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2014 Football Review: Linebackers

An experienced crew of linebackers behind a talented defensive line helped the 2014 Husky defense mitigate the growing pains of a young secondary. But the end result was a defensive unit that still ranked as somewhere between good and average, and the LB group reflected that uncertainty.

Jr. LB Shaq Thompson had a huge season
Jr. LB Shaq Thompson had a huge season
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Our latest installment of the 2014 season takes a look at the linebackers, a unit that boasted a lot of experience, intriguing athleticism and a star-making season from one of the most highly-decorated football recruits in Husky history.  Here's what Ryan had to say about the group heading into fall camp:

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.

As it turned out this group stayed healthy throughout the season and performed roughly as expected.  But despite a breakout season from Shaq Thompson, the steady play of senior John Timu and the flashes of big plays from Travis Feeney, this was a group that did not rise to the level of an elite unit; perhaps that is an unfair bar to apply given that aside from Shaq, these guys were not considered elite recruits.

2014 In Review:

From the moment Shaq committed to the Huskies at the end of January in 2012, expectations for the 5-star recruit have been sky-high.  Projected as a safety out of high school, he was placed at a hybrid OLB/rover position by then-DC Justin Wilcox where his superior athleticism and good size could be used as a weapon against the growing number of spread offenses the Huskies face.  During his first two seasons you could see the talent he possessed and his big-play ability, and he was rewarded with honorable-mention All Pac-12 status both years.  Still, there was a sense that his play on the field hadn't quite reached the level of his hype.  That all changed this year in his Junior season as he emerged as arguably the most dynamic play-maker on defense in the country in 2014, returning one interception for a TD and an amazing three scoop-and-score fumble returns for touchdowns.  Oh, and he also stepped in mid-season to play some RB for the Huskies and scored another 2 touchdowns on his 61 carries for 456 yards (7.5 ypc) proving himself as the best running back on the roster and sparking a major debate about which side of the ball he should focus on.  That all-around ability garnered him the 2014 Paul Hornung Award honoring the nation's most versatile player, and his play at LB earned him All-American status from ESPN, CBS Sports, and SBNation.  He was also voted All Pac-12 1st team as both a LB and the specially-created "All-Purpose" position to recognize his all-around performance in 2014.  He also was a finalist for the Butkus Award (nation's best linebacker) and Walter Camp Award (top player in the country).

RS-Sr. John Timu in a sense was a proxy for the linebacking crew in 2014.  In many respects he had a very good season, leading the team in tackles, passes defensed and pass break ups and collecting 2 interceptions.  And yet in watching him, he was a guy that didn't always take great angles to the ball, didn't fill his gap or struggled to get off of blocks, and could get overpowered.  Some of the defining memories of him from the past season were the near-interceptions he couldn't quite secure and the missed-opportunities they represented to change the course of those games.  He was at his best a good player and provided valuable experience and leadership, qualities that won't be easy to replace.  But despite significant growth from his freshman year (both physically and in his performance), he unfortunately didn't quite reach the level of past greats like Dave Hoffman, Tim Meamber or Michael Jackson.

It was another up and down year for RS-Jr. Travis Feeney.  The lanky OLB has always possessed big-play ability, showcasing a hard-hitting approach and good speed that has enabled him to record 15.5 TFL so far in his career.  And yet he hasn't been able to fully win over the trust of two different coaching staffs - he's started 20 of his 40 games as a Husky.  Despite being a converted safety, his coverage skills are just OK, and too often he's found himself freelancing and out of position.

The yin to Feeney's yang was RS-Fr Keishawn Bierria who stepped in to start the opener at Hawai'i in place of Feeney and garnered starting nods during Shaq's mid-season stint at RB.  The smallest and least-heralded of a strong LB class in 2013, Bierria worked hard in the weight room and was the first of the group to earn significant playing time.  While he lacks Feeney's length and big-hitter rep, he has also impressed the coaching staff enough to trust him to execute his assignments.

The other beneficiary of Feeney's inconsistency was Jr. Cory Littleton who picked up four starts at OLB after spending all of last season as a starter at DE.  While a bit undersized as a true DE, he has the length and athleticism to play any of the OLB roles on the team.  He's at his best rushing the QB off the edge, but he has enough quickness and skill to cover the underneath zones and not embarrass himself.

2014 Key Statistics:

Name Tackles TFL Sacks Int PD FF
John Timu (RS-Sr) 108 1.5 0 2 12 1
Shaq Thompson (Jr) 81 2.5 1 1 5 3
Travis Feeney (RS-Jr) 60 4.5 1 2 5 1
Cory Littleton (Jr) 37 3.5 1 0 2 1
Keishawn Bierria (RS-Fr) 35 3 1 0 0 0
Scott Lawyer (RS-Jr) 20 1 0 0 0 1

Looking Ahead to 2015:

While the losses aren't quite as severe as on the DL or OL, the LB group will take a big hit with the graduation of Timu and the early entry to the NFL by Shaq.  Dynamic play-makers like Shaq are rare, and Timu provided needed size and veteran leadership in the middle.

Feeney will have two main tasks this off-season - improve his size and strength, and gain some consistency in executing his assignments.  He has the physical tools to be a plus-player for the Huskies and the kind of LB that provides the flexibility to defend the variety of different spread looks they will see in the conference.  A big senior campaign would not just help this unit mitigate the losses of Shaq and Timu, it could potentially catapult Feeney into considerations for the late rounds of the NFL draft.  Bierria will look to build on the experience he gained in 2014.  While he took his lumps and was overpowered and out of position more than you'd like, he should be able to learn from it and grow into a key player for the defense over the next three years.  Littleton appears certain to be another key player for the Huskies in 2015, but whether that's at Feeney's OLB spot or replacing the graduated Hau'oli Kikaha at BUCK remains to be seen.  Either way, his length and speed will be counted on to help provide the 2015 defense a pass-rushing threat in the absence of Kikaha and Andrew Hudson.

Lawyer would appear to have the edge in the competition to replace Timu, but keep an eye on RS-Fr Azeem Victor.  He's a specimen already at 6'3", 244 lbs; the next step will be earning the trust of the coaching staff to make the right calls from the MLB position and execute his assignments.  He has the potential to be a standout, and this will be a great opportunity for him to make his claim as a starter.

The other LBs from the 2013 class - Connor O'Brien and Sean Constantine - saw action mainly on special teams.  Both have the size you like to see at the position, and as 3rd year players heading into next season, this is the time for both to stake their claim on the depth charts or risk seeing themselves get passed up by the incoming freshmen as the Huskies appear set to sign five in February.