If you look closely, you can see the subtle shift.
Washington defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe pointed it out as he stood across the room from his position group during Sunday’s Rose Bowl media day. The Huskies’ defensive linemen were gathered at a few tables in the back, chatting with each other in between speaking to reporters.
If you want to see the switch flip, the three seniors — Greg Gaines, Jaylen Johnson and Shane Bowman — are the ones to watch, Malloe said. The defensive line has a reputation for being UW’s jokesters. A bunch of characters, he called them. To his wife, they’re knuckleheads.
But there’s a transformation that happens when game day gets close. The Sundays after games are joke fests, Malloe said. But later in the week, the mood starts to shift. Even the seniors’ facial expressions change. They know it’s time to set the tone.
And without fail, every single week, they do it.
“That’s how it should be,” Malloe said. “The senior leadership has taken us this far, especially being the first class for Coach (Chris) Petersen and our group. They want to set their legacy and finish the right way.”
The linemen know when to get serious. But beyond game day focus, Johnson said they hardly ever are. He credits former UW defensive lineman Taniela Tupou with helping shape the unit’s current personality. The group always had fun, Johnson said, but it wasn’t always “as ridiculous as it is now.”
“You can never be too serious in that room because then we’ll start making fun of you,” Johnson said. “Any meeting with us, it’s just jokes and people making fun of each other. But we all make sure we know what we’re talking about.”
Said Gaines: “It started when I first got here, all the guys were kind of close. It’s kind of like a legacy we carry on and a tradition almost.”
Malloe originally pointed to Johnson as the defensive lineman with the biggest personality. But when Levi Onwuzurike was mentioned, he immediately changed his mind. Onwuzurike, Malloe said as he pointed to the sophomore and laughed, is definitely the top jokester.
But Onwuzurike said it wasn’t always that way.
“I wasn’t as goofy as they were,” he said of his early days in the program, “but pretty quickly I was able to adjust.”
It’s important to Onwuzurike to keep the feel of the room the same after this year’s seniors are gone. Even in the beginning of his UW career, Onwuzurike said he always felt comfortable with his fellow defensive linemen. He wants to make sure the incoming freshman have the same experience.
“It’s real warming,” he said. “If you have a bad day, you come into the locker room and you know they’re going to cheer you up. It’s reassuring.”
Johnson, Bowman and Gaines have played a big role in molding that culture, Onwuzurike said. But this year, Malloe has gotten a preview of what the future holds. The seniors have sometimes stepped back, letting Onwuzurike take ownership of the room.
Right now, it’s mostly the seniors’ responsibility to make sure the Huskies’ mindset is right before they take the field. That job will fall to Onwuzurike next year, and some of this season was spent preparing him.
“It makes it what we are,” Malloe said. “Traditions passed down from generation to generation. The mood is set from top down. I appreciate that being an alumni and being in those rooms before and knowing how the senior class taught me and carried on the tradition.”
It’s really easy, Malloe said, to look at football players and only see football players. It’s the moments away from the field, like the defensive line dinners at his house, that show their other layers. The Huskies spend hours at Malloe’s house, playing corn hole and board games and even video games with his sons.
“To be able to see that side of them, and for them to sometimes show it to the community, is really special,” Malloe said.
What exactly makes the defensive line room unique is hard to pinpoint, and none of the Huskies could really explain what makes them get along so well.
It’s not because they have similar personalities, Onwuzurike said. He described many of the defensive linemen as opposites. Onwuzurike couldn’t be more different than Gaines, he said, but they are two of the closest players on the team.
Whatever created the culture, and whatever defines it now, Johnson is confident it will carry on after he plays his final game in a UW uniform on New Year’s Day. It will be fun coming back, he said, and knowing some things will be the same.
“It just makes it easier to play fast and trust each other,” Johnson said. “I think knowing that these are guys that I can hang out with outside of football makes me want to play with them more. It makes us a better unit in general.”