Key Losses: Travis Feeney (BUCK), Cory Littleton (OLB)
Key Additions: Camilo Eifler (OLB), Brandon Wellington (OLB), Amandre Williams (BUCK)
Before we dive into how the linebackers will perform in 2016, it's important to know how good they were last year. Having to replace superstar Shaq Thompson, and MLB stalwart John Timu, few expected the season they went on to have. All they did was rank in the top 20 nationally in rush defense, limiting opponents to under 3.5 yards per carry, and 125 yards per game total. No doubt the defensive line helped here, but the play of the linebackers was integral. We also know how much S&P liked the Husky defense, and the play of Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria in the middle gave the unit a stoutness it hadn't seen in years.
There's a lot of talent in this unit. I don't think Husky fans had been as excited for years about a linebacker in the program like Azeem Victor. He was a lowly rated 2-star recruit but had size and speed that was mouthwatering. Plus, he could hit. He waited paitently for 3 seasons until he was ready to assume the MLB spot, and he did not disappoint. When he was in the game, he was a brick wall that opposing running backs had to run through (or rather, didn't run through). He brought a presence, and an edge to the defense on every snap, every series. When he stepped off the field for a drive, you could feel it - the pads weren't popping quite as much, and the defense's spine wasn't as strong. That said, he was suspended for the first half of the Oregon game, and his backup Ben Burr-Kirven filled in admirably.
Then there's Kieshawn "the spread killer" Bierria. He was brought in 3 years ago by Sarkisian's staff to be that speedy sideline-to-sideline linebacker built to stop hurry-up, spread teams. He's taken to that role, but also bulked up to 220 pounds, and moved inside, making him more than the 3rd down option he was brought in to be. He's taken over Shaq Thompson's #7 jersey with distinction. Together with Victor, he anchors the middle of the defense and brings speed to the middle of the field.
Bierria and Victor are the stars, but who else is there? Joe Mathis is the next name that comes to mind. After playing DE his first 3 years here, the coaches moved him to the OLB "BUCK" position for his final season. In terms of replacing Feeney, there's a lot of intrigue here. For one, he's much bigger than Feeney, who struggled to stay around 230 pounds. Mathis is 260, so we should expect him to hold up better vs the run (though Feeney was not bad in this regard). His challenge could definitely come when he'll be asked to drop back and cover. Playing DE you don't get that chance often, and Feeney--playing both safety and linebacker during his time here--had plenty of reps in pass defense. Either way, because of Mathis's ability to rush the QB, I expect the coaches to put less coverage responsibilities on him and more pass rushing. With the strength of the secondary, this makes sense.
Flanking Mathis will be OLB Psalm Wooching, the fire-spitting former fullback from Hawaii. He brings some serious passion and intensity to this team, and seems to do his job well at linebacker. Having so little experience in the postion speaks to his athleticism and physicality that he was able to slot in easily. I don't expect huge numbers from him this year like I do for Bierria, Victor, and Mathis, but this defense plays together, and for each other, so I expect him to fit in well. Backing up Wooching is Tevis Bartlett, a player whose role I expect to grow this season. He played special teams and got some reps on the defense, and like Burr-Kirven, showed up very well for a true freshman.
Speaking of freshmen, the two incoming players--Camilo Eifler and Brandon Wellington--are bonafide blue-chippers, ranking in the top 100 nationally, regardless of position. It's really hard to project if they'll play much this season, considering the talent and depth at the linebacker position, but I wouldn't be surprised if they see the field. For all of Eifler's gifts, he only started playing football a few years ago, so who knows how he'll take initially to the speed of the college game and depth of the playbooks.
The Verdict: Better. If we look only at the rush defense contributed by linebackers, I think they will improve vastly on last year. Joe Mathis brings a much bigger (literally) presence to the group, which will allow him to set the edge better against the run. Victor and Bierria were both first-year starters last season, and are entering their 4th years in the program--they should improve with that maturity. There's good depth with backups like Bartlett, Burr-Kirven, Sean Constantine, and Connor O'Brien, and the coaches have proven they are able to get backups ready for meaningful game time without much dropoff. I expect big things from the linebackers this year, and am having a hard time coming up with any reasons why they won't be at least as good. Drop a comment below and poke holes in my argument.