University of Washington

Led by Benning Potoa’e, Huskies’ pass rush shows early promise

Benning Potoa’e talks at UW fall camp

Washington defensive lineman Benning Potoa'e talks after fall practice.
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Washington defensive lineman Benning Potoa'e talks after fall practice.

Benning Potoa’e spent much of the offseason answering questions about his switch from outside linebacker to the defensive line.

For a player with a tendency to overthink, the move seemed like a perfect fit. And in mid-August, shortly after Washington wrapped up a fall practice, Potoa’e described the difference in simple terms. On the interior, he said, you can just “make a mess.”

If that’s what Potoa’e was doing in Saturday’s season opener, the Huskies will surely take more of it. The former Lakes High School star recorded a game-high two sacks to go along with a game-high three tackles for loss. Potoa’e finished the entire 2018 season with just one sack and 6.5 tackles for loss.

“I felt good,” Potoa’e said Tuesday. “I felt really good, especially with the (game) time. The sun was out. It was a little bit earlier in the day. So I was ready to go physically, mentally, first game. Got the jitters out and ready to start rolling now.”

Potoa’e wasn’t the only early marker of an improved UW pass rush. The Huskies had four sacks — one each from outside linebacker Ryan Bowman and defensive lineman Josiah Bronson — and nine tackles for loss. Both totals matched the season-highs from 2018.

“We just executed our stunts, our plays,” Potoa’e said. “We did a good job communicating with each other. We over-communicated so we were all on the same page. We were able to play off each other. If somebody ended up in your lane, you were able to take theirs. … Everybody contributed to the plays made by everybody on the team. We did a good job playing off each other.”

In 2018, UW managed just 24 sacks in 14 games. The Huskies’ 1.71 sacks per game ranked 100th nationally and they were 118th in tackles per loss per game with 4.57. That was a noticeable drop from 2017, when they averaged three sacks and 6.6 tackles per loss.

UW only recorded more than two sacks twice last year. It had four against Cal and three in the loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. When it comes to game preparation, co-defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Pete Kwiatkowski said he’s already seen a marked improvement from 2018.

“Studying their opponent,” he said of the difference, “and the intensity level ratchets up on passing situations — the get off, the pad level coming off out of their stance, the intensity that they’re going about their business and executing whatever rush they’re doing.”

The Huskies — and the outside linebackers, in particular — talked often during spring practice and fall camp about their determination to improve the pass rush. They took last season’s struggles personally, and Kwiatkowski said that showed in the work they’ve been putting in ever since.

“We’ve been on them 24/7 since the end of the year last year,” he said. “That’s a credit to them, taking the coaching and spending the extra time studying and working on their craft.”

It’s much too early in the season to declare the problem solved, especially when last week’s numbers came against an FCS opponent. Cal will provide a bigger test — although the Huskies did put up their highest sack (four) and tackles for loss (nine) totals in last year’s loss to the Golden Bears — but the biggest question is whether UW can maintain the improvement throughout the year.

“The get off has been a lot better and knowing when to pass rush and the mentality,” Kwiatkowski said. “We just got to do a better job of committing to moves and staying relentless in our pursuit of the quarterback. Not every rush is going to be a blow away or a home run. You got to grind. They got their plans for how they are going to attack guys and they got to stick with it and keep plugging away.”

Extra points

Potoa’e was named the Pac-12 defensive line player of the week for his performance against Eastern Washington. … Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon was named the Pac-12 offensive player of the week after completing 29-of-35 passes for 420 yards and five touchdowns in the Cougars’ win over New Mexico State. … UW dropped one spot in the latest AP poll to No. 14. The Huskies were jumped by Utah, who is now the highest-ranked Pac-12 team at No. 13. Oregon (16th), Washington State (22nd) and Stanford (23rd) were also ranked.

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Lauren Kirschman is the UW Huskies beat writer for The News Tribune. She previously covered the Pittsburgh Steelers for PennLive.com. A Pennsylvania native and a University of Pittsburgh graduate, she also covered college athletics for the Beaver County Times from 2012-2016.
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