Jeff Choate knew what he had last year.
Danny Shelton was one of the best nose tackles in the country — and one of the best the Washington Huskies have ever had — and the Cleveland Browns picked him No. 12 overall in the NFL draft.
But Choate, UW’s defensive line coach, was among a small faction of folks who didn’t fear the task of replacing such a dominant player — because he knew what he would have this year, too.
Shelton played so many snaps in 2014, it was easy to forget that his backup, Elijah Qualls, was a coveted four-star prospect himself. And that behind Qualls was another player the Huskies felt good enough about as a true freshman that they almost decided to play him.
Instead, Greg Gaines sat and watched, working out and waiting his turn. It’s come this season: He’s appeared in every game, but made his biggest impact with a team-best 10 tackles in Saturday’s loss to Utah.
Starting in place of Qualls, who was out with an ankle injury, Gaines played more snaps than he has in any game in his career.
And he helped illustrate why Choate and the Huskies prefer a more varied approach with the nose tackle position than they did with Shelton at their disposal. Shelton was so productive that it simply didn’t make sense to take him off the field for more than a couple plays at a time. This UW roster doesn’t have a similarly dominant player. But Qualls, Gaines and redshirt freshman Vita Vea — another name to keep in mind — are each steady enough to merit playing time, and each has shown promise.
That’s enviable depth, especially considering that Qualls, as a third-year sophomore, is the oldest of the group.
“I’m excited about the future here,” Choate said, “and Greg’s a big part of that.”
A native of La Habra, California, Gaines committed during his junior season to coach Chris Petersen at Boise State. He said Tuesday that after meeting with Petersen, he “knew right away” he wanted to play for him. So it was an easy decision to follow Petersen and his staff to Washington when they left Boise State in December 2013.
Gaines was on the cusp of playing some nose tackle as a true freshman last season — so close, in fact, that he suited up and was listed as second string prior to the UW’s season opener at Hawaii last season.
But he was told in the locker room before that game that Qualls would be the backup instead. Call it the Shelton Factor.
“With Danny being as durable as he was,” Choate said, “and Elijah getting quality reps behind him, we didn’t feel like we needed a third nose in that rotation.”
That was fine with Gaines.
“I would only get like 50 plays the whole season, maybe,” Gaines said. “So I’m really glad that I didn’t. I’m really glad that I redshirted and got a lot stronger last year and a lot better.”
There was one close call. In UW’s fourth game of the season, a 45-10 blowout of Georgia State, Choate instructed Gaines to go into the game. But as the freshman ran onto the field, Petersen yelled for him to return to the sideline, thus preserving a year of eligibility.
“I’m really happy they pulled me back out,” Gaines said.
He says he learned a lot from Shelton, including one of his go-to moves that has been dubbed “The Danny,” a one-arm lever intended to turn the blocker.
“Danny taught me pretty much everything I know,” Gaines said. “He’d take me out after every rep on pass rush, and every rep, he’d teach me tips and tricks and teach me how to play the game and be like him.”
The Huskies are encouraged by what they’ve seen so far.
“He’s one of the most explosive guys we have when you look at his weight room numbers,” Choate said. “He’s compact, which gives him that natural pad level, but for a shorter-levered guy, he really understands how to use blocks and create separation and does an awesome job of eating up double teams.”
SATURDAY: UW (4-5, 2-4 Pac-12) at Arizona St. (4-5, 2-4), noon, Pac-12 Network, 1000-AM, 97.7-FM