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Originally published September 17, 2013 at 8:37 PM | Page modified September 18, 2013 at 11:32 PM

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‘Jetsons’ in vogue for Husky defense

UW uses smallish, speed-rushing D-line package to great advantage in win over Illinois

Seattle Times staff reporter

SATURDAY

Idaho State @ Washington, noon, Pac-12 Networks

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Someone calling the shots on Washington’s defense has a sense of humor.

It was indeed a funny sight Saturday at Chicago’s Soldier Field when UW’s Hau’oli Kikaha, a 250-pound starting defensive end, came into the game against Illinois as a defensive tackle — a spot usually held down by the 327-pound Danny Shelton.

It was, in a word, “weird,” Kikaha said.

It was also a hit.

The line’s new package — featuring UW’s best pass-rushers in Kikaha, ends Josh Shirley and Cory Littleton and linebackers Travis Feeney and Scott Lawyer — is called “The Jetsons,” a nod to the popular 1960s cartoon. And the No. 17 Huskies (2-0) managed four sacks, three by Shirley, in their debut of the space-age package en route to a 34-24 victory.

Color Shelton chagrined.

As one of the heftiest players on the UW roster, Shelton said he was a bit “disappointed” in having a diminished role against Illinois’ spread offense. But he has, during some practices, starred in his own defensive package dubbed “The Flintstones,” which features Shelton and his backups, 334-pound Lawrence Lagafuaina and 278-pound Sione Potoa’e, in “the big package,” as Shelton called it.

“I doubt they’re going to play that look. That was kind of funny,” Shelton said.

Because it worked so well — with fast defensive ends flying all over the space — UW coaches might end up flipping back to “The Jetsons” in obvious passing downs later this season.

“I’m proud of those guys for creating some pressure on the quarterback, which helped us in the coverage game,” UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “And vice versa: We covered well at times and allowed us to get some pressure on the quarterback.”

Shirley’s reemergence was a welcome development for a defense that didn’t register a single sack in the Huskies’ season-opening victory over Boise State. The 232-pound junior was a part-time starter last season, but he’s fallen behind Littleton, a sophomore, on the depth chart this season despite sharing the team lead with 6.5 sacks in 2012.

“What Josh does best is a speed-rusher,” Wilcox said. “He’s going to continue to hone his craft. The better and better he plays against the run will allow him to play more (in) run-down situations. But, again, in this day and age, with the number of snaps we see … you gotta be able to roll some guys (in as subs). And in the perfect world, you get them in the right situations to do what they do best, and we were able to do that at times with Josh this past week.”

Shirley’s three sacks have him tied for the Pac-12 lead early in the season.

“I’ve always been told the better you are in your current role, the faster it will change,” Shirley said. “I’m just trying to embrace my role as a team player and my role on the team is to pass-rush, and that’s what I’m trying to excel at.”

With all the up-tempo offenses around the Pac-12, UW coach Steve Sarkisian said he’s glad to have the personnel at defensive end to keep up. Call it the wave of the future.

“We’ve got depth at that spot,” he said. “In our conference, with the amount of people going no-huddle and the amount of people throwing the ball that many times, you need to rotate people in there, and we have that luxury right now.”

Adam Jude: 206-464-2364 or ajude@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter: @a_jude

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