In what is likely to be one of Utah’s biggest games of 2018, the Washington Huskies kick-off conference play at Rice-Eccles Stadium on September 15 and bring with them one of the most highly regarded defenses in all of college football entering the season.
Replacing PAC-12 defensive player of the year, Vita Vea is no easy task and one that would be cause for concern for most other PAC-12 teams. Thankfully for Chris Petersen and company, Washington isn’t most other PAC-12 teams. Sophomore Levi Onwuzurike steps-up to a starting role at defensive tackle in 2018 after seeing limited action backing-up Vea last season. Listed at 6’3” 290 lbs, Onwuzurike is smaller than Vea but showed a lot of promise in limited action as his back-up, accounting for 3.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks in his redshirt freshman season. The week one matchup against Auburn will be a good indicator of what this rising star will be capable of as the season continues.
Anchoring the line for the Huskies will be noseguard Greg Gaines. Even while hampered with injuries last season, Gaines was an important piece along an insanely talented d-line. Gaines is a fairly selfless player with a modest stat line, but his ability to hold the line and open up tackles for his teammates is nearly unparalleled in the PAC-12, making his return a priceless advantage for a Washington team with hopes of a playoff bid.
Adding to Washington’s embarrassment of riches is a top-tier secondary that is loaded with NFL talent. Highlighted by cornerback Byron Murph, sophomore,and safety Taylor Rapp, junior, the Husky backfield is a bona fide nightmare.
Murphy, 5’11”, 182 lbs, recorded two interceptions in his first game against Rutgers last season but was later relegated to the sidelines after suffering a broken foot. He returned to the field after seven weeks to face Utah and Washington State in the final two games of the regular season before turning in a monster performance against Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl. While the loss to the Nittany Lions was a disappointing blow to the Huskies, Murphy’s performance was a reassuring snapshot of things to come, racking up six solo tackles, one sack and an interception, making him one of the most exciting up-and-coming stars in the PAC-12.
It’s no wonder Washington is looked at as the top prospect to lead the PAC back to the playoffs, as few teams nationally boast as much defensive talent as the Huskies. It’s a daunting prospect, no doubt, but one that could have huge implications for a Utah squad with lofty expectations.