Mountain West Football: 2023 Post-Spring Practice Defensive Line Rankings
Which defensive line units look to be in the best shape now that Mountain West football has wrapped up spring practice?
Who has the upper hand in the trenches?
POSITIONAL DEPTH RANKINGS
Overall | Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver/Tight End | Offensive Line | Defensive Line | Linebacker | Cornerback/Safety | Kicker/Punter
Note: Italics denote projected starters.
High ranking: 6th | Low ranking: 12th
Projected depth: Andrew Choi (DE), John Tuitupou (DT), Ezra Evaimalo (DT), Jonah Kahahawai-Welch (DE), Fo’i Shaw, Elijah Robinson, Patrick Hisatake
Hawaii improved on a lot of fronts last year, but the Warriors defense was mostly still playing catchup by season’s end. The good news is that this unit is now one of the most experienced on the overall roster and, with a full year in Jacob Yoro’s system under their belt, could progress.
The challenge, at least for now, is that this group seems much more secure on the interior than at the edges: According to Pro Football Focus, Evaimalo and Tuitupou are the two-highest graded Warrior defenders back for 2023, but the latter led the team with just 3.5 sacks. As a whole, Hawaii mustered a 4.7% sack rate that ranked 110th in the country and a 15.2% stuff rate that was 100th, so improvements on both could help the braddahhood outperform expectations once again.
High ranking: 5th | Low ranking: 12th
Projected depth: Dion Washington, James Hansen, William Green Jr., Thomas Witte, Henry Ikahihifo, Louie Cresto
For the second year in a row, the Wolf Pack will have to replace an all-time program great at a key position. Dom Peterson might be even more difficult to replace than Carson Strong was, wild as that seems, considering he notched double-digit tackles for loss in four of his five seasons here and, at least last year, his overall Pro Football Focus grade (89.8) was not only the third-best among all Mountain West linemen but a full 25 points better than any of his teammates in the trenches.
There will be a lot of pressure on the holdovers, then, to improve in Peterson’s stead. Washington picked up five tackles for loss and two sacks in his first extended run as a sophomore while Hansen and Witte both played their way into the starting lineup at different stretches. This unit will have experience on its side, but now they must collectively produce.
10. New Mexico
High ranking: 6th | Low ranking: 12th
Projected depth: Gabriel Lopez, Tyler Kiehne, Kyler Drake, Bryce Santana, Joe Ray Maez, Hunter Rapolla
This unit had its moments last year but, unsurprisingly, replacing all of Joey Noble’s disruption was a difficult thing to do. However, the team’s transfer portal moves over the last couple years could pay dividends this fall: Kiehne came in from UCLA last off-season, Lopez did the same from Washington State earlier this year, and both played with the first-team defense in UNM’s spring game back in March.
Rapolla, though, could be the real key after wreaking havoc for two years in the juco ranks at California’s Mt. San Jacinto College (17 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks). Combined with solid veterans like Drake and Santana, this unit could be at its best if they find a way to improve their overall disruption (14.7% stuff rate in 2022, 106th in FBS) while continuing to contribute to the Lobos pass rush (7.3% sack rate, 41st).
High ranking: 3rd | Low ranking: 11th
Projected depth: Jalen Dixon (DE), Ben Key (DT), Waisale Muavesi (DT), Darius Johnson, Nick Dimitris
Adam Plant Jr. and Eliel Ehimare aren’t the most high-profile contributors that UNLV will need to replace in 2023 but they were, respectively, the defense’s top pass rusher and interior lineman last year and their production will be tough to replace.
At a glance, this defensive line may not have any all-conference standouts but there probably aren’t any glaring weak links, either. Dixon demonstrated his potential last year in a monster game against San Diego State (4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks), while Muavesi started two games in the second half of the year and, along with Key and top 2021 recruit Dimitris, gives the Rebels some much-needed size on the inside. The secondary may generate more excitement, but this group can’t be overlooked.
7 (tie). Utah State
High ranking: 3rd | Low ranking: 9th
Projected depth: John Ward, Hale Motu’apuaka, Poukesi Vakauta, Seni Tuiaki, Enoka Migao, Bo Maile, Adam Tomczyk
This unit got ripped apart by the transfer portal like few others in the Mountain West — by overall snaps played, the Aggies must find a way to replace four of last year’s top five athletes — but it would be inaccurate to say the Aggies are staring into the abyss after all of those losses because everyone mentioned above got at least some run throughout 2022’s trials.
Better health luck will almost certainly pay dividends on its own: Tuiaki suffered an ankle dislocation in September that cost him the rest of the year while Motu’apuaka, Vakauta, and others battled through their own aches and pains. The opportunity is there for new defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen to turn a unit that was reliant on transfers in Blake Anderson’s first years at the helm into one that’s by and large homegrown.
7 (tie). San Jose State
High ranking: 2nd | Low ranking: 9th
Projected depth: Tre Smith, Jay Kakiva, Noah Lavulo, Soane Toia, Dejon Roney
Having to replace a conference defensive player of the year is hard enough, but the Spartans face the challenge of replacing two of them. While it’s impossible to say they have another double-digit TFL machine ready to step up, the situation isn’t a dire one.
At a minimum, Toia and Kakiva and Wright give SJSU a reliable veteran trio on the inside, leaving only the question of who will provide pass rushing production. Smith played in just one game last season after a busy freshman campaign in 2022 while Lavulo served as understudy to both Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko, meaning that both appear to be the likeliest candidates to do so. How will they or anyone else help battle regression will go a long way toward determining San Jose State’s fortunes this fall.
6. Air Force
High ranking: 2nd | Low ranking: 10th
Projected depth: Jayden Thiergood (DE), Payton Zdroik (NG), PJ Ramsey (DE), Kupono Blake, Caden Blum, Aiden Schwartz, Andrew BoisD’Enghien
This is a unit where the whole always seems to be bigger than the sum of its parts and, looking ahead to 2023, next season figures to be no exception despite losing players like Kalawai’a Pescaia and Chris Herrera. For one, Zdroik had a sneaky good year that hardly anyone noticed (10 TFLs, 5.5 sacks) and returns as one of just two Falcons defenders to have earned a PFF grade of 80.0; secondly, Thiergood missed a few games early in 2022 but still notched seven tackles for loss in ten games.
The line’s ceiling will depend on everyone else mentioned above, none of whom played more than 127 snaps last season. Given the team’s track record of success, don’t count out hearing much more about one or two of these names on Saturdays.