Elijah Qualls has really been excited about the holidays this year. The burly young man who graduated from Casa Grande High School four years ago was brimming with anticipation for Christmas Day. And he’s even more fired up about New Year’s Eve.
Qualls plays defensive tackle for the University of Washington, and for the Huskies this is the most wonderful time of the year. On Dec. 25, they packed up and flew from Seattle to Atlanta, site of this year’s Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. On Dec. 31, Qualls and his cohorts will line up against Alabama, a team that some are calling the greatest in college football history, for a chance to play for the national championship.
“I understand not many people get to have this type of opportunity in their college careers,” Qualls said by phone. “I appreciate every moment of it.”
The task at hand is monumental. The top-ranked Crimson Tide have won 25 consecutive games, and go into the Peach Bowl with a 13-0 record in 2016.
Nick Saban’s team is probably known more for its defense, but make no mistake. The Alabama offense is fearsome. The Tide started the regular season by ringing up 52 points on USC, and ended it by hanging 54 on Florida. Both of those teams are currently in the Associated Press top 20. Alabama also scored 48 or more against five other schools. The SEC champion averaged 471.3 yards per game.
Saban has a couple of top NFL prospects in tackle Cam Robinson and tight end O.J. Howard, but his offense is generally hard to key. No one on the team rushed for 1,000 yards; on the other hand, four different guys cracked 500. That included freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, who gained 2,592 yards through the air and added 841 on the ground.
Alabama is currently favored to beat Washington, the Pac-12 champion and the No. 4 team in the nation, by 14 points. And Qualls is just fine with that.
“I love it,” he said. “But at the same time I don’t really care what people think, because most of the critics never played a down of football in their life.”
By the time the ball kicks off at the Georgia Dome, Washington will have gone 29 days without playing a football game. Qualls admits it’s frustrating to wait that long for the biggest sporting event of his life, but the Huskies have plenty to keep them occupied. Like watching video. Qualls said UW head coach Chris Petersen and his staff have dialed down the contact at practice, but the film study has gotten serious.
You may be surprised to hear that Qualls did not experience terror when he started watching the Crimson Tide offense in action. Asked whether he agreed that the Crimson Tide offense is highly diverse, he said: “Yes, but no more diverse than our defense. I like our matchups.”
The heart of the Huskies’ multiplicity is their defensive line, a unit that is widely considered one of the best in college football. Washington, which allowed just 17.2 points per game, plays a base 4-3 defense but will show you many different looks. Qualls says he lines up “anywhere from 0 through 9,” which means anywhere from directly in front of the center to outside the widest wide receiver.
It’s hard to picture Qualls, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs in the neighborhood of 320 pounds, in corner coverage. But his point is well taken. The big guy with the bouncy mass of hair is liable to line up just about anywhere along the line.
“I like being able to do more than just one thing and to be able to contribute in different ways,” Qualls said. “Whatever the team needs, I’m willing to do.”
Versatility is nothing new for Qualls. After moving from Sacramento and enrolling at Casa Grande before his junior year, he became a devastating football force in the North Bay League. Qualls was frequently the biggest kid on the field, but his agility was such that coach Trent Herzog mostly put him at defensive end or linebacker where he could work in open space. Qualls played running back, too, gaining 1,847 yards and scoring 23 touchdowns on the ground over two seasons.
When the Gauchos were hit with injuries his senior year, Qualls voluntarily moved to center. And when winter rolled around, he figured he might give wrestling a try. He instantly became one of the top heavyweights in the Redwood Empire.
But football was Qualls’ path to bigger things. Washington successfully recruited him behind the efforts of then-head coach Steve Sarkisian and assistant Tosh Lupoi. Wouldn’t you know it, Sarkisian is now an offensive analyst for Alabama — he will take over as Saban’s offensive coordinator next year — and Lupoi is the Crimson Tide’s co-defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach.
Qualls said he has had little contact with either since the coaches left Washington, and didn’t seem particularly interested in their Peach Bowl reunion.
Meanwhile, Qualls has blossomed into an elite defensive lineman. He was a first-team All-Pac-12 pick this year, and a Fox Sports second-team All-American. Qualls enters the playoff semifinal with 32 tackles, three sacks and five tackles for loss in 2016.
He is legitimate enough that there is rampant speculation Qualls will forego his senior season and enter the NFL draft in 2017. If so, he could have a shot at being a first-round selection. The website NFLdraftscout.com ranks him the No. 3 prospect among defensive tackles.
So far, Qualls has not declared his eligibility. He said he’s really not giving that decision a lot of thought at the moment.
“The only thing that matters is this bowl game,” Qualls said. “Because the NFL isn’t promised, but I know I get to play in this game.”
If the Huskies triumph on New Year’s Eve, they will face the winner of the Ohio State-Clemson game for the national championship on Jan. 9. Qualls knows what it will take to accomplish that.
“We’ll have to play the best game we’ve ever played to win, no doubt about it,” he said.
You can reach staff writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.