CHRISTIAN CAPLE

UW Huskies Spring Practice, Day 5: A look at Valdez, D-line and more

Apr 12, 2024, 12:06 PM

UW Huskies 2024 spring practice...

The UW Huskies on the east practice field on April 11, 2024. (Photo by Christian Caple/On Montlake)

(Photo by Christian Caple/On Montlake)

SEATTLE — Sebastian Valdez speaks softly and with humility, though his status as the UW Huskies’ most experienced defensive tackle might contradict this demeanor. Zach Durfee, everyone’s favorite mystery edge rusher, describes Valdez, the senior Montana State transfer, as “a monster,” and perhaps the strongest player on the team.

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Valdez acknowledges that he bench presses 405 pounds, but says Durfee’s assessment is incorrect.

“Gaard,” he says, referring to Gaard Memmelaar, the fifth-year junior offensive lineman. “Gaard is the strongest guy here.”

Regardless, at 6 foot 4 and 291 pounds, Valdez would have been among Washington’s most important offseason acquisitions, even if former coach Kalen DeBoer had not left for Alabama. He committed to the previous coaching staff after a three-year career at Montana State, where he earned first- and then second-team All-Big Sky recognition the past two seasons.

By the time they left, former UW D-tackles Tuli Letuligasenoa, Ulumoo Ale and Faatui Tuitele had spent a combined 17 seasons in college. The Huskies needed portal help, and Valdez, who prepped at Spring Valley (Calif.) Monte Vista just outside of San Diego, fit the description. He was among the crew of new enrollees who traveled with the team to Houston for the national championship game, and watched from the sideline in sweats and a jersey bearing his last name.

That he decided to stay and play for new coach Jedd Fisch was among the Huskies’ biggest offseason victories, considering how little proven depth they return in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

Wearing No. 50, Valdez is lining up with the first-team defense during spring practices, a veteran presence at a position lacking significant college experience. There’s also sixth-year senior Jacob Bandes, yes, but he has been a rotational player through his first four college seasons. UW also returns senior Voi Tunuufi, though he’s bounced between the interior and the edge, and plays a different style than the bigger, stouter Valdez. UW also added junior-college transfer Bryce Butler, and junior Jayvon Parker and redshirt freshman Elinneus Davis are getting plenty of reps this spring.

I asked Valdez what he thinks he’s best at.

“I can do it all,” he said. “I can stop the run, and I can pass rush. I wouldn’t say that I’m better at one thing than another.”

A 2021 signee at Montana State, Valdez wasn’t on the radar of the recruiting services — or any Power 5 schools. But he doesn’t feel slighted. Asked Thursday whether he believes he should have been given a power-conference opportunity sooner, he replied: “I’d say humbly, no, I don’t think I should have, as a high-school player. But that’s what happens with football. You develop as a player. You get better. Now, I feel like I am.”

He played more than 1,700 snaps the past three seasons for Montana State, which advanced to the FCS national championship game his freshman year, lost in the semifinals his sophomore season and lost in the quarterfinals last year. Valdez finished those three seasons with 16 sacks and 24 tackles for loss.

At the end of the 2023 season, he said, “I really thought it was the best decision for me to leave and explore my options.” He estimates receiving more than 15 offers when he entered the portal, including California, Oregon State and Miami, “but I really wanted to stay West Coast, especially because my family is from California, so I think Washington was the best fit.”

Some schools offered large NIL sums, he said, “but that wasn’t the ultimate decision.”

“I wanted to go to a coach and a team that was well developed, and was ultimately going to get me to the next level,” Valdez said.

New defensive line coach Jason Kaufusi, who coached edges under Fisch at Arizona the past two seasons, doesn’t have a lot to say yet about Washington’s D-line personnel. Of Valdez, he said: “Whether it’s him or everybody else, we’re just kind of going through to see what everybody can bring to the table, and then kind of go from there.”

The spring portal window opens on Monday. The Huskies obviously need help on the offensive line. Are they similarly looking at reinforcements on the defensive line?

“I haven’t even thought about that,” Kaufusi said. “Just more been trying to focus on what do these guys have, what do they bring to the table, and then kind of go from there.”

Playing for Kaufusi, Valdez said, involves “a lot of freedom. There’s not something super strict that you have to do every time.” That’s something a couple other UW defensive players have said, too.

Durfee, who has been lining up with the No. 1 defense at edge rusher, said his responsibilities in UW’s base defense are similar to what they were under the previous staff, but “depending on how many down linemen we have, it could bump you in or out,” in terms of edge alignment.

Thursday’s practice involved a lot of 11-on-11 reps, with much of it occurring in either red-zone drills or, for one period, a series of snaps from the minus-30 yard-line.

Jeremiah Hunter had his best day yet as a Husky, catching a deep pass up the sideline from Demond Williams Jr. for a big gain with Leroy Bryant in coverage. Hunter made another big play on a route up the left sideline, again with Bryant in coverage, again on a great throw from Williams, who continues to show off his big arm through five practices. He found Hunter for a touchdown on a drag route during an end-zone drill, too, and connected with him later in practice for another nice grab up against the sideline.

Hunter and Bryant had some battles on Thursday, but the redshirt freshman cornerback also claimed an interception off Will Rogers on an overthrow (it appeared Tunuufi would have recorded a sack on the play, too). Tunuufi was particularly disruptive throughout the practice, and Carson Bruener also broke through for what would have been a sack of Williams in a live setting.

Davon Banks, who missed most of last season due to injury and is battling for reps in a crowded cornerback room, snagged interceptions off Williams and fellow freshman quarterback Dermaricus Davis. Kam Fabiculanan also grabbed an interception when Giles Jackson bobbled a Rogers pass as he fell to the ground near the right sideline, Jordan Shaw snagged an interception off Williams, and freshman safety Peyton Waters grabbed one off Rogers. I saw Waters take plenty of reps with the No. 1 defense. UW’s safety depth is a situation to monitor, in light of Diesel Gordon’s recent suspension. In fact, redshirt freshman Vincent Holmes, who came to UW as a safety but had moved to receiver ahead of spring practices, appeared to be back with the DBs on Thursday.

Denzel Boston caught a ton of passes on Thursday, including maybe the play of the spring so far, a leaping grab over Ephesians Prysock that turned into about a 70-yard touchdown. Boston seemed particularly effective on slant routes, and caught just about everything thrown his way.

Bill Belichick visited the program for much of the past week, and on Thursday, it was Jack Del Rio’s turn to star as the Visiting Longtime NFL Coach Whose Name Everybody Knows. His son, Luke, is an offensive analyst for the Huskies.

If you hadn’t seen, DeBoer issued a statement via Alabama athletics Thursday regarding the charges against running back Tybo Rogers, though he did not mention Rogers or UW by name.

“While I am not able to comment specifically on the situation involving an individual at my former institution because of federal privacy laws and the ongoing criminal matters, I do want to make it clear that I take any allegation of sexual misconduct very seriously,” the statement read. “I always have and always will follow established institutional policies and procedures to ensure prompt reporting and proper handling of allegations by the appropriate authorities.”

Later, at a post-practice interview session in Tuscaloosa, DeBoer referred to his statement and told reporters: “I understand there’s more to it down the road, but I can’t really comment on that right now. I don’t have anything to add.”

This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the 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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