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Spring Preview 2016: Linebackers

Washington loses two key pieces at linebacker from last season's Pac-12 leading defense. Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria are terrific pieces to build around, but the Huskies need to find outside 'backers to fill the vacancies left behind by the graduation of Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton.

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

2015 Year in Review:

Nobody was quite sure what to expect out of the linebacking crew last season. With three key players off to the NFL in BUCK Hau'oli Kikaha, Shaq Thompson and John Timu, this group was in rebuild mode. Travis Feeney was physically gifted and had shown flashes of greatness, but there were questions about whether he could play with greater consistency and stay healthy. Cory Littleton had starting experience and had also shown some playmaking ability, but could he elevate his game as a senior? Keishawn Bierria had gotten a lot of playing time as a RS-Fr backing up Thompson, and like nearly every young player he showed potential but needed to gain size, strength, and consistency. Finally there was the physically-imposing Azeem Victor - he had all the measurables you could ask for in a MLB but had only limited playing time up to that point, as he was behind Timu and Scott Lawyer on the depth chart.

Here's what we had to say about the unit heading into Fall Camp last year:

On paper it would be irresponsible to rate this unit as any better than middling in the Pac-12. There are far too many unknowns, even concerning the veteran players. The aforementioned BUCK situation and the pass-rush in general will be a huge question mark for this defense, and the linebackers will have to provide at least part of the answer.

After seemingly everyone on the defense got a look at filling Kikaha's shoes at BUCK, the staff settled on Feeney, thus making the position more of a mirror of the SAM position and less of a rush-end specialist. It fit Feeney's skills perfectly, and he flourished. With Feeney on one side and Littleton on the other, defenses were left guessing as to which of them was coming on a blitz and which one was dropping into coverage (or if both were blitzing or both were dropping back). Feeney racked up 8 sacks, 17.5 TFL, 3 forced fumbles and one fumble recovery while Littleton posted 6 sacks and 11 TFL. Bierria not only grew off the field (bulking up to 220 lbs), he showed growth on the field as he played with more consistency and ended up 2nd on the team in tackles. But the biggest revelation was Victor - he beat out Lawyer for the MLB job vacated by Timu and showed the kind of physical, athletic play at the position that hasn't been seen in Montlake since Lester Towns. Fast, strong and nasty, he's exactly what you'd draw up in a lab when designing the ideal MIK. At times he was too nasty, and found himself on the wrong end of a targeting call late vs. USC that forced him to sit out the first half the following week vs. Oregon, and a late unflagged hit vs. Cal drew the ire of Bears fans. But he was also one of the key cogs in the Pac-12's best defense as he led the team in tackles and had a memorable pick-6 vs. WSU.

The athleticism of this group was something that Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski took full advantage of - despite the widespread use of 11, 10, 01, and 00 personnel groupings on opposing offenses, there were usually at least three (if not all four) of them on the field, allowing Kwiatkowski to disguise coverages and rush schemes. Their ability to hold up in coverage meant they could stay on the field on all downs and discourage offenses from trying to catch the defense sleeping with running plays on passing downs. While a lot of factors enabled the 2015 defense to excel, the schematic flexibility of the linebacking group was one of the most important.

Who's Back, Who's New:

Here are the returning scholarship linebackers (not counting those listed at DL that may get looks at the BUCK position):

Psalm Wooching Sr* 6'4" 236 lbs
Keishawn Bierria Jr* 6'1" 220 lbs
Sean Constantine Jr* 6'2" 225 lbs
Connor O'Brien Jr* 6'3" 238 lbs
Azeem Victor Jr* 6'4" 240 lbs
Tevis Bartlett So 6'2" 218 lbs
Ben Burr-Kirven So 6'0" 201 lbs
D.J. Beavers Fr* 6'0" 211 lbs
Kyler Manu Fr* 6'1" 225 lbs
Jusstis Warren Fr* 6'1" 239 lbs

Victor and Bierria are the returning starters, but keep an eye on Tevis Bartlett and Ben Burr-Kirven, who both got extensive playing time as true freshman last year. Bartlett should be in the mix to fill the open spots at SAM and BUCK, while Burr-Kirven - despite being undersized - really turned heads with his play last year inside. Jusstis Warren has terrific size and speed and got the benefit of a redshirt, as did classmates D.J. Beavers and Kyler Manu. Psalm Wooching was the primary backup at BUCK last season and has the measurables but lacked consistency.  Sean Constantine was a backup at MIK, but he could face some challenges this Spring and Fall as he'll be pushed by the youngsters. Connor O'Brien got some action at BUCK, but like Constantine will need to stave off challenges from younger players.

And here are the incoming freshmen, neither of which will be enrolled for Spring:

Camilo Eifler Fr 6'2" 214 lbs
Brandon Wellington Fr 6'0" 215 lbs

They won't arrive until later in the Summer, but don't be surprised if both push for playing time during Fall Camp.

Storylines for 2016:

Who will win the OLB jobs?

Once again the Husky defense will have to replace both outside linebackers, including the all-important BUCK position.  Kikaha and Feeney were different styles of players - Kikaha was more of a DE/Rush-End used primarily to get after the QB, while Feeney was smaller but more athletic and used more like a traditional OLB. Wooching has the size that seems ideal for the position and was the main backup last year, but he was inconsistent. Will another year at the position allow him to flourish, or will Kwiatkowski look elsewhere? O'Brien flashed at times last year, but was 3rd on the depth - can he make a move up the chart? There has been a lot of talk about Benning Potoa'e as a BUCK by the coaching staff, so that position may revert to what it was with Kikaha in the role. At the other spot I'd expect Bartlett to get a long look.

Can Victor keep his composure?

There are no doubts about Victor's talent, and while he missed an assignment here or there, he was playing at an honors-level in his first season as a starter. The only real question is how well he can manage that fine line between playing with a serious edge and crossing the line into dirty play and risking getting tossed from games. If he can stay on the right side of that line, the sky is the limit for him. A big season is expected from him, and if things go as planned, don't be surprised if he ends up declaring early for the 2017 NFL Draft.

Where do the 2015 redshirts fit in?

While Bartlett and Burr-Kirven were simply too good to not play last year, the three that redshirted - Jusstis Warren, Kyler Manu and D.J. Beavers - are also good-looking young players. Warren has terrific size, and the question will be whether he slots in as the heir apparent at MIK or whether he's groomed for BUCK. Manu would appear to be an inside guy as well and could also be a factor backing up Victor. Beavers fits the mold of Bierria - a smaller, faster 'backer that seems ideal for the WIL spot.

How many helmets will Ben Burr-Kirven knock off opposing players?

Little was known about BBK when he entered the program - he didn't do the camp circuit as a recruit and didn't get a lot of recruiting hype, but he had an impressive highlight reel. Still, given his size everyone assumed he'd redshirt and spend the year getting bigger and stronger. But he just made play after play after play in practices, and despite his size he proved to be one of the biggest hitters on the team and an ideal player on kick coverage units. To the surprise of many he did not redshirt, and pretty quickly fans started asking "Who is that heat-seeking missile wearing #25?" He's one of those players for whom the cliché term "He's just a football player" was invented - he just makes plays despite his slight frame. It will be very interesting to see if he's been able to pack on more muscle this off-season and where the staff puts him.

Final Thoughts:

This will be another interesting Spring for this group - while there there's one less opening than last year at this time, those two spots are very important. We know Victor is a beast in the middle and Bierria is a dependable vet, but finding the right guys to fill the outside 'backer spots is crucial to the success of Kwiatkoski's defense. What's exciting is the young talent that's been accumulated and knowing that more is on the way in the Fall.