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Former Auburn star Shelton blossoms on UW's line
Most freshman get a chance to wade into the Division I collegiate football pool.
Not Danny Shelton.
Last year, when the 6-1, 317-pound defensive lineman first reported to the University of Washington, it was immediately made clear to Shelton that much was expected of him.
A talented and highly recruited Auburn High School star, Shelton got tossed into the deep end right away, seeing his first playing time in the Huskies' second game of the season against Hawaii at Husky Stadium.
"It was pretty exciting," Shelton said. "I knew I was going to get in and I was just anticipating getting in. When I finally got in I just tried to do my assignment and make sure I didn't look like a fool out there."
Although he certainly took his lumps that first year – including a devastating fumble on a kickoff during the Huskies' 67-56 Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor – Shelton progressed and matured, playing in all of the Huskies' games and earning his first start against Washington State in the Apple Cup.
This year, the promise of that freshman year is beginning to pay off for Shelton, 19, who is the team's starting nose tackle as a sophomore.
"I think it was pretty difficult coming in as a freshman ... I was pretty young," Shelton said. "The older guys were so much faster, stronger and just smarter at how they played. I had to grow up my game just to compete against them."
Shelton credits his teammates, especially fellow defensive linemen Alameda Ta'amu and Everrette Thompson – both now graduated – and seniors Talia Crichton and Semisi Tokolahi with helping him adjust to the flow and physicality of the college game.
Shelton said he also struggled to grasp his role at first.
"It was kind of hard to actually understand our defense with Coach Holt's (former defensive coordinator Nick Holt) system," Shelton said. "It was hard for me to understand what to do in some situations. But the upperclassmen really helped me get it down. I really feel like it would have been harder if they hadn't helped me get it down. And just knowing your assignments and alignments.
"Coach Sark (head coach Steve Sarkisian) talks about knowing what you're supposed to do will make you faster," Shelton said. "I feel like this year this is really happening for me. I know my plays very well, and I think that I'm faster because I know my plays."
Off the field, Shelton said adjusting to living away from home for the first time was hard, even though home was just 27 miles south.
"I got homesick, even though I live just down the freeway," he said. "My family would come up and see me and I'd go home almost every other weekend.
"I feel like it was pretty hard transitioning from high school to college education also," Shelton said. "I guess the support from our academic staff has been great. They really helped me and showed me the way to go. I had tutors and I'd stay in with my advisor and just talk about class. That really helped me."
Although Shelton said he felt he "could have done better," he shined academically last year, earning a 3.57 GPA and making the dean's list for winter quarter. He hasn't declared a major yet.
"My mom is pushing me to get a degree in something that will actually benefit me in the future," Shelton said. "My backup plan after football is to be a police officer. But I don't really know. It's always interested me since I was a kid. And it's the second-closest thing to football, being physical and being able to physically tackle people. It's a pretty cool thing. And being able to do it for a cause, to protect people."
Right now, though, it is all about focusing on the task at hand and improving on last year's 7-6 record, which included a 5-4 third-place Pac-12 finish.
"Our finish didn't really bother me," he said. "I just felt like I had a lot to learn. It was my first year and I felt like I had three other years to go. There were some things that I learned later in the season that I wish I had learned earlier.
"I feel that the coaches did a really good job (this summer) bringing us together as a defense. The offense, too," he said. "We really bonded together and got to know the coaches, too. That's a big part of our season right now. Just them knowing our strengths and weaknesses."
So far for the Huskies, it's paid off. UW is 3-1, with its only loss coming at No. 4 LSU. Despite the 41-13 loss in Death Valley, Shelton put together a fine game against the Tigers, notching a career-high 10 tackles.
On Sept. 27, the Husky defense showcased their prowess in a 17-13 win over high-powered Stanford, then the No. 8 team in the country.
"It really didn't hit me until later when I was going home," Shelton said. "I felt that the game was still going on. It was just weird. I saw the coaches really excited. I saw Coach Wilcox (defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox) jumping on Coach Lupoi (defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi). That was pretty exciting to see. But that didn't hit me until later on, for some reason. I guess I was still in the game, I was still waiting to go back into the game."
The win earned the Huskies a No. 23 ranking.
Things won't get any easier for the Huskies this weekend. UW heads to Eugene, Ore. on Saturday (7:30 p.m., ESPN) looking for another upset, this one against the No. 2 Oregon Ducks.
"I think that Oregon is a beatable team after watching all the film on them," Shelton said. "They have some weaknesses and they have some strengths, but we have the same. It's just about what team is going to come in and start fast and finish hard."