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UW Fall Camp Preview — Linebackers

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Our fall camp preview continues with a look at Washington's linebackers. Fall camp kicks off with Chris Petersen's opening press conference on Aug.3.

Image courtesy of Alex Oroszlan. Find him on </span><a href="https://twitter.com/alexoro993">Twitter</a><span> and </span><a href="http://instagram.com/beyondtheboard">Instagram</a><span>, and contact him at alexoroszlanbasketball@gmail.com.
Image courtesy of Alex Oroszlan. Find him on
Twitter and Instagram, and contact him at alexoroszlanbasketball@gmail.com. Alex Oroszlan

7/26:  Quarterbacks (Kirk DeGrasse)

7/27:  Defensive Backs (Brad Johnson)

7/28:  Running Backs (Ryan Priest)

7/29:  Defensive Line (Jesse Kennemer)

7/30:  Linebackers (Ryan Priest)

7/31:  Receivers (Chris Landon)

8/1:  Offensive Line (Kirk DeGrasse)

8/2:  Special Teams (Brad Johnson)

8/3:  Coaches (Chris Landon)

The Huskies go into Chris Petersen's first fall camp with significant questions around not just who is going to play, but what kind of roles each of the Huskies playmakers are going to be asked to play. Many observers consider Washington's defensive front seven to be the team's greatest strength, and the experience and skill of the linebacking corps is no small reason why that is that case. Chris Petersen has many areas of the team to rebuild in his first year as head coach; the linebacker position does not figure to be one of them.

Who's Gone (5)

Name (2013 status) Tackles Tackles for loss Sacks Interceptions Forced fumbles
Princeton Fuimaono (Sr) 80 4.0 1.5 0 2
Thomas Tutogi (Sr) 28 0.5 0 0 0
Jamaal Kearse (Jr) 13 1.0 1.0 0 0
Ronnie Espedal (Fr) -- -- -- -- --
Eric Rauch (Fr) -- -- -- -- --
Total 121 5.5 2.5 0 2

Washington's biggest losses from last year's linebacking corps are Fuimaono and Tutogi. Entering the 2013 season, most observers (myself included) thought it a forgone conclusion that after a great 2012 campaign as a redshirt freshman, Travis Feeney had locked up the starting outside linebacker for the foreseeable future. Princeton Fuimaono, of course, had other plans, and put on such a strong performance in fall camp that he earned back the starting role that he had largely lost to Feeney the year before. Compare his senior year statistics above with the stats from his first three years at Washington (80 tackles vs. 106, 4.0 tackles for loss vs. 9.5, two forced fumbles his last year vs. two forced in his first three years), and it's clear why Justin Wilcox and Peter Sirmon gave him the nod: Fuimaono made it clear that as a senior, he would generate the kind of production that coaches hope to see their upperclassmen create.

While Princeton clearly had the sexier stat line, the 6-0, 249 lb. Tutogi contributed in ways that are difficult to translate on paper, most notably as an extra inside linebacker against power running teams like the Stanford Cardinal. Under Justin Wilcox's direction, Washington made a definite move toward recruiting rangy linebackers who can quickly cover ground laterally (each redshirt or true freshman on the roster this season is between 6-1 and 6-3). That helps immeasurably against the kinds of spread offenses that seem to be taking over the conference, but can leave the team in a bind when they don't have big, physical defenders to match up against a jumbo set that is composed of nine offensive linemen, a quarterback and a running back. Tutgoi's ability to plug holes was a huge reason that Washington upset Stanford in Seattle in 2012, and it will be interesting to see how new defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski works to compensate for his absence.

Key Returners (8)

Name Tackles Tackles for loss Sacks Interceptions Forced fumbles
John Timu (Sr) 77 3.5 2.0 2 0
Shaq Thompson (Jr) 78 4.0 0.5 1 0
Travis Feeney (Jr) 55 5.0 2.5 0 0
Scott Lawyer (Jr) 18 0 0 0 0
Keishawn Bierria (RS-Fr) -- -- -- -- --
Sean Constantine (RS-Fr) -- -- -- -- --
Connor O'Brien (RS-Fr) -- -- -- -- --
Azeem Victor (RS-Fr) -- -- -- -- --
Total 228 12.5 5.0 3 0

Washington returns a group of starting linebackers as strong as any in the conference, and perhaps the country. John Timu is a four-year starter and a three-year captain who is virtually unrecognizable compared to the undersized true freshman that we watched fail to arm-tackle running backs in 2011. Timu likely needs to work especially hard to earn the trust of his new coaches after making an extraordinarily bone-headed decision in the offseason, but the early returns from his play in the second half of spring football after being suspended for the first half were positive in that his time away from practice didn't seem to cause him to slip in the pecking order. Look for him to continue to be the soul of the defense, even if he isn't its most physically impressive specimen.

Shaq Thompson was one of the highest-rated recruits to ever commit to the Dawgs, and has been a major contributor since virtually his first day on campus. At 6-2, 231 lbs., Shaq has the size and skill to turn in the kind of All-American caliber season that Husky fans have long expected from him. His career numbers aren't the most impressive (12.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 4 interceptions), but he possesses a rare combination of size and speed that forces defensive coordinators to account for him no matter where he lines up. Much like Danny Shelton's role on the defensive line, the attention that Shaq demands from opposing teams frees Washington's other playmakers, especially Hau'oli Kikaha and Cory Littleton, into winnable one-on-one matchups.

Though he lost his starting role last year to Princeton Fuimaono, Travis Feeney is no slouch. His 6-4 frame fits the prototype of the kind of linebacker that Justin Wilcox wanted on his defense, and his preternatural speed allows him to cover the width of the field more quickly than most would expect. At just 217 lbs., his size is a liability against teams that make downhill running attacks their bread and butter, but few are more effective than Feeney in defending spread attacks that force defenders to cover a great deal of ground in a small amount of time. Feeney played safety in high school and was recruited to play that position before switching to linebacker, and considering Washington's depleted ranks in the secondary, there is talk that he might revert to his former position to help bolster the depth at safety. Whatever position he plays, there's little doubt that Feeney's coverage skills will be invaluable to UW's success or failure in 2014.

Beyond the returning starters, UW boasts four redshirt freshmen who are sure to make an impact in the two-deeps. Azeem Victor, Sean Constantine Keishawn Bierria and Connor O'Brien are all former three-star recruits who measure between 6-1 and 6-4, and Victor earned the team's Brian Stapp Special Teams Scout Squad MVP award last year. With Scott Lawyer being the only backup linebacker with game experience, it's imperative that at least two or three of the redshirt freshman linebackers develop into capable backups who don't show too much drop-off from the play of the starters. I expect that the soft schedule of the first four games will be invaluable to developing their play until the challenge of conference games hits.

Newcomers (3)

Name Height Weight Star rating (Scout/Rivals) Expected to redshirt?
Drew Lewis (Fr) 6-2 200 3 / Not rated Yes
Matt Preston (Fr) 6-2 185 2 / Not rated Yes
Jake Wambaugh (Fr) 6-3 229 Not rated / Not rated Yes

Thanks to Washington's talented corps of upperclassmen and redshirt freshmen backups, UW should easily afford redshirt years for each of the three linebackers in its 2014 class. Should any have to play, Drew Lewis would probably be the first to see the field as he is the only freshman linebacker playing on scholarship, but there's little reason to think that such a scenario would come to pass thanks to the depth that now exists at the position.

Players to Watch

Travis Feeney

Travis Feeney, John Timu and Shaq Thompson have all shown that they can consistently play at the Pac-12 level, but as two-year starters, Timu and Shaq are inarguably better-known quantities than Feeney. How does Feeney react to losing his job as a sophomore? How will he (and his fellow players, for that matter) adjust to playing under the scheme of a new defensive coordinator and linebackers coach? Opposing offensive coordinators will surely try to exploit Washington's inexperienced secondary; how will the linebackers adjust to playing what will likely be a more important role in coverage than in years past? Feeney's level of play will have a major impact on how we grade Timu and Shaq's seasons come January.

Closing Thoughts

Washington's defense this year is considered to be one of the deepest and most talented units that it has fielded since the Rose Bowl-winning squad of the 2000 season, and the skill of the players at the linebacker position is a big reason why that is the case. All three projected starters come into 2014 with a great deal of starting experience (11, 32 and 25 starts for Feeney, Timu and Thompson, respectively), and what the backups lack in experience, they may very well make up for in size and talent. The unit's biggest concern, then, has to be injury. If any of the redshirt freshmen backups are forced into action prematurely, Washington's experience advantage goes out the window. Feeney is especially someone to be concerned about in this manner, as he sat out spring practices following offseason shoulder surgery. We already know that this unit's starters can play well together; whether or not they can do so from Aug. 30 through the bowl game will likely dictate whether Washington has a good defense, or an elite one.

My projected end-of-fall-camp depth chart:

OLB: Travis Feeney, Sean Constantine

ILB: John Timu, Azeem Victor

OLB: Shaq Thompson, Keishawn Bierria