Yesterday, we looked at five offensive players to watch in 2015. Now, in no particular order, here are five defensive players to watch.
CB/KR John Ross III (Junior, 5-foot-11, 179 pounds)
2014 recap: Started the season at receiver, where he caught 17 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns, including scores of 91, 55, 75 and 86 yards. He also rushed for a 20-yard touchdown, and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns -- 100 and 96 yards, respectively. Moved to cornerback for UW's last five games -- he started four of them -- and made his first career interception against Washington State.
Why watch?: Ross will obviously be one of UW's most important players in 2015, regardless of where he lines up. Huskies coach Chris Petersen said during his interview the other day with Sports Radio KJR that Ross isn't likely to play full time on both sides of the ball. That would obviously be pretty tough to do. It will be interesting to see, then, which position is emphasized in 2015. Petersen said throughout the 2014 season that they wanted to get the ball in Ross' hands more. His lack of touches, given the big plays he created, was a little confounding at times. Some felt the same about his move to cornerback. So where will he play the most in 2015? Looking at UW's returning offensive players, it's hard to believe there are enough big-play threats to justify leaving Ross out of the mix. He scored a touchdown on 21.7 percent of his touches from scrimmage last season. But he flashed enough potential at corner to think he could be pretty valuable there, too. Spring should be pretty telling, assuming he recovers from knee surgery in time to fully participate, as reportedly expected.
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DT Elijah Qualls (Third-year sophomore, 6-foot-1, 311 pounds)
2014 recap: Appeared in all 14 games as the backup to Danny Shelton at nose tackle. Made 13 tackles, including two for loss.
Why watch?: With Washington's entire defensive line departing due to graduation, it would be pretty surprising if Qualls, a top-100 recruit in 2013, doesn't slide into the starting nose tackle position that was occupied by Shelton. In limited playing time last season behind one of the best defensive linemen in the country, Qualls showed potential as a playmaker, and he could flourish given starters reps in 2015. He'll certainly have the opportunity: the Huskies' only returning defensive linemen (counting the buck linebacker position) with game experience are Qualls, JoJo Mathis, Will Dissly, Jarrett Finau, Psalm Wooching and Taniela Tupou.
LB Travis Feeney (Fifth-year senior, 6-foot-4, 218 pounds)
2014 recap: Appeared in all 14 games at linebacker and made nine starts. Finished with 60 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and two interceptions -- one of which he returned 30 yards for a touchdown against Colorado. Also had a fumble recovery, three pass breakups and five passes defensed.
Why watch?: Feeney is the only player returning from the UW's starting front seven. As such -- and as a fifth-year senior -- he'll likely be relied upon to produce even more than he did as a junior, when his decent statistical season was overshadowed by Shaq Thompson's historic productivity and John Timu's steady presence. A fast, aggressive player who used to be a safety, Feeney could be UW's best linebacker in 2015 -- especially if he becomes a little more consistent with his alignments.
S Ezekiel Turner (Sophomore, 6-foot-3, 210 pounds)
2014 recap: Played his freshman season at Los Angeles Pierce College, where he played in seven of 10 games and finished with 35 tackles and an interception.
Why watch?: Petersen brought Turner in, he said, to add some immediate competition to the Huskies' young group of safeties -- and because he has four years to play three seasons. UW returns both of its starting safeties -- Budda Baker and Kevin King -- but Turner's size adds a different element that the Huskies didn't really have in the secondary last season. He'll have to prove himself in spring to have a chance to compete for playing time during fall camp -- and as a true sophomore, he does still have a redshirt year available -- but if he picks up the defensive schemes quickly enough, his size could help him carve out some kind of role come September.
DT Vita Vea (Redshirt freshman, 6-foot-4, 346 pounds)
2014 recap: Redshirted after enrolling at UW as a late addition to the 2014 signing class.
Why watch?: For one, he's 6-foot-4 and 346 pounds. He'll be hard not to watch. He was a touted high-school prospect, too, who fell off the radar a bit due to reported eligibility issues. His redshirt season must have gone OK, because defensive line coach Jeff Choate said this about Vea during UW's bowl practices: "Vita ... I mean, come on. That guy has more physical talent than Danny (Shelton) does. But he’s not where Danny is in terms of the reps that he’s had, understanding the game the way that Danny does. So that’s the challenge for us as coaches, to push them in that direction.” And with the Huskies needing to replace their entire starting defensive line, there should be plenty of opportunity for Vea to get on the field as a redshirt freshman.
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple