Heading into the 2012 season, there was a lot of concern about how the linebacking group would perform. Lost to graduation was Cort Dennison, a physically limited but heady player who was the unquestioned leader of the group. Leaving the program was Garrett Gilliland who had logged significant action as a reserve. Returning were two starters in true sophomores in John Timu and Princeton Fuimaono, and reserves Thomas Tutogi and Jamaal Kearse. Joining them were a number of players moved closer to the LOS from their former safety spots in Travis Feeney, Nate Fellner, Taz Stevenson and Evan Zeger. And added to the mix was Shaq Thompson, a true freshman rated by Scout.com as the #1 safety prospect in the country. Showing up after playing minor league baseball at a well-muscled 220 lbs, the coaching staff created a new hybrid safety/lineback role for him and he was a starter from day 1. And the change didn't end with the players - out was the old coach Mike Cox and in was the new coach Peter Sirmon. So how did they do?
Kirk: While the secondary was the strongest unit on the defensive side, it can be argued that the biggest positive transformation occurred within the linebacking group. They weren't quite as good as the secondary, but they had a bigger jump in performance in my opinion.
John Timu put in great work in the off-season to develop himself physically, packing on roughly 20 lbs of good weight while not losing his athleticism. The former H.S. QB is still learning the nuances of the position, but you could see the light really clicking on for him as the season progressed - there was less thinking and more instinctive reacting. He still had lapses where he'd take a poor angle of pursuit or not fill his gap, but you can see the potential and project continued rapid improvement. As it is, he led the team in tackles with 91 and showed flashes of big play ability with 2 interceptions (and more that were nullified by penalties).
Travis Feeney adapted quickly to his position change, and while he's still lanky at 6'4", 209 lbs he's got the long frame this new staff covets, and he displayed not just excellent athleticism but was a revelation as a ferocious hitter. His big play abilities were evident with his 6 tackles for loss (including 4 sacks, which ranked 3rd on the team) and 2 interceptions. On the downside, his lack of bulk hurt him when teams sent pulling linemen right at him, but as he matures physically he'll fill out more and as he gets more used to his new position he'll learn techniques for shedding and avoiding blocks. His future is bright.
Even brighter is Shaq Thompson's future. He's as gifted a player as the Huskies have had on defense in a long time with a rare combination of size, instincts and athleticism. While some clamor for him to move to safety, the reality is the role he played in H.S. was more like what he does now than a true deep safety. His coverage skills are pretty good for a safety, but outstanding for a linebacker. He has a knack for big plays, notching 8.5 tackles for loss (including 2 sacks) and adding 2 interceptions. Expect him to take more than a few picks to the endzone before his career is done in Montlake. He'll continue to grow into his body and be better equipped to take on linemen, but he's at his best on the edge taking on slot receivers, tight ends, rushing the passer and providing backside run support.
Thomas Tutogi had a mixed season as the primary backup in the middle; he did well against Stanford as he was utilized heavily for run support, but he struggled in coverage against the spread teams. Fuimaono was the primary backup on the outside, and he was steady with glimpses of promise, but he'll have to work hard this off season to hold off younger guys like Lawyer, Zeger & Stevenson.
Overall this group did pretty well, especially considering their lack of experience. They can stand to improve their blitzing skills (too often they were picked up by blockers or took poor angles at the QB) and were sometimes overpowered on inside runs, but they provided much improved pass coverage and their ability to cover the field is very impressive - they are clearly a group designed to counter the multitude of spread offenses in the conference.
Ryan Priest: Perhaps the most surprising transformation of any unit on the defense, Washington’s main starters at linebacker consisted of a true sophomore in John Timu who showed flashes of potential as well as significant deficiencies in his 2011 freshman campaign, a converted redshirt freshman safety in Travis Feeney, and a highly-regarded recruit yet untested true freshman in Shaq Thompson. Having the most experienced player in a unit be a true sophomore is hardly a recipe for success, yet all three demonstrated why they earned their positions by playing above any reasonable expectations—Timu led the team in tackles, with 91; Feeney was just one tackle short of finishing as Timu’s co-runner up, behind safety Sean Parker; and Shaq showed why he was considered the nation’s No. 1 safety recruit by tying the team’s lead for interceptions (3), finishing among the team’s leaders in tackles (74) and tackles for loss (8.5), even returning the team’s final kickoff in the Las Vegas Bowl. In my mind, there’s no question that if he continues on his present course, Thompson is well situated to finish his career at Washington as the most fearsome defender to wear purple and gold since Steve Emtman. With at least two additional years of seasoning for each of these three players, UW is a strong candidate to have one of the most versatile linebacking corps in the conference in 2013 and 2014.
Jack Follman: The most improved unit on the team. Rarely missed tackles and improved their short pass coverage. Only knock is their ineffectiveness when blitzing.
Jeffrey Gorman: Next up in our series grading the Husky position groups is the linebacker corps. This is a position that most were concerned about heading into the season, and rightfully so based on their collective 2011 season. However, the undersized and inexperienced group was bolstered when the coaches moved some bodies up from safety, notably Shaq Thompson (though he essentially plays a hybrid strong safety/rover position), and fresh off the scout team Travis Feeney. The moves paid off in a big way, adding both size and speed to the unit. Peter Sirmon coached the group up and used his NFL playing experience to instill an aggressive and violent playing style. Making the move from the outside, John Timu put one some serious muscle and started to look the part of a middle linebacker, aiding to the overall groups development. Flanked by Shaq Thompson and Travis Feeney, the linebackers were made up of all first and second year players, but they played a lot better than their age.
Timu led the team in tackles with 91, also chipping in a couple of interceptions. Shaq Thompson by seasons end was one of the finest playmakers on the defense, living up to his 5 star billing with 74 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 sacks, and 8.5 tackles for loss. Travis Feeney turned in strong numbers as well (76 tackles, 2 interceptions, 4 sacks, and 6 tackles for loss) but it was his nose for the ball and aggressive attitude that stood out to me. Great defenses play with some nasty and Travis Feeney is one seriously nasty dude. He was one of the players last season that would set the tone physically, and I expect this continue for the rest of his time on Montlake. Not bad a for a lowly 2 star safety whose only other offer was from the University of Arizona.
Looking at the statistics, the 3 starting linebackers were all in the top 5 on the team in tackles, which you like to see. One third of the team's sacks were contributed by linebackers, as well as 7 of the team's 17 interceptions, highlighting the fact that the linebackers made numerous plays this season.
While starters Timu, Thompson, and Feeney get most of the credit, you can't forget the solid contributions of Thomas Tutogi who brought size and toughness to the middle, and Princeton Fuimaono whose experience aided him playing on the outside. Now, while the linebackers certainly surprised with their play last season, they were still a young group that got caught out of position at times, and missed plenty of tackles. How many 3rd and long scrambles did Boise State QB Joe Southwick use to extend drives, which should have been stopped by a Husky linebacker? Moreover, the linebackers struggled mightily against the spread attacks of the Pac-12, be it Chip Kelly's, Rich Rod's, or Mike Leach's. If this group is take the next step at becoming a premier unit in the league, it must be able to contain spread offenses. Lastly, while the pass rush is more the responsibility of the defensive line, the linebackers still had plenty of missed sack opportunities, Timu and Feeney being the main culprits.
There is a lot to be happy about the way the linebackers played last season. They made a lot of plays, and showed a lot of promise for next season.