5 players who will be crucial to UW Huskies’ defensive fortunes

Apr 30, 2023, 12:48 PM

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 04: Edefuan Ulofoshio #48 of the Washington Huskies reacts during the third quarter against the Montana Grizzlies at Husky Stadium on September 04, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images) SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 28: Jake Bentley #8 of the Utah Utes is tackled by Zion Tupuola-Fetui #58 of the Washington Huskies in the first quarter at Husky Stadium on November 28, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 19: Asa Turner #20 of the Washington Huskies high fives fans before the game against the Colorado Buffaloes at Husky Stadium on November 19, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images) 
              Oregon State quarterback Ben Gulbranson (17) throws a pass under pressure from Washington defensive lineman Ulumoo Ale (68) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
            SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 19: Elijah Jackson #25 of the Washington Huskies tackles Mac Willis #38 of the Colorado Buffaloes during the fourth quarter at Husky Stadium on November 19, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The UW Huskies’ offense returns its starting quarterback, top receivers and tight ends, and both starting tackles from last season’s charmed turnaround under coach Kalen DeBoer.

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The defense, though — and the pass defense, in particular — is searching for a turnaround of its own in Year 2 after ranking near the bottom of the conference in several pass-related statistical categories last season.

While that side of the ball also returns several starters, there are a handful of players whose 2023 contributions will go the furthest toward determining whether the Huskies’ defense takes a step forward.

Here are five.

Five players crucial for UW’s defense

LB Edefuan Ulofoshio

It’s sort of wild to think about how long Ulofoshio has been at Washington, and how relatively little football he has played in that time. Think about it: he redshirted in 2018, then spent most of the 2019 season as a special-teams contributor before coaches started him at linebacker the final three games … and realized he was their best player at that position.

Ulofoshio played well in the abbreviated 2020 season, recording 47 tackles in UW’s four games, then was limited by injuries to six games in 2021, and limited by a different injury to five games in 2022.

He’s fully healthy now, and spent this spring taking reps with the No. 1 defense in the hopes that he will finally get to play a full season as a starting linebacker at Washington. If he does, Ulofoshio should bring a presence to the position that UW has missed in recent years.

EDGE Zion Tupuola-Fetui

Jeremiah Martin had a breakout year as a senior edge rusher for the Huskies last season, totaling 8.5 sacks while earning first-team all-conference honors. Bralen Trice similarly broke out in 2022, leading the team with 9.0 sacks while also being voted to the first team.

That relegated ZTF to a rotational role, sharing snaps with Trice as he totaled 4.5 sacks. Tupuola-Fetui chose to return to UW for his final year of eligibility rather than enter the NFL Draft, presumably to spend a full year as a starter and prove he still can be the player you saw in 2020 when he piled up seven sacks in the Huskies’ first three games. He also has said he wants to prove he can be an every-down player who is equally adept against the run.

Can ZTF have a Martin-like season? There’s no question UW has two stud pass rushers in Trice and ZTF, but the latter showing a well-rounded game and staying healthy for a full season would be a huge boost.

S Asa Turner

Turner made steady progress last season after returning from injury. Coaches trust him and rave about his understanding of the defensive scheme, with co-coordinator and safeties coach Chuck Morrell describing him as an extension of the coaching staff on the field. Now, in his final college season, the Huskies need Turner to take the next step toward becoming a physical, sure-tackling safety who fills against the run and covers ground against the pass.

DL Ulumoo Ale

Ale worked a lot with the No. 1 defense this spring, but that might have been mostly due to last season’s starting interior d-linemen, Tuli Letuligasenoa and Faatui Tuitele, still working their way back from injury. Whether or not he starts, Ale will be part of the rotation, and he has physical traits — he’s listed now at 6-6 and 331 pounds — that nobody else on the roster possesses.

UW might not have another defensive player whose potential emergence could do more to bolster that side of the ball, considering how hard it is to find players of Ale’s size and athleticism at this position. Some of Ale’s former teammates on the offensive line have raved about how much harder he was to go against in practice toward the end of last season as things started to click for him. Remember, Ale was still playing on the O-line in 2021, so there was going to be a learning curve there. If he’s figured it out, it could change the complexion of the Huskies’ defensive line.

CB Elijah Jackson

You sort of know what to expect from Oklahoma State transfer Jabbar Muhammad at cornerback — a veteran presence who won’t bust coverages and should offer more playmaking ability than what the Huskies put on the field in 2022. Jackson, though, is more of an unknown, having played only 101 career defensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus. His length and athleticism make him one of the Huskies’ more intriguing players coming out of the spring, which he spent working almost exclusively with the No. 1 defense.

Injuries plagued Jackson last season. If he stays healthy and plays the way he did this spring — and holds off JUCO transfer Thaddeus Dixon for a starting spot — he could help ensure the Huskies upgrade on the back end.

This column from UW Huskies football insider Christian Caple is exclusive to Seattle Sports. Subscribe to for full access to Caple’s in-depth Husky coverage.

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