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Washington Spring Preview 2015: Linebackers

We continue our 2015 spring position previews with the linebackers, where Shaq Thompson and John Timu's departures loom large.

Travis Feeney is the lone returning starting LB
Travis Feeney is the lone returning starting LB
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

2014 Year in Review

Here's what I said in my linebacker preview heading into the 2014 season:

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.

As I (and anyone else with a set of working eyeballs) predicted, Washington's linebacker group was one of the best in the conference, and perhaps the nation. Thanks to a third-year captain in John Timu, a pass-rushing monster in BUCK linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha, and a prototypical all-everything football player in Shaq Thompson, Washington rode the sheer level of its players' talents to victory time and time again. Thompson himself was responsible for four defensive scores in the form of one pick-six and three fumble returns for touchdowns; Timu added a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns himself; and Travis Feeney used the length of his arms to secure a pick-six of his own against Colorado.

When they weren't scoring, UW's linebackers were doing a hell of a job of applying pressure to opposing quarterbacks. Kikaha finished the season with the most sacks in the country and as the program's all-time career leader in sacks, and Feeney, Thompson and Cory Littleton each got in on the action by adding a sack of their own. Finally, Washington's LBs were responsible for 10 of the team's 18 forced fumbles. In other words, this was a supremely talented group whose contributions will be virtually impossible to replicate in 2015.

Players Lost/Players Returning

No. Name Position Year Height Weight
10 John Timu ILB Sr 6-1 246
8 Hau'oli Kikaha BUCK Sr 6-3 246
7 Shaq Thompson OLB Jr 6-1 228
41 Travis Feeney OLB Sr 6-4 218
47 Scott Lawyer ILB Sr 6-2 225
42 Cory Littleton OLB Sr 6-3 229
28 Psalm Wooching BUCK Jr 6-4 225
25 Keishawn Bierria OLB So 6-1 221
34 Sean Constantine OLB So 6-2 224
29 Connor O'Brien ILB So 6-3 238
36 Azeem Victor ILB So 6-3 244
16 Drew Lewis OLB RFr 6-2 189
54 Matt Preston OLB RFr 6-2 199
53 Jake Wambaugh ILB RFr 6-1 206

Storylines to Watch

Are the Big Bruisers up to the Task?
As you've probably heard, Travis Feeney is the only returning starter among the defensive front-seven, making it critical for the coaching staff to establish a solid two-deep of linebackers and defensive lineman this spring. Especially at middle linebacker, a player like Victor who came into school with a high recruiting profile has the chance to grab hold of the starting role for the next three seasons. UW's linebacker roster is long on height but short on heavy hitters, making it all the more imperative for a thumper like Victor to prove he's ready for what will be asked of him.

Who's Gonna Get BUCK Nasty?
After four years of playing defensive end for UW, many observers were surprised to notice Hau'oli Kikaha's move from that position to that of the BUCK linebacker role in the fall. Fortunately for those skeptical of the switch, Kikaha turned in one of the best seasons ever for a UW defensive player, tallying a nationwide-best 19.0 sacks and second-best 25.0 tackles for loss. His primary backups were Jarett Finau and Psalm Wooching; will either of them seize Kikaha's vacated role, or will that honor go to another young player?

Life After the Shaq Attack
Let's face it: You don't lose a player like Shaq Thompson to the NFL draft without missing a beat. Therefore, the question of how much his absence is noted is one of severity: Will Husky fans lament that Shaq's departure means that his replacement only scores two defensive touchdowns in 2015 instead of four, or does it mean that his position will become a revolving door for players who can only reach a fraction of the success he did? Only time will tell, but look to players like Keishawn Bierria, Sean Constantine and Cory Littleton to fill in the gaps and try to keep UW fans from missing Shaq more than they already will.

Freshmen Arriving in the Fall

Name Position Height Weight
Tevis Bartlett OLB 6-2 218
DJ Beavers OLB 6-0 202
Ben Burr-Kirven OLB 6-1 202
Kyler Manu ILB 6-1 224
Jusstis Warren ILB 6-2 226