CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Should UW Huskies move Voi Tunuufi over with Sav’ell Smalls moving on?

Apr 19, 2023, 10:56 AM

UW Huskies Voi Tunuufi...

Voi Tunuufi (#90) and Tuli Letuligasenoa (#91) during a 2022 UW game against Oregon State. (Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — Pop quiz: Bralen Trice (11) and Jeremiah Martin (9.5) led the UW Huskies in sacks the past two seasons. Who is third on that list?

Is it Zion Tupuola-Fetui? Tuli Letuligasenoa? Faatui Tuitele? A linebacker?

The guy whose name is in the headline, and whose photograph appears atop this story?

Yes! Washington’s third-most-frequent tackler of the quarterback from 2021-22 was indeed a 6-foot-1, 249-pound defensive lineman who could well turn out to be the most productive college player from UW’s 2021 recruiting class.

I believe Voi Tunuufi, the former three-star prospect from Salt Lake City (Utah) East, becomes an intriguing figure in the wake of Sav’ell Smalls’ decision to enter the transfer portal.

Smalls, the former five-star recruit from Seattle, had been hurt for part of spring practices and announced Monday that he’ll spend his final two college seasons somewhere else. He was far and away the Huskies’ third-most-experienced edge rusher and seemed likely to occupy a rotational role as a junior.

Smalls’ departure is a blow to the Huskies’ experience at a position that appears stronger than ever on the top line of the depth chart, but now lacks anybody with a significant college resume behind Trice and ZTF. Sekai Asoau-Afoa is a senior who played 17 snaps last season, per Pro Football Focus, after transferring from a junior college. Maurice Heims is a promising young athlete who played 29 snaps in six games last year as a redshirt freshman. Lance Holtzclaw redshirted last year. Sioux Falls transfer Zach Durfee might possess the most upside of the bunch, and Smalls’ departure could thrust him into the spotlight, too … but like Holtzclaw (and Tunuufi), Durfee missed a few practices due to injury before returning this week.

One 2023 signee, Anthony James, is in spring camp, and another, Jacob Lane, will join this summer. Sophomore walk-on Milton Hopkins Jr. also has seen some reps with the No. 2 defense and made a handful of plays.

Bottom line: unless the Huskies dip back into the transfer portal post-spring — a distinct possibility considering the lack of veteran bodies — two of the aforementioned players are likely to wind up on the depth chart this fall, and could end up playing critical roles in the event of even a single injury. There are some promising names on that list, but their combined FBS experience is essentially de minimis.

It’s why Tunuufi is one of the first players I thought of when Smalls made his announcement. He’s still listed as a defensive lineman and accompanies the D-linemen during drills, though he’s been hurt for most of spring (but did take some reps at D-tackle on Wednesday morning). Even before Smalls’ decision, coaches seemed torn on where exactly to play Tunuufi. He’s always been undersized but slippery and tenacious, tying for the team lead with three sacks as a true freshman before logging five last season, good for third on the team.

In fact, this is what head coach Kalen DeBoer said about Tunuufi just last week, when asked if he still considers him a defensive lineman: “Your question is a good question, because we will definitely move him around. That’s probably the one part with his injury that is a little bit of a disappointment, is that we aren’t getting a lot of opportunities to play him at the edge spot and get some reps there.”

That echoed what edges coach Eric Schmidt told me earlier this spring.

“We’ve met in the offseason, and he’s definitely a guy where we feel, especially certain game weeks, where he’s probably better as an edge guy than he is as an interior guy,” Schmidt said. “There’s other weeks where we really want to use him in there (on the interior).”

Tunuufi already played a significant role in UW’s third-down packages last season, according to Schmidt, who even went so far as to say he “could be one of our top guys” off the edge if that’s where they line him up.

“He’s got a lot of horsepower,” Schmidt said.

Tunuufi even changed his number this year, from the interior-feeling No. 90 to the more linebacker-ish — dare we say “edgier?” — No. 52. It all just makes too much sense, doesn’t it?

It’s not as if the Huskies should become desperate in the wake of Smalls’ departure, and it’s possible someone like Durfee or Holtzclaw would have pushed him for snaps, anyway. I could just as easily have written this column about Durfee’s potential, considering the burst he has displayed in the few practices we were able to watch before he got hurt. Coaches seem high on the third-year sophomore from Minnesota.

Tunuufi, though, is the one edge-rushing candidate who already has produced in a UW uniform, to the tune of eight sacks the past two seasons. There are other considerations, such as the Huskies’ D-line depth, and, as DeBoer said, he likes getting some pass-rush production out of the interior, too. Tunuufi provides that, even at his size.

But if Letuligasenoa and Tuitele are healthy, Ulumoo Ale and Jacob Bandes continue progressing, and twins Jayvon and Armon Parker really are the players the coaches believe they are … what’s lost by bumping the smaller, quicker Tunuufi outside? Give him the summer to focus exclusively on edge technique and hone his body however the staff sees fit. At 6-1 and 249, he already mostly fits the profile. And there’s no reason he couldn’t kick back inside in certain packages or to help out in case of injuries on the interior.

Tunuufi was one of the players I was most interested to watch this spring, and for this very reason: which position does he ultimately wind up at? His injury prevented coaches from making any meaningful progress toward answering that question this month. But I wonder if Smalls’ departure hasn’t forced their hand in a way that will lead to Tunuufi’s name appearing behind Trice or ZTF on the depth chart come late August.

You could make the argument that Tunuufi was the Huskies’ third-best pass rusher from 2021-22, after all. Here’s one guess that he still is.

This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the new home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.

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Should UW Huskies move Voi Tunuufi over with Sav’ell Smalls moving on?