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Originally published August 24, 2011 at 9:37 PM | Page modified August 25, 2011 at 9:13 PM

UW defensive line not just a one-man show

Senior tackle Alameda Ta'amu will have lots of help on a bigger, improved defensive line.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Any mention of Washington's defensive line begins with senior tackle Alameda Ta'amu.

He's the one featured in the preseason magazines. The one tabbed by some NFL draft analysts as a potential first-round pick next spring. The one who coaches say has virtually limitless potential.

"He's the star," says teammate Hau'oli Jamora, a sophomore defensive end.

But count Ta'amu among the first to say it's a mistake if such talk ends there.

"We've got other weapons," says Ta'amu, who has started 29 games in his career. "If they (opponents) focus on me, they don't know about Hau'oli and Everrette (Thompson) and Talia (Crichton)."

And then there's true freshman tackle Danny Shelton of Auburn, who has spent significant time the last week working with the starting unit.

"He's a freak of nature, bro," says Ta'amu of Shelton, listed at 6 feet 1, 334 pounds. "I'm jealous of what he has right now. He's too big, too strong, too young. It's crazy."

Husky fans may hear those words and favor other adjectives, such as appetizing or excitement-inducing.

It's been a while since the Huskies have had a truly dominant front line. But UW coaches say the pieces appear in place for a vastly improved group.

"I think it's going to be a lot better than it has been," defensive coordinator Nick Holt said after Wednesday's practice. "We finally have some big guys, some road-grader type guys, and it's really competitive, too. We have about four or five guys that are big that are competing for playing time."

Only two players who saw significant time a year ago are gone. The returnees are bigger, stronger and more experienced.

Jamora, an end who started the last seven games last season, is up to 255 from 238 last season.

"I feel like I got faster, so I feel like I hold my ground a little bit better now," said Jamora, a star of the Holiday Bowl win against Nebraska with three tackles-for-a-loss.

Thompson, a senior who can play both end and tackle, is up to 272. He was listed at 244 last year after suffering an offseason Achilles injury during conditioning.

If Thompson's not at end, junior Crichton usually slides in there. Crichton missed the last seven games of last season with a knee injury.

Ta'amu has slimmed down to 330 pounds from about 380 when he arrived in 2008 and says he's in the best shape of his career.

Pairing him with Shelton in the middle gives the Huskies, as UW coach Steve Sarkisian said on Wednesday, "just about 700 pounds in the middle of our defensive line ... it's difficult to run the ball."

That's certainly the hope, as the Huskies ranked 97th of 120 teams in the nation last year in rushing defense, allowing 190 yards per game.

The plan is for Ta'amu and Shelton, or other tackles such as Sione Potoa'e and fast-improving Lawrence Lagafuiana (who weighs 329) to clog the middle and allow Jamora, Crichton and backup ends such as Josh Shirley and Andrew Hudson to use their speed outside.

"We have so much more depth," Sarkisian said. "To think that we could substitute and rotate those guys and have a nickel package and bring Shirley on the field and bring Sione as part of that, and do different things, I know it's fun for our defensive coaches as well."

A key to that depth is Shelton, whom Holt says has "far exceeded my expectations. I knew he was going to be good, I didn't know he was going to be this good early. I thought he'd take a little more time to get in shape."

Shelton's done it despite dealing with the personal tragedy of last May, when his older brother, Shennon, was killed by a gun shot while coming to the aid of another brother after a fight broke out in Auburn.

"It was tough on him, but he's used that as a motivator," said Sarkisian. "His brother meant a lot to him, and him coming to the University of Washington meant a lot to his brother. Now that he's here, he's using it as motivation — I don't know how much he thinks about it, but I do periodically check in on him, just to make sure he's doing OK. .. With all the adversity he has had to overcome, he's done a fantastic job and he's going to really help us win a lot of games this year."

Notes

• Former UW coach Don James made his annual training camp visit and spoke to the team for a few minutes. Said Sarkisian: "He talked about how proud he was of them last year and what we were able to do at the end of the season and persevere and what the challenges would be this year for our guys, especially early in the season, and what it would take to overcome those challenges. He was fantastic."

• UW will hold its final two-a-day of training camp Thursday, including an afternoon practice at 4:15 that is open to the public but may not last very long.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

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