Preseason Top 5: Pac-12 Interior Defensive Linemen

Photo: Nov 18, 2017; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies defensive lineman Greg Gaines (99) celebrates a sack against the Utah Utes during the second half at Husky Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Why is interior defensive line talent so sparse in the Pac-12? Not unlike the discussion we had with EDGEs, it comes down to the responsibilities often employed by the defenses.

What is the value of a penetrating, four-man rush? It disrupts the quarterbacks in his pass drops and makes it difficult for him to execute the offense if his first-read is covered, because he doesn't have enough time in the pocket.

But what if the offense isn't doing that? What if their quarterback is a run-first player, and they incorporate a plethora of reads and options in an effort to expose your penetrating players (Arizona, Utah, ASU)? What if their offense is predicated on first-read passes, like pre- and post-snap RPOs, or half-field reads in space (Washington State, Cal, USC)? Don't even talk to me about rollouts and sprint-outs (every team not named Washington State).

Then penetration loses its value. When the ball leaves so quickly; when the quarterback's set location isn't predictable -- why tee off with four? So instead, EDGEs and interior guys alike get primarily two-gapping responsibilities. The lucky ones can slant on passing downs, but even then, it's not a true 'get your head in a gap and go' situation.

So be warned, before you read on: here there monsters.

1. Greg Gaines, RS Senior, Washington (6-1 332)

Okay, so look at the number one next to Greg Gaines' name.

Now look at this.

Ask me to whom this tweet refers.

True to the mold of the Husky 0-tech, Gaines is a space-gobbler who has a ton of power in a stocky frame. When he throws a haymaker underneath an OL's armpit, watch out, 'cause he can really move some people. He plays with a wide base to compliment his mass, so he wins a lot of reps by dumping his opponent with wrestler-esque leverage.

But the pass-rush upside -- and general athletic ability -- are sparse enough for me to wonder at Gaines' NFL future. Despite the general polish and collegiate level success, I don't know how much value Gaines adds to a defense. I mean, for all his power, he doesn't have a bull rush; despite the hump move he can throw, he lacks the quickness or bend to finish the angle. How many downs does he affect?

What to watch for in 2018: Disengage -- repeat, disengage! (@BenjaminSolak on Twitter if you know the movie.) Greg Gaines can initially fit his hands very well, and he has the power to move you -- but far too often, runners can scoot by him because he can't clear his opponent's hands and present in the gap. To be a true run-stopper for NFL teams, he has to get off blocks quicker.

2. Renell Wren, RS Senior, Arizona State (6-4 295)

We all need to hope and pray Renell Wren takes a healthy step forward in his development in his final season -- hopefully with more consistent snap counts -- with the Sun Devils. Our hopes for a fun iDL from the Pac-12 rest on him.

He's got shock strength in his paws and good length as well to immediately fold offensive linemen back, especially when lined up over the center -- that's an immediate problem. Think about getting the snap as a quarterback and immediately seeing color flash right in front of you -- that speeds up your internal clock in a big way.

When you consider the explosiveness and upper body strength with the torsion strength through the core, that's where things get interesting. When Wren wins hands, he can wrench you to and fro with that powerful core. That ragdoll ability can't be taught. As he acquires more rush moves to turn that penetration and power into pressures, he'll draw a lot more attention.

What to watch for in 2018: Maximize! Wren gets 65% of the way there on so many reps. He wins hands and creates power, but doesn't fully max out his length and roll his hips to collapse the pocket. Against the run he penetrates and positions, but fails to sink his hips or keep his shoulders leverage, and he gets washed. "Almost" plays will catch my eye in a preseason eval; not when there's money on the line.

3. Jaylen Johnson, RS Senior, Washington (6-2 298)

The third-best interior defensive lineman in the Pac-12 is 2017's second-stringer for the Huskies.

This is where we are folks.

Johnson isn't as high-ceiling of a prospect as his compatriot at #4, but he could overtake Gaines this year if he shows out with a bigger percentage of snaps. He's added mass to last year's playing weight (around 286) which well help him continue to build on a really nice power profile on the interior.

Johnson's ability to understand angles and aiming points, and then the foresight to see them develop throughout the play, are his best traits as a pass-rusher. He constantly impresses, aligned from the 4-tech to the 0-tech, in his ability to react off of the offensive lineman's set and the quarterback's drop point. His rush game is all reads and counters, which again, makes sense given the constraints of Pac-12 play. Hump move, rip move, bull rush, bend to finish. The pieces are there.

Johnson will get tied up too often as both a pass and run defender -- similar to my complaint with Gaines. I think he has nice length, but could better maximize it by attacking with hands early and rushing with more of a plan, less of a read/react mindset. I do like the leverage he hits against the run, though -- that's a positive sign.

What to watch for in 2018: Fit. Johnson isn't a stellar athlete, and he lines up hither and thither for Washington, which muddles his pro projection. I think penetrating 1-tech makes the most sense for him, but I'll never really see him do that. So he'll be a riddle to solve in 2018.

4. Levi Onwuzurike, RS Sophomore, Washington (6-3 290)

Onwuzurike (spell-checks...yep) has the highest ceiling of the three Washington players to make the list -- but I'm also the least convinced he's an actual interior player. He looked long and lanky at a listed 282 last season -- clearly he has added weight just as Johnson did. But the Huskies seem determined to line him up at the nose on second-team opportunities, and he acquitted himself decently.

Like Johnson (and most Washington D-linemen), Onwuzurike shows out with hand usage and understanding of concepts. He regularly hits the center with a quick spin or swim move, and he can get skinny through gaps to compromise the pocket and help out his fellow rushers. That length really shines when he's working the arm-over or the swim; I wish it showed up more frequently in bull-rushes.

Onwuzurike is separated, however, by his lateral quickness to disengage. He does very well to play tantalizing out of reach for offensive linemen, and has the agility to sidestep centers and guards when they take the cheese. He feels oncomers in his periphery well, which helps him slip around down blocks and traps to get involved in the backfield -- I like that a lot.

What to watch for in 2018. The snap. Onwuzurike is quizzically late of the ball more than is excusable, and when he comes off the line, he is very upright. He loses a significant number of reps by surrendering his chest willingly from the jump -- hence my interior concerns. If you're not ready to lock up right away, slim down and go play on the EDGE.

5. Youhanna Ghaifan, RS Junior, Wyoming (6-3 290)


UCLA's good DT Boss Tagaloa just moved to center. Stanford has a 4-star who hasn't really panned out in Michael Williams. (They also have a dude named Bo Peek, so let's hope he's good.) USC and Oregon are both leaning on underclassmen (Oregon's Jordon Scott is an animal). Utah's Leki Fotu apparently has some juice, but he took so few snaps in 2017, I don't have enough film on him to give you a solid opinion.

Arizona has two JUCO guys (Sion Taufahema is 330 pounds!) that they want to win the starting job over their lackluster incumbents; Washington State is still deploying the typical sub-290 slanters; Cal and Oregon State don't even have significant returning upperclassmen to note.

There is nobody in the Pac-12 left. So if we were sticking to the rules, keep an eye on Leki Fotu. But we're not, so I'm here to tell you about a good near-West Coaster in Youhanna Ghaifan.

Ghaifan has more pass-rush upside than any DT listed. More consistently to this point in his career has he hit an inside swim/arm-over/rip than Wren or Johnson, and he has really nice bend to finish his pass-rushing reps. Already into the 2018 season, Ghaifan terrorized a widely inferior New Mexico State offensive line a few days ago with his quickness and fluidity.

What to watch for in 2018: Mass. He's undersized and it shows up in the running game, but he profiles nicely as a penetrating 3-tech for NFL teams interested in that 4-man pass rush we discussed above. I'm sipping the Kool-Aid, conditional on some improvement therein in 2018.