Tackles are an interesting statistic in football. Like so many others in the sport, it's one that is highly influenced by scheme and by team play. When things are going as planned, you can expect your linemen to occupy blockers and clear room for the linebackers to make plays. It used to be that if you saw players in the secondary among your leading tacklers, that was perhaps a bad sign that too many pass plays were finding success against you, or too many running plays were hitting the second level. With the evolution of offensive football with the ever-increasing emphasis on passing and spreading the field, having a safety among your leading tacklers doesn't carry the same potentially negative connotations.
Scheme obviously plays a big role - if the linemen all have 2-gap responsibility, that increases the likelihood that it will be the linebackers that make the tackle. If you run a 4-2-5, then it obviously increases the chances your safety closest to the LOS and middle of the field will rack up tackles. In typical 4-3 schemes, your weakside or WIL LB is often going to be the guy that will have the most opportunities to make the tackle.
Health and a secure hold on a starting position also obviously play a major role. If you're out 3 games due to injury, that's probably going to knock you out of the running. And if you aren't a 3-down guy - if you're getting pulled on certain down & distance situations - that obviously reduces your chances.
So which guys look to be the leading candidates on the Husky defense to top this statistic? Given the youth and inexperience in the secondary, I'm going with the three presumed starters at LB:
Option #1 - MLB John Timu (RS-Sr)
Timu was 3rd on the team in tackles last year with 77, just 1 behind Shaq Thompson and 3 behind the graduated Princeton Fuimaono. The year before he led the team with 91 tackles (14 more than the next leading tackler). Timu has improved significantly since earning a starting job as a
RS-Fr true freshman in 2011; he's got the size to man the middle, but enough athleticism to be adequate in coverage. On obvious passing downs he's the most at-risk to be subbed-out for a DB, so he's probably not going to get the most snaps among the LB crew.
Timu has a lock on the starting job, but keep an eye out for RS-Fr Azeem Victor - he's a physical specimen at 6'3", 244 lbs. He's still learning the nuances of the college game, but he's flashed a lot of ability in camp and you have to figure LB coach Bob Gregory will be looking for opportunities to get his younger guys some reps so they're ready in 2015.
Reasons for: Proven production; durable; smart, Sr leadership
Reasons against: Will probably get lifted on some obvious passing downs
Option #2 - WIL Shaq Thompson (Jr)
I'm listing Shaq as a weakside 'backer, but the reality is that things were simplified last year so that alignments were typically left/right rather than weakside/strongside in an effort to allow the defense to deal with hurry-up offenses. It's not entirely clear yet if DC Pete Kwiatkowski is following a similar approach, so we'll go with the traditional designation.
I probably don't need to remind you of what Shaq brings to the table. He's probably the most impressive athlete on the defense (and arguably the team), bringing great speed and agility within a 6'1", 228 lb frame. He's one of the better LB's in coverage that you'll find, and his speed allows him to make a ton of plays in pursuit. He's got the agility and strength to be terrific in space, and he's looked good the few times he's been unleashed on a blitz. Shaq finished 2nd on the team last year with 78 tackles and was 5th as a true freshman in 2012.
Like Timu, Shaq has a lock on the starting job, though if he does end up getting some looks on offense, that might impact the number of plays he's in for on defense in order to keep him fresh.
Reasons for: Proven production; best athlete on the defense; his role typically is in position to make the most tackles
Reasons against: Might need to take some plays off on defense if he ends up getting some looks at RB
Option #3 - SAM Travis Feeney (RS-Jr)
When Justin Wilcox arrived as the DC in 2012, he brought with him an emphasis on finding long, athletic players that can play in space and counter the rise of spread offenses. Feeney was a key example of this shift in emphasis, and he was moved up from his safety position and installed at LB. Long and lean at 6'4", 218 lbs, Feeney belies his wiry frame with a ferocious style of play and a knack for big hits. His issues have revolved around consistency and staying healthy. He's battled shoulder issues as a Husky (which has no doubt hampered his ability to bulk up) and after starting as a RS-Fr in 2012, he found himself passed up by Fuimaono last year.
After rehabbing the shoulder this spring, Feeney has returned and reclaimed his starting job. With another year of experience under his belt, the hope is he continues to improve his consistency and play assignment-sound football. He's an asset in coverage and has the athleticism and size to shorten the field and thrive against spread offenses. The main questions are how well he can hold up physically.
While Feeney appears to have a starting job locked up, keep an eye on RS-Fr. Keishawn Bierria - coaches have consistently singled him out for praise in the Spring and Fall and he's gotten some quality reps with the ones. It also appears as though things are starting to click for fellow RS-Fr. Connor O'Brien and Sean Constantine as both have had good days in the last couple of scrimmages. We might also see Jr. Cory Littleton out there in a true LB role at times as the staff has experimented with moving him around.
Reasons for: Terrific athlete, built to defend against spread offenses
Reasons against: Possible durability issues; may cede some snaps to the younger guys at times
The Verdict: John Timu
This is a tough one to call. I think the two likeliest candidates are Timu and Shaq, and you can really flip a coin between them. But it could also end up being one of the new safeties, or it could be Hau'oli Kikaha as his new BUCK LB/DE position might give him more opportunities. He was already among the leading tacklers last year with 70.
But I'll go with Timu on the basis that he might end up with more defensive snaps than Thompson.
What say you?