His guard was always up, a necessary byproduct of a childhood spent in one of Sacramento’s roughest neighborhoods. And so Elijah Qualls was thrown off by the kindness of the strangers who greeted him upon his relocation to quiet Petaluma, California.
Reflecting upon that move, made at age 16 at his mother’s behest, Qualls recalls a puzzling beginning. People he’d never met stopped and said hello. Asked how he was doing. Smiled.
“It’s kind of sad, the fact that it honestly scared me at first,” Qualls said last week after a Washington Huskies football practice, “because I wasn’t used to people just randomly saying hello to strangers.
“Because from my neighborhood, you don’t do that. You don’t say anything to someone, because no matter what you say, it could come off as disrespectful, and you don’t want to start any issues.”
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That was life in Oak Park, a rugged section of Sacramento notorious for gang-related violence and drug activity. It’s where Qualls lived with his mother and younger two brothers, before he moved 90 minutes west to Petaluma to live with his stepfather, Dejuan Miggins, a star football player at Casa Grande High School in the mid-1980s.
That’s where Qualls enrolled late in his sophomore year, and where he blossomed into a versatile, sought-after recruit.
“Basically,” said Qualls, hesitant to discuss many details, “my mom was scared for my future. A lot of my friends had gotten into a lot of trouble that kids at that age shouldn’t be experiencing.”
The subsequent efforts of the Petaluma and Casa Grande community, paired with Qualls’ rededication to the classroom, have landed him now in a place he might not have believed he could go: a likely starter this season as a third-year sophomore nose tackle for the Washington Huskies, who conclude their spring practice schedule on Saturday afternoon with their annual “spring preview” at Husky Stadium (noon, Pac-12 Networks).
It’s been a trying path for Qualls, who arrived at Casa Grande in the spring of 2011 with a 1.6 grade-point average and plenty of work to do before he could dream of being admitted to college. His football skills were never in doubt — as a 6-foot-1, 270-pound junior, he rushed for 1,339 yards and 13 touchdowns as the team’s primary ballcarrier, and recorded 76 tackles as a defender.
Trent Herzog, Casa Grande’s head coach, helped provide the kind of structure Qualls didn’t always get at home. It was a group effort. A story published in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat on Qualls’ signing day in 2013 credits “Team Elijah” — teachers, coaches, counselors, neighbors who accepted him as family — for helping him reach his goal.
“He was always a nice, polite kid, but just came from that kind of gang environment,” Herzog said. “We got him turned around. I had a talk with him at the end of summer going into his junior year. I said, ‘If you keep buying in and get your grades up, you’re going to be able to go wherever you want.’
“I don’t think he believed me at the time, but then halfway through the season, offers started rolling in.”
Thirty-eight of them, Herzog said, including several from Pac-12 schools. Oregon State liked him as a running back. California wanted him as a fullback. Most others, like the Huskies, wanted him to play defensive line.
But he wasn’t going to play anywhere if he didn’t qualify academically. So Qualls worked closely with Danielle Walker, Casa Grande’s academic counselor, in order to make the grades. By the time he graduated, he had boosted his GPA from 1.6 to about 2.4, Herzog said, good enough to qualify for enrollment at UW, where former defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi had kept steady watch over Qualls’ academic pursuits.
By the time Qualls arrived at UW, he was considerably heavier than he’d ever been as a player in high school, evidence of how frequently he chose studying over working out, “from January ‘til June,” Herzog said.
His hard work paid off.
“It took him pretty much until the last week of school to get him qualified, but he did it,” Herzog said. “It was a long process, but he worked extremely hard.”
Lupoi’s faith in Qualls was a big reason why he chose to play for Washington. And so Qualls was at first shaken by the departure of former UW head coach Steve Sarkisian, who left for USC in December of 2013. The rest of the Huskies’ defensive staff left, too, including Lupoi, who became the subject of an NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations. The NCAA found no reason to act upon its findings, but Lupoi was gone from UW all the same.
Herzog found out Sarkisian was leaving before Qualls did. He called him immediately.
“My immediate reaction was, I have no idea what’s about to go on right now,” Qualls said. “I was nervous. Scared. That staff (were) the people who had recruited me and had faith in me as far as passing my classes and making sure I got into college.
“So it kind of hurt to lose them, especially Tosh Lupoi, being so close to him because of all the common factors we had, as far as where we grew up and just how he could relate to me. I wasn’t sure if they were going to be able to replace him with a coach I could relate to so well.”
He was relieved, then, when UW hired coach Chris Petersen and a staff of assistants whom Qualls describes as “all really good guys. Really good people. They care for us as people and not just as players, and I absolutely bought into what they’re preaching, because I believe in it, too.”
During his first round of media interviews last week, Qualls displayed a personality that aligns with Herzog’s declaration that “everyone that I ever introduced him to wanted to help him.” He’s bright, gregarious, honest. At 6-1 and 300 pounds with voluminous, wild hair, he cracked that others recognize him because “I’m not your average-sized human.” He watches cartoons. He says the hardest part about being recruited was saying no to all the coaches he had to turn down — “Like having two great girls and having to choose one over the other” — including former Oregon State and current Nebraska coach Mike Riley, whom Qualls describes as “a great dude.” He laughs at the thought of running the football again, but admits that he begs coaches to let him.
Defensive line coach Jeff Choate challenged Qualls, like many younger players, to become more consistent.
“I think he’s done a really good job of bringing more consistent effort,” Choate said. “He’s a guy that has a lot of short-area quickness, a really powerful guy, (and) can give offensive guys a lot of trouble because he’s so quick off the ball. And he is strong. He’s done a nice job in the offseason of developing more power.”
And while Qualls played sparingly last season behind Danny Shelton, the All-American nose tackle who is expected to be picked on Thursday during the first round of the NFL draft, he does not welcome comparisons to the former UW standout.
He hears them all the time. Just not in the way that you might think.
“I swear to God, I went to Mexico for spring break,” Qualls said, “and some guy was like, ‘Hey, Danny, you’re going in the first round!’ And I was like, dude even in Mexico? Come on, now!”
The other day, he was waiting on a ride from a friend, who remarked to him that she thought she saw him earlier, getting out of a car, but it turned out to be, yep, Danny Shelton.
Qualls and Shelton are good friends. But the third-year sophomore who left his checkered past in Oak Park and found exactly what he needed in Petaluma, and again at Washington, would prefer to forge his own identity.
“He’s a big teddy bear,” said Herzog, who recently visited Qualls in Seattle. “Huge heart, and would do anything for anyone. He’s really, really, really matured in the last two years. I’m extremely proud of him and I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do this year for Washington.”