as Choate calls it. Sophomore Will Dissly, third-year sophomore Elijah Qualls and fifth-year senior Taniela Tupou most frequently play together with the No. 1 defensive unit, with fourth-year junior Psalm Wooching taking the initial snaps as the No. 1 “buck,” or outside linebacker.
But there have been plenty of reps, too, for redshirt freshman Vita Vea, redshirt freshman Greg Gaines, fourth-year junior Damion Turpin, fifth-year senior Taniela Tupou and third-year sophomore Joe “JoJo” Mathis, a promising 6-foot-2, 249-pound pass rusher who is getting an early look at the buck linebacker spot.
And other spots, too. Choate preaches versatility to help combat the ever-evolving offensive looks the Huskies are sure to see.
“You’re not always going to have the luxury of being able to sub,” Choate said. “Oregon’s going fast, and you’ve got your base unit out there. You don’t want to limit yourself to two or three calls. You maybe want to play through your entire defense, and so the best example you can have is a guy like Shaq (Thompson), who can line up at safety, can line up at linebacker, that can do all those different things.
“Well, we need those same kind of guys up front — a guy that can play nose, a guy that can play three-(technique), a guy that can play five-(technique), a guy that can play on the edge. So that’s part of the process that we’re going through right now.”
Coaches take in Pro Day
Watching 20 former Huskies work out at Thursday’s Pro Day — including four likely early round draft picks — was “awesome,” UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said.
He just wishes they could still play for the Huskies.
“It’s bittersweet, because I was so excited and blessed to have been able to coach those guys,” he said. “You wish you had them back for another year. They’re on the next step in their journey and I think it’s awesome they’re out there, and I can’t wait to see what they can do with their next stage.”
That includes maligned former cornerback Marcus Peters, who was dismissed from the program in November after several clashes with UW’s first-year coaching staff. Peters returned to UW for the pro day and drew positive reviews following what most considered an impressive workout.
“I saw Marcus. Gave each other a hug,” Kwiatkowski said. “I want what’s best for him. From my standpoint, it’s just disappointing he couldn’t have conformed and finished the right way. I wish nothing but the best for him.”