Before I start, I want to read you a bit of the story I wrote for 2017’s fall camp preview. Yes, I was up late and decided to get ahead on some of these articles.
Just like in 2015 and 2016, the 2017 Huskies will need to find players to replace their most productive pass rushers from the previous year. This season the Dawgs must fill the voids left by Joe Mathis and Psalm Wooching. 2016 saw the two seniors step up their game and do what Travis Feeney and Corey Littleton did the year before: Finish their Husky careers with big senior seasons after flashing glimpses of ability in the years before. Mathis led the Huskies with 10.5 sacks and Wooching tallied 8 of his own. And who can forget Mathis’ phenomenal barrel-roll and cartwheel on his way to sacking Luke Falk in the Apple Cup.
OK, that last part might be a tad ridiculous; there’s no way Falk is still healthy when the Apple Cup rolls around.
But the rest of it; doesn’t that sound about right? Unless my eyes have really deceived me over the past three years, there is a lot of talent on the Washington Huskies’ defense. Losing two of its better players at a position—on offense or defense—is something college football teams deal with heading into most seasons. Feeney and Littleton were really good and that is why they played a lot of snaps. Guys who play a lot of snaps at the outside linebacker/rush end position on a solid defense are going to make a lot of sacks and a lot of impact plays. Now those snaps are up for grabs.
This will probably come as a shock (sarcasm font): I don’t actually know that Mathis and Wooching will lead the Huskies in sacks this season.
I will even profess to have no inkling of who will be the top sack men for the UW in 2016. We really only think we know what the Husky defense will look like based on what it looked like a year ago. Feeney and Littleton are gone. The guys who replace their plentiful number of snaps and assignments may do so in a different capacity.
I am so intrigued by Elijah Qualls bulking up 10-20 pounds and possibly moving outside that my head is spinning wondering what happens with him. Likewise, Benning Potoa’e is a bigger, faster Joe Mathis. Less experienced for sure, but as a pass rusher his potential is as great as anyone's on the defense. There’s a very good chance one of the other new players emerges as a pass-rushing threat. Amandre Williams has been generating buzz in that respect since he enrolled early last spring. Camilo Eifler will be worked in slowly in all likelihood, but his impact as a true freshman seems imminent. Redshirt linebackers Jusstis Warren and D.J. Beavers can get after the quarterback, whether they move outside or fill in behind Azeem Victor, Keishawn Bierria, and Ben Burr-Kirven.
Speaking of the inside linebacking unit, why not just choose one of them to lead the team in sacks? This year we will get to see an experienced Azeem Victor roam the field. I know they really like him in coverage, but when he shoots through the middle and goes after the QB? Somebody’s getting up woozy. Don’t sleep on Keishawn Bierria moving to an outside rusher on some plays. At the WIL position so far he has impressed as run stopper and coverage linebacker, but again; the front seven and specifically the linebackers may not have all the same responsibilities.
Redshirt Bryce Sterk, greyshirt Myles Rice, and true frosh Brandon Wellington are in the mix. I didn’t even mention a likely ‘true’ replacement for Littleton or Feeney: the uber-athletic Tevis Bartlett, who is the odds-on favorite to begin the season as UW’s starting SAM linebacker.
Bottom line: If you are worried about where the Huskies will get their pass rush this season, I have this advice: just don’t worry. Worry about the O-Line; worry about the receivers; worry about the #2 quarterback situation; worry about Jonathan Smith; worry about the helmet color; worry about how many fans are getting loaded in The Zone at kickoff.
If the future is anything like the recent past, the pass rush will be excellent, and we’ll all be saying "What the hell were we worried about?"