2013 Spring Previews
After coming off of a historically bad defensive season in 2011, fans had little reason to think that 2012 would fare much better for UW's linebackers: True sophomore John Timu was the unit's only returning starter, with the other two players getting the nod being a redshirt freshman in Travis Feeney and a true freshman in Shaq Thompson. Young players invariably go through growing pains, and these three were no exception to that rule, as film from the Arizona and Oregon games can attest. That being said, by the end of the year the trio proved to be more reliable than many fans had dared to hope in the preseason, and their continued maturation and development could very well become the nucleus of UW's defense for the next several seasons.
In our postseason position grades, I said that UW's linebacker corps underwent "perhaps the most surprising transformation of any unit on the defense" from 2011 to 2012. I stand by that assessment: Entering last season, the Huskies were looking at starting a true freshman, a redshirt freshman and a true sophomore; fortunately, Thompson, Feeney and Timu proved to be capable defenders who only improved (and stayed remarkably healthy) as the season progressed. With all three starters ranking among the team's top-five tacklers, there's every reason to think that another year under Justin Wilcox's direction should produce steady improvement from this already-solid unit.
Outgoing and Incoming
The only significant loss from this position group is that of Nate Fellner, a senior and converted safety who was unfortunately hobbled for much of the year after breaking his foot in fall camp. In addition to Thompson, Feeney and Timu, Washington returns seniors Thomas Tutogi, Princeton Fuimaono, Taz Stevenson and Stetson Shearer; junior Jamaal Kearse; redshirt sophomores Scott Lawyer and Evan Zeger; and true sophomore Cory Littleton, who might be more accurately described as a rush end than a true outside linebacker -- such are the lack of distinctions in Wilcox's multiple defensive scheme.
Spring Depth Chart
NI: Shaq Thompson (Soph) / Taz Stevenson (Sr)
ILB: John Timu (Jr) / Thomas Tutogi (Sr)
OLB: Travis Feeney (RS Soph) / Princeton Fuimaono (Sr)
No surprises here -- Thompson, Feeney and Timu have well-earned iron grips on their starting roles for the time being, and it will take a spectacular drop-off in their performances to scramble that circumstance. That being said, the spring is a time for experimentation, and it's possible that Shaq's hybrid nickle role might evolve to more resemble that of a safety than a linebacker to compensate for the loss of the graduated Justin Glenn. If so, that will create opportunities for the players on the two-deep to work their way into the starting lineup. Shaq is simply too talented a player to take off the field for long, and if one of the linebacker or safety backups can establish himself as a useful complement to the defensive backfield beside Thompson, Feeney, Timu and Sean Parker, his likelihood of seeing meaningful playing time will dramatically increase.
Three Questions for Spring
1. What to do about the spread?
If there's one aspect of Washington's defense in general and its linebackers in particular that failed miserably in 2012, it was its performance against spread-option teams. I'm sorry to be Betty Buzkill, but it bears repeating that in UW's games against Oregon and Arizona, the Huskies gave up a combined 1,030 yards, 57 first downs, 14 touchdowns and 104 points. (The Powers That Be don't keep track of missed tackles on the stat sheet, but anyone who watched those two games knows that that number would be substantial, as well) Clearly, solving the enigma of the spread offense is something that Justin Wilcox wasn't able to do in his debut season on Montlake. The good news is that Washington's solution to that problem -- bringing in longer, faster and quicker players -- is already well underway, as the 6-4 Feeney and the 6-2 Thompson in particular represent the breed of linebacker that Peter Sirmon aims to bring to Seattle, and largely did in the 2013 class.
2. Seasoned second-stringers?
UW learned the hard way in 2012 that its youngest players are only a sprained knee or two away from being thrown into the fire, as the coaches were forced to burn OL Shane Brostek's redshirt in an effort to fortify its depleted linemen reserves when UW lost four of its starting five linemen to injury for at least a portion of the season. Among the linebackers, it's remarkable that Washington has four players who are upperclassmen backups, and it's quite possible that this will mark the first time under Steve Sarkisian's tenure that the Dawgs are not forced to play a freshman due to thin numbers. Sark has frequently mentioned in his public remarks his desire to redshirt as many freshman each year as possible; barring cataclysmic injuries to his players, it looks like he'll get his wish in the coming season.
3. Who will establish himself as a blitzing threat?
One of the 2012 season's most interesting stats is that the Huskies ranked 23rd in the nation and second in the conference in passing yards allowed per game (197.3), but 51st in the nation and ninth in the conference in sacks per game (2.08). While the defensive line is getting an influx of talent in the form of players like Joe Mathis, Marcus Farria and Elijah Qualls, all of whom are candidates to see playing time as true freshman, Washington will no doubt have to improve its execution of linebacker blitz packages to truly start to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Feeney in particular showed flashes of brilliance in his debut season, totaling 4.0 sacks on the year to take the team's bronze medal behind defensive ends Josh Shirley and Andrew Hudson (both with 6.5). His improvement, or lack thereof, will likely dictate much regarding the effectiveness of Washington's pass rush in 2013.
Key Position Battles
Barring any injuries, UW's three linebacker positions are likely sewn up not just for 2013, but for 2014 as well. Furthermore, each of the positions has a senior with substantial playing experience listed as the primary backup (when is that last time that was true for UW at any multi-player position group?), and players like Tutogi are starters in all but name when UW runs its jumbo defensive package against power teams like Stanford. Don't expect to see any new faces join the backups, either: UW's two linebacker recruits from the 2012 class who took redshirt years, Ryan McDaniel and Blake Rodgers, will be non-factors at this spot in the coming season, as McDaniel switched his role to that of a running back as he continues to rehab his injured knee, while Rodgers decided to transfer from Washington in January.
And Finally ...
Looking ahead to the fall, thanks to a legitimate presence of upperclassmen leadership in this unit, there's no reason why Washington shouldn't be able to redshirt each of its four 2013 linebacker commits. It's not hard to envision players like Sean Constantine, Connor O'Brien, Keishawn Bierria and Azeem Victor cracking the two-deeps as true freshman had they been members of the 2011 or 2012 classes, but Washington has built a depth at this position group that is as high-quality as any unit on the team, allowing those youngsters the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the college game before they're thrust headlong into the chaos. It's always cause for optimism when a unit returns all of its starters, and Washington's coaches ought to feel confident that their linebackers have the potential to transform into something special in the coming two years.