By Monica Lee
SEATTLE -- Now a sage veteran, Danny Shelton rested on the sideline. He placed his club-like hands on his hips as his huge shoulders heaved. His white, disheveled practice jersey was tucked under his pads. His number 71 was hardly distinguishable.
That’s when Elijah Qualls approached him.
During a routine end-of-practice scrimmage, the two stood side by side shuffling down the field in sync with the line of scrimmage while Shelton answered Qualls’ questions. The freshman defensive tackle intently listened and nodded as Shelton pointed and gestured towards the field.
Before the fellow tackles separated, Shelton gave Qualls a pat on the back, a sign of encouragement from a veteran to a rookie.
Almost suddenly Shelton is entering his junior year and the expectations are soaring for his team and for the mountainous, 6-foot-1, 327-pound nose tackle. His teammates had already considered this two-year starter on the defensive line a leader. But this year he plans to seize that role as a more prominent voice and example-setter to the younger guys.
At the first full scrimmage of preseason camp this month, Shelton didn’t just step into that leadership role. He charged. He shed his quiet-underclassman persona and became a triumphant, booming voice no one could ignore. Yelling on and off the field, Shelton encouraged the defense to get stops and congratulated those who made big plays. He ran across the field to chest bump Hau’oli Kikaha after the senior defensive end tipped a pass from Keith Price to himself for a rare defensive-lineman interception.
Shelton’s reasons for the change to loud?
“They need a wake-up call,” he says. “If I’m quiet, they’re quiet. I need to pump them up.”
Not only does the Auburn, Wash., High School graduate use his lungs to get his teammates pumped up, he leads in more subtle ways. Shelton makes it a point to always go first drills, even when he’s getting tired.
“It’s hard to lead when you’re tired,” he explained, “but I try to step it up and be the first in everything, to be an example.”
He also shows up early to practice to help his younger teammates walk through the playbook. And at night this month during camp, he’s been sending them text messages to check in on them at the dormitories.
This kind of selflessness is also apparent when a visitor asks him questions. The majority of his answers have to do with helping the team or working with teammates to improve them.
When asked what he wants to accomplish this season, Shelton said, “to help the team win more games this year and make it to the Rose Bowl.”
His reason for why he’s been lining up at different positions: “Since I’ve learned most of the nose plays, I’ve been moving around. Coach is trying to challenge my intelligence, to learn different plays, to help out the team.”
“Coach” is defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi. He’s had Shelton moving outside some to defensive end this month, to see if Shelton can figure out what he’s doing there. Shelton has also been practicing as both the right and left defensive tackle on defensive line that is best when it is versatile and deep.
His leadership doesn’t stop at Husky Stadium.
Last season, Shelton was named to the Pac-12’s All-Academic first team with a 3.46 cumulative grade-point average. He received the Academic Achievement award at the team’s postseason banquet. He made UW’s Dean’s List this past spring quarter with a GPA of 3.50.
And he aspires to keep improving, all the way to becoming UW’s first Academic All-American in 22 years.
“More than anything,” he said, “it would make my mom happy. That’s my main goal.”
The last Husky football Academic All-American was Ed Cunningham, the all-conference center on the 1991 national-championship team.
Shelton credits his family for his success and determination in school.
He recalls his mother’s rule: “School comes first. If we weren’t doing good in class – A’s and B’s – we weren’t going to have football.”
“She’d like me to go to the NFL, but the number one thing she wants me to do is to get a degree,” Shelton said, “so that’s what I’m focusing on too.”
The tackle is also proud of his younger brother, Kevin, a freshman fullback at the University of Idaho, for his grades.
“My younger brother graduated high school last year with a 4.0. He’s probably the smartest one right now out of high school of all of us,” Danny said with a laugh.
The older Shelton brother’s personal goal for this Huskies season is to add his first career sack to his already impressive statistics.
“Last year I had assists, but I want to have a feeling,” he says. “I want to feel the excitement [of a sack].”
Come August 31st in the opener against Boise State, coach Steve Sarkisian and the Huskies will see how Shelton’s leadership translates to reaching his personal and team goals on the field.
“Danny’s flourished,” Sarkisian said of his stalwart that has played in all 26 games of his college career, starting the last 14.
“The end result is that he has a lot of experiences to lean on when he’s talking with guys whether it’s on the field or off the field.”