Exclusive: Interview with Washington DL Elijah Qualls
Washington DL Elijah Qualls took time out of his busy predraft schedule to speak with us exclusively here at Draft Breakdown.
Surprisingly athletic for his size, the 313 pound California native showed off his brute strength with a whopping 33 bench press reps at the combine. Qualls turned in a solid final season with 38 tackles, five for loss and three sacks and helped the Huskies earn a playoff birth.
In our interview, Elijah and I discussed how playing running back and multiple different sports helped turn him into the athlete he is today, how he ultimately decided on playing defensive line, the close bond he’s developed with Sidney Jones and more. Some video analysis is also included.
Thanks for joining me today Elijah.
Qualls: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
You weighed in at 313 pounds at the combine, yet you were a FB in high school who ran for more than 1,800 yards. When did you make that transition to the DL?
Qualls: I started playing some DL in my last year. Growing up, my dad, stepdad and basically everybody else in my family had all played running back. That was where it felt like I would naturally end up at. I actually wasn’t a bad running back. When it was time to go into college, people showed a lot of interest in me on the defensive side of the ball. Some saw me on the line, and some actually saw me as a middle linebacker.
I did some research when I was heading into college and I looked at the longevity of careers, amount of pay, severity of injuries and stuff of that nature. I came to the conclusion that playing defensive line was the best thing for me. It’s a decision I made from a health standpoint, and a business standpoint.
It’s interesting that you did all of that research. That’s the first time I’ve heard that this year. Your athletic ability really pops on tape. You’re the only 315 pound guy I’ve ever seen rush standing up. Did you get that athleticism from your time at RB?
Qualls: Playing running back in high school definitely helped me develop my athleticism. I played a bunch of different positions and I played many different sports. While it may not seem like it, a lot of the skills you have as a running back transfers over to the defensive line position. Having quick feet, agility and balance from playing running back can you help you become a better pass rusher. I wrestled in high school, I was actually a state finalist and ranked as a top three seed in my junior year. I ended up not going because I pulled my hamstring and I didn’t want to re-aggravate it. Wrestling helped with leverage and strength. It gave me an understanding on how to get somebody off balance and how to use that to my advantage. I played 10 different sports in high school and they all kind of transferred over into playing football. It helped become a better athlete.
It’s rare to see a 313 pound defensive linemen being utilized as a stand-up rusher, but Qualls possesses the ability to do so.
Besides wrestling and football, what else did you play?
Qualls: I played baseball, basketball, track, boxing, rugby, lacrosse, gymnastics and swimming. I used to play some soccer with my friends, but I didn’t play in a league. There’s a lot of people that love soccer where I grew up. That’s all I can remember.
That’s enough [laughs]. With so much experience in different spots and different positions, where do you think you’ll end up at the next level? Are you a three-technique, are you a nose tackle? Where do you fit in?
Qualls: I can play both and I can rotate between both. I don’t think I should be limited to one position if I can help you at both. I understand that a lot of teams prefer a weight difference between those two positions, but I rotated across our entire defensive line at Washington so it’s not a matter of me being uncomfortable or inexperienced at that position, or me thinking that I’m better at one position than the other. There are some things that I like better about being a three-technique than being a nose tackle and vice versa. At the end of the day, I’m working towards being perfect at both. Why not play me at both? That’s two areas that I can help my team win instead of just one.
If Qualls ends up playing NT, he shows the ability to shed and finish the tackle process violently.
Going back to all the different sports you played, you’re obviously a fan of sports in general. What other sports do you watch today and who are some of your favorite athletes?
Qualls: I watch track every once in a while. I watch basketball during the playoffs and I might catch a game here or there. Honestly, I watch football more than anything. If not for the entertainment, I actually watch a lot of it to try and get what I can from other people. I watch for what mistakes not to make at the next level, what plays I need to make in the NFL and so on. I just watch football man. Outside of that, some of my favorite athletes are Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and DeAndre Jordan. I like those guys because they play aggressive basketball. It’s cool watching those guys because they’re nto primadonna basketball players. They bring it on every single night. They play with passion. Kobe [Bryant] was one of those dudes as well. I like people that play the sport with passion. Football wise, Cam Newton is one of my favorite guys. Watching him play football with so much joy is cool man. At the next level, it’s obviously a business but you start playing this game because you love it. I truly don’t think that you can play to the best of your ability at the next level if you don’t continue to love it and have fun. It’s a fun game and you need to always remember that. It’s not only just about business. That’s what I try to remember every single time I play.
I love that answer. Speaking of that passion, a lot of the work you do on tape is very selfless. It doesn’t always pop up on the stat sheet. You might be eating up a block and freeing up the gaps for your teammates. What do you enjoy about those responsibilities?
Qualls: I don’t mind doing that at all. At the end of the day, I truly just want to win. Our scheme at Washington was designed to allow the middle linebackers to make plays. Our three down linemen are meant to just eat up blocks. I literally told my two middle linebackers at the beginning of this past season that I don’t care if I get stats. I’d like a sack or a tackle every now and again, but if we’re winning games, you guys can make all of the plays. As long as you’re hitting those gaps and making plays, I’m cool with just eating up blocks. At the end of the day, when the educated football minds put on my film, they know that I might not be coming out with a ton of sacks or tackles for loss, but I did the job that I was meant to do better than anybody else in this draft. I took on those double teams and I helped my team win games. I’m not selfish like that. I don’t do my own thing because I’m worried about my stats. I do whatever it takes to help my team win.
More than just a run stuffer, Qualls does a nice job getting pressure up the middle here and ultimately forcing the quarterback to roll outside and throw this ball away.
How does that mindset or what Washington asked of you prepare you for the next level?
Qualls: It prepared me to do whatever my NFL team requires of me. I can be somebody that can go out there and disrupt these one-gap scheme plays, I can get to those gaps and make plays. I can disrupt the backfield and things of that nature, that’s not a problem for me. That’s something that I can do, but I don’t mind being the guy that’s not the star of the team. I don’t mind putting in the dirty work and not getting any glory for it. It’s what I’m used too and I’m cool with that. As long as we’re winning games, I truly do not care about what I’m doing. I don’t care if I’m getting attention or credit. I’m cool with the doing dirty work and I’m cool doing whatever it takes to help my teammates make the plays that we need them too. I don’t need to be the star. I just love to win.
That attitude is getting you places. I’ve actually interviewed several of your teammates including Kevin King, Jojo Mathis and Budda Baker. I asked them about their strange combine stories. What was the weirdest question a team asked you? I’ve heard everything from getting into staring contests to math riddles.
Qualls: I wasn’t really asked any weird questions, but there was definitely some unexpected stuff. When you have formal meetings, somebody comes in and explains to you what a formal meeting is and just kind of helps prepare you for it. I wasn’t expecting as much stuff as they did. They ask you a lot of very personal questions and they test you a lot. I had a couple of teams literally sit me down, write down six of their defensive plays, flip the sheet over and ask me to write down exactly what they just quickly showed me [laughs]. I probably learned about eight or nine different defenses in the matter of a day. I got it all right so that was cool, but I definitely wasn’t expecting that.
That’s tough. Speaking of formal meetings, how many predraft visits have you made?
Qualls: People liked my combine and pro day results so much that I didn’t have to make any visits. I don’t have any health issues, I’ve never had a surgery or a broken bone even, so teams were very comfortable with my medical. No one has any concerns with me. They don’t need to take a closer look.
That’s a good thing. Playing at Washington, you went up against a ton of elite competition. Who’s the best offensive lineman you ever lined up against?
Qualls: It’s weird because the best linemen I ever went up against was when I was actually at outside linebacker or defensive end. It was definitely Garrett Bolles from Utah, and Cam Robinson from Alabama. Those guys are big, athletic, strong, smart players. They play the position with excellent technique. It was difficult to go up against those guys, but it was fun too. It was definitely a challenge. When it came down to it though, I felt like I handled myself well.
Those guys are great. Another fun question I asked a couple of your teammates was, if you were going to war tomorrow and could only bring one of your teammates, who would you bring and why?
Qualls: That’s tough man [laughs]. If I was allowed to bring multiple guys with me, I’m taking the entire defense. I really developed a relationship with those guys. I absolutely trusted all of my teammates out there on the field. I didn’t have any doubt that they were gonna’ come to every game and to every practice with the mentality that we just want to win at all costs. If I had to pick one person, it would be Sidney Jones. His talent doesn’t even need to factor into my decision, that’s the guy I’ve developed the closest relationship with. Me and Kevin [King] grew up near each other so we’ve been cool for a minute. I’m close to a lot of my guys, we had some classes together as well. Sidney Jones is basically my little brother though. I’ve cared about that dude since he got here. Our personalities are very similar, we like to stick to ourselves. At the end of the day, I know that I can call on him, and he knows that he can call on me. I find the two of us very similar. I just love that kid man.
Have you spoken to him since the injury? I’m sure you have. What did you tell him?
Qualls: We talk every day. After the pro day thing, I just told him to keep his head up. I knew that I didn’t have to tell him much though. Sid’s not a kid that you can break down. He’s very strong minded and he’s very strong willed. I know that he’s going to come back with a vengeance. He’s still the best cornerback in this draft, I don’t have a doubt about it. As soon as he gets back and he’s able to play, I’m telling you that he’s gonna’ ball out at the next level. I have no doubt about it.
Neither do I. I think he’s a phenomenal player.
Qualls: Not even just athletically. The kid is smart. Sidney Jones is football intelligent man.
That does it for my questions Elijah. I truly appreciate your time, we’ve had an excellent conversation today. In closing, what kind of guy is a team getting when they draft Elijah Qualls?
Qualls: They’re getting somebody who has a true passion for football. In the rarest of cases, I truly believe that I was born to play this game man. I live for this game. I’m more football intelligent than a lot of other people. For some reason, I’ve seen a couple of things where people questioned my work ethic but I work every day as much as I can to be the best that I can be, both on and off the field. I’m constantly working on my football IQ, my athletic ability and my techniques. All I do is work man. That’s what I was built for and that’s what I love to do. They’re getting a player that they want on their football team and I’m gonna’ be one of the best players that comes out of this draft.