The 2013 season started with Husky fans expecting the LB corps, though young, to be the strength of the defense. There were ample reasons to expect this. John Timu had demonstrated what he was capable of when fully healthy after a productive sophomore campaign. Shaq Thompson was coming into his own after a position change with national pundits from Connecticut to Los Angeles calling him a "breakout player" candidate. Travis Feeney had demonstrated himself to be the emotional wild card that you always like to see in any corps. There was experienced depth in the form of Princeton Fuimaono and Thomas Tutogi. The pieces all seemed to be there.
Things got off to an auspicious start, however, when Fuimaono beat out Travis Feeney as a starter and challenged the fans' collective perception of how the season would go. However, thanks to a Week 1 beatdown of a ranked Boise State team that featured the kind of fast, sideline-to-sideline linebacking play that DC Justin Wilcox had preached as the desired end state, Husky fans hopes were buoyed. At least until the Pac 12 schedule started.
As the season wore on, the linebacking unit was clearly a strength. However, it didn't pan out to be the elite unit that many of us were hopeful for. Individually, none of the Husky backers (and, for the purposes of this comment, I'll include the rush ends of Cory Littleton and Josh Shirley) ranked highly in the production stats of tackles, tackles for loss, sacks or interceptions. This was somewhat surprising given the attacking style that we all expected to see and the potential of guys like Timu, Shaq and Shirley. In fact, the season would end with Fuimaono, who was the most reliable tackler all season, leading the team in total tackles.
Despite the lack of individual accomplishment, the team stats paint a slightly different picture of how this unit performed overall. While not elite by any measure, the Huskies finished in the top half or quarter of the Pac 12 in a variety of stats that are anchored by linebacker productivity including third down conversions, red zone conversions and total defense. One interesting stat that was interesting was that the Huskies had the second most third down attempts run against them in the Pac 12 (Oregon had the most). While this is partly attributable to the pace of the offense, it is also a testament to the ability of the Huskies D to prevent big plays on first and second downs. The advanced stats (F/+) tell us that that the Huskies sported the overall #21 defense in football, a testament in part to the accomplishments of the linebacking corps
Overall, the Huskies linebackers earned an "average" mark in my book. While the productivity was good overall, the young unit was still too susceptible to mental errors, missed tackles and a lack of big plays relative to the talent boasted.
What we said heading into last spring:
...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. (Ryan Priest)
- Red Zone D: TD % = 58% (6th Pac12); Scoring % = 83% (5th Pac 12)
- Scoring D: 22.8 pts (4th Pac 12)
- Forced TO's: 23 - 7 FF, 16 INT (6th Pac 12)
- Tackles for Loss / Game: 5.7 (11th Pac 12)
* interestingly, Oregon was last in the Pac in TFL / G
- Opponent +10 yard rushes from Scrimmage: 62 (5th Pac 12)
Players lost: Princeton Fuimaono, Thomas Tutogi, Jamaal Kearse
Players returning: John Timu (Sr), Shaq Thompson (Jr), Travis Feeney (RS-Jr), Sean Constantine (RS-Fr), Keishawn Bierria (RS-Fr), Cory Littleton (Jr), Josh Shirley (RS-Sr), Azeem Victor (RS-Fr), Connor O'Brien (RS-Fr), Scott Lawyer (RS-Jr)
Incoming players: Drew Lewis
A Look Ahead:
Normally you would expect this to be one of the most established groups on the team, what with three of four starters and four of the top five in the depth charts returning. But with a new coaching staff comes some level of uncertainty - of scheme, and of their evaluation of the returning personnel. We can assume that new DC Pete Kwiatkowski has similar philosophies to the man he replaced at both Boise State and Washington (Justin Wilcox), but we should also figure he's not a clone of him either.
Still, the returning talent level here is the best along the defensive side of the ball. In John Timu the Huskies return a heady MLB that has really grown - literally and figuratively - into the position. He's shown a knack for being around the ball and has been good enough in coverage to avoid getting subbed-out while facing spread passing attacks. Shaq Thompson is a terrific physical talent and entering his third year at the college level should start making a serious push for major post-season awards lists. There are still calls from some segment of the fanbase to move him to SS, and while the success of Kam Chancellor for the Seahawks provides a blueprint, I'm still of the opinion he's more valuable to the Huskies closer to the line of scrimmage. Besides - his role has been and will likely continue to be a hybrid one between OLB and SS, though I'd love to see him sent on more blitzes and dogs. Travis Feeney has plenty of raw talent but found himself displaced in the starting lineup last year by Princeton Fuimaono; with Fui graduated, the job should be Feeney's to lose. He's still a rangy kid, more tall than big, but he hits like a freight train and has enough speed left over from his days as a safety to not be a liability in coverage. Cory Littleton wrested the Rush End position away from Josh Shirley as he provides a more well-rounded game; if he continues to get bigger and stronger, he's also a potential awards candidate.
Behind those presumptive starters you have the veteran Shirley, depth guy Scott Lawyer and the big crew of talented youngsters recruited in 2013, all of which were afforded the luxury of a redshirt year. It will be a lot of fun to see who among that group steps up to push the starters and set themselves up for 2015 and beyond. Azeem Victor and Connor O'Brien are the two I'm most excited to see in action, but all of them should push for playing time.
The spring battles at linebacker should be extremely interesting with the influx of redshirt players and the integration of the new coaching staff. I think we can all expect both John Timu and Shaq Thompson to easily secure their starting positions. Timu really came on strong to close the 2013 campaign and is unquestionably the heart - and the brains - of the Husky D. Thompson has an elite physical tool set and the experience that should, again, give Husky fans an expectation for a breakout campaign and "of the year" potential when post-season awards get handed out.
What happens beyond that is anybody's guess. Feeney should get plenty of opportunity, but his mental lapses and potential for injury may well open the door to physically skilled guys like Azeem Victor (who could play inside or out) or Keishawn Bierria. The previous coaching staff was also very high on both Scott Lawyer and Connor O'Brien - the former who got plenty of run last season and the latter who will clearly find his way onto the field whether on the inside or outside in 2014. Sean Constatine is also a name to watch, in particular as the understudy to Timu.
In the end, there is a lot unknown about how the linebacking depth charts will flesh out. The previous regime left Chris Petersen and Pete Kwiatkowski with a lot of hybrid type of talents that can play multiple positions. How they get integrated into the new defensive strategy is an intriguing storyline for this spring.
For all of the experience this unit returns, one thing they lack - across the board - is size. Even more so with the loss of Thomas Tutogi, who was the only guy over 240 pounds. This isn't a unit that can make a living taking on offensive linemen, and it definitely showed in 2013 as the Husky defense was very mediocre in stopping the run. While they aren't big, there's definitely speed. The linebackers have been huge assets in pass coverage the last two seasons, even though the number of interceptions they had collectively fell from 7 in 2012 to 3 in 2013.
As Chris points out, there's a lot of similar body types in the linebacking corps. Most of the linebackers are converted safeties, and the rush ends were largely linebackers. Depending on how things shake out, Marcus Farria is a guy that might fit most naturally in the RE spot in the next few years. Regardless, the theme the last few years in recruiting was to find speed in the back half of the front seven, by and large to combat the proliferation of spread-type offenses in the conference. It'll be interesting to see how that fits with what Pete Kwiatkowski wants to do with his defense, and if the staff changes its recruiting philosophy moving forward.
I feel pretty comfortable with the starters. And I'm assuming that Feeney gets his spot back. But outside of Scott Lawyer, there's no real experienced depth. That, and the lack of size, are concerns for this unit in 2014. Assuming this group can avoid injuries, they'll field 3 upperclassmen, and should continue to be big positives in the passing game. Now, they need to step up in consistent run support, and start to become more consistent playmakers.