Mountain West Football: 2023 Post-Spring Practice Defensive Line Rankings

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?

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Who has the upper hand in the trenches?


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Note: Italics denote projected starters.

12. Hawaii

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.


11. Nevada

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.


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Mountain West Football: 2023 Post-Spring Practice Defensive Back Rankings


5. Colorado State

High ranking: 2nd | Low ranking: 9th

Projected depth: Mohamed Kamara (DE), Grady Kelly (DT), Cam Bariteau (DT), Troy Golden (DE), James Mitchell, Mukendi Wa-Kalonji

The Rams defense appeared to figure things out as last year progressed and, spearheaded by the dynamic Kamara (16 sacks, 25.5 TFLs in last two years), this unit brings just about everyone back with further improvements in mind for defensive coordinator Freddie Banks.

In particular, Kelly might be worth keeping an eye on as someone who could complement Kamara from the inside. Pro Football Focus credited him with 23 stops as a redshirt freshman, which tied for the seventh-most among all interior linemen in the Mountain West.

4. Wyoming

High ranking: 1st | Low ranking: 11th

Projected depth: DeVonne Harris, Cole Godbout, Jordan Bertagnole, Braden Siders, Sabastian Harsh, Caleb Robinson, Gavin Meyer, Keelan Cox

The Cowboys continue to develop nightmares for quarterbacks like they’re going out of style, so even though Oluwaseyi Omatosho left Laramie through the transfer portal, there’s a chance that this unit could help the defense improve upon a 7.7% sack rate which ranked 31st in FBS last season.

That’s because Wyoming gets Harsh and Cox back from injuries which knocked them out for all of 2022 and should receive a full season from Godbout, the star defensive tackle who was slowed by his own nicks throughout last year. If there’s a point of emphasis for this potential-pack group, it’s being more consistent in run defense (119th in stuff rate, 127th in power success rate).

3. San Diego State

High ranking: 1st | Low ranking: 6th

Depth chart: Dominic Oliver (DE), Darrion Daulton (DT), Garrett Fountain (DE), Wyatt Draeger, Ryan Henderson, Tupu Alualu

The Aztecs will begin a new chapter without the Tavai brothers and Keshawn Banks, but our staff seems relatively confident that defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix has more tricks up his sleeve.

Fountain (six TFLs, three sacks) could be ready to make a big leap forward after finishing third on the defense with 22 stops despite playing roughly half the snaps of Jonah Tavai and Banks, but the bigger concern is whether Daulton will lead the charge in replacing Tavai’s production on the inside. That could be the one big question which determines whether SDSU is a bowl contender or a serious conference championship contender.

2. Fresno State

High ranking: 2nd | Low ranking: 6th

Projected depth: Isaiah Johnson (DE), Gavriel Lightfoot (DT), Devo Bridges (DT), Charles Remlinger (DE), Johnny Hudson Jr., Jacob Holmes

The defending conference champions will need to find a way to replace David Perales, who accounted for 17% of the Bulldogs’ tackles for loss and 30% of their sacks over the last two seasons, but this unit ended last year on a high note and returns a wealth of veterans.

Interestingly, it may be the defensive tackles who lead the way in 2023: Lightfoot earned a starting job as a true freshman while Bridges ended last year as LA Bowl defensive MVP and Hudson Jr. pitched in with five tackles for loss while on part-time duty.

1. Boise State

High ranking: 1st | Low ranking: 5th

Projected depth: Ahmed Hassanein (DT), Herbert Gums (DT), Cortez Hogans (DE), Tyler Wegis, Michael Callahan, Braxton Fely

This may come as a shock, but the Broncos are still well-stocked with talent on the line despite losing the likes of Scott Matlock and George Tarlas to the NFL. Insert surprised face here.

Gums and Hassanein lead the new-look defenders in the trenches after combining for 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss (and Gums also tallied 18 stops on 369 snaps, good enough to tie for 12th among Mountain West defensive tackles), though a lot will be expected from fellow veterans like Hogans and Callahan. If they are fortunate enough to stay healthy in 2023, this unit could lead the way to big things.

More Mountain West Football!

Mountain West Football: 2023 Post-Spring Practice Quarterback Rankings

Mountain West Football: 2023 Post-Spring Practice Defensive Back Rankings

Mountain West Football: 2023 Post-Spring Practice Wide Receiver/Tight End Rankings


Story originally appeared on Mountain West Wire