I’m running through the 10 most intriguing players in the Pac-12 this season. This isn’t a list of the most important players or the best—we’ve already done that. Instead, it’s a look at which players across the league have the widest-ranging potential. Who can swing the league with a strong campaign? Which players have the potential to flip a win or two their team’s way? Here’s the group so far:


No. 9: Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Washington edge

In watching the UW spring game this past April, I made note that defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell got fun with it. It was a spring game, so tempered takeaways are a must, but Morrell sent some pressure from a few different areas and the Husky defensive front was able to confuse the offensive line on several occasions.

“I do think the defense made some huge strides (during the spring period) above and beyond probably what we expected,” head coach Kalen DeBoer told reporters after the game.

This defense’s strength last season was its secondary. That group was more than serviceable, keeping plays in front of them and limiting opposing wideouts thanks to two NFL draft picks at corner. The front seven, though. Oof. Washington ranked 121st nationally in rushing success rate allowed (49.6%) and 105th in yards per carry allowed (4.8). It was a good thing opposing offenses didn’t have to throw on Washington.

“Early on, I felt like our run defense was maybe a little bit not where I wanted it, but the last two or three weeks I really think we’ve gotten a lot better,” DeBoer said. “I like where we’re at there. Our pass-rush has been super consistent all spring long. It’s been hard to handle the edges. You saw that again today. … Those are some of the areas we’ve really shored up.”

What’s the context, right? Relatively speaking, Washington’s front had a long way to go.

It stuffed opponents’ runs at the line of scrimmage at one of the seven lowest rates in the country last season.

It ranked 100th in front seven havoc rate.

Most of us expect UW to bounce right back to pre-Jimmy Lake levels of competency under Kalen Deboer. This Husky roster is simply too talented. I’m expecting the UW defense to rebound nicely. In terms of potential playmakers, the Dawgs defense is pretty well stocked.

Specifically at edge rusher, DeBoer was even surprised by the overall talent with the group.

“With ZTF, Bralen, and Jeremiah, I think that’s the position as a whole that impresses me beyond what I realized we had,” DeBoer said early in fall camp.

Added Morrell, according to The News Tribune’s Lauren Smith: “I think you’ve got, really, three really high-end guys. Jeremiah Martin—old, savvy veteran, super physical, brings his top game every day. ZTF is an elite pass rusher. And then Bralen Trice has got a combination of being able to do a number of things. So, I think the challenge for us as we get into stuff later on is to get those combinations of guys on the field together a bunch, and I think that is something that will definitely happen.”

All of them together would be something. Martin can drop into coverage if needed, and he plays the run really well. Trice seems to be getting better by the day, a guy whose talent sort of bridges the gap between what Martin does best and what Tupuola-Fetui does best.

Also, a friendly reminder, Washington has former 5-star Sav’ell Smalls just kind of waiting around in the wings. He has 16 appearances so far in his young UW career, which is to say he’s been a part of the UW defense in every game he’s been available for. The breakout there is coming. Just a matter of when.

But this is about Tupuola-Fetui.

When healthy, Washington has an All-American-caliber pass-rusher to lead the group.

In 2020, ZTF posted a 26.1% win rate as a pass-rusher. That was the second-best mark among qualified edge rushers in college football, according to Pro Football Focus.

No one in the Pac-12 was above 23% last season. Will Anderson Jr., the Alabama defender who’s being tabbed as the best player in the country and the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft? He was at 17.2%.

ZTF got to the quarterback every fifth snap as a pass-rusher. Anderson did it every sixth snap last season.


The problem with all the hype, all the potential, all the excitement is that it’s based on a relatively small sample size in a year that probably can’t offer the most representative sample. Variables at play in 2020 may not ever be involved in a college football season for the rest of our lifetimes.

And Washington played four games that year. ZTF played 95 snaps as a pass-rusher.

Anderson, since we’re comparing, played 482 last season with the Tide.

Tupuola-Fetui’s 2021 production was unimpressive. Most assume that’s because he spent the offseason leading into the year recovering from a torn Achilles, missed the first five games, and then spent the last two games of the year sidelined with a concussion. The performance didn’t match the talent.

But can we get 2020 ZTF back — the guy who produced seven sacks in his first three games — or was that showing more like Bubble Jamal Murray?

Two years ago, he was listed at 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds. Now, he’s listed on the UW roster at 6-4, 249.

He’s roughly 16 months clear of the Achilles tear.

He’s been a wrecking ball in fall camp.

“I think I’m where I want to be. I feel good. I feel light,” he said last week, per The Athletic’s Christian Caple. “I don’t feel like it’s getting in the way of anything. I’m flying around. I’m playing the run. I’m sturdy. I really like this weight. The weight loss just came from not being as active (after surgery). I only had one leg. I feel like I cut off bad weight and was able to build from that into this 250, 255 frame that I’m wearing now.”

If the bad weight makes him faster, offensive tackles around the league are going to hate seeing Washington on the scouting report.

The size was never what made him so effective.

He’s got a strong base and explosiveness off the line of scrimmage, but his hands are ridiculous. Quick and strong, wrenching down opposing blockers and then exploding past them. Long arms and strong hands make for a productive pass-rusher. ZTF combines his athletic tools with really high-level technical ability.

“He’s a problem,” DeBoer said earlier in camp. “You have to have an answer for him.”

By most accounts, Washington’s offensive linemen haven’t. He’s been in the backfield constantly.

“He’s been able to make all the cuts,” edges coach Eric Schmidt said, per Caple. “If there’s a strength of his — his upper body, the way he contorts it, how slippery he is getting guys’ hands off him — that’s probably what he does the best. He’s put himself in a lot of radical angles and been able to stay on his feet and stay healthy.”

The last two words are so, so imperative.

This position — for any defense — is the playmaker. They aren’t going to lead the team in tackles. They aren’t going to play every snap. But they’re going to be the ones leaned on to make the game-breaking plays. The strip sacks, the batted passes that stall drives, the forced holds when you’ve demoralized a tackle to the point of desperation. Tools mean nothing when you’re standing on the sideline unable to use them.

If ZTF is creating havoc, or even forcing double teams to free up others to do so, he’s going to make this defense significantly better than it was a year ago.

Washington just pumps out NFL-caliber defense backs. It’ll need to replace a few this year, but the best way to help a reloading secondary is an unrelenting pass-rush. Find your way to the quarterback and the opponent’s wideouts aren’t trying to beat the corner lined up across from them, they’re trying to beat the rush.

When healthy, ZTF is awfully tough to beat.