For a defense that markets itself as “Death Row,” it only seems appropriate that its best player be regarded as a “marked man.”
Azeem Victor, UW’s 6-4 and 232 lb. middle linebacker who has been listed atop the depth chart in 15 of his 26 career games, earned that reputation primarily for two plays last season: The first for what many Cal fans describe as an uncalled dirty hit on Kenny Lawler, and the second for what the referees determined to be his commitment of a targeting penalty against Cody Kessler in the fourth quarter of last year’s victory over USC. That ejection left Victor unavailable to play in the first half of Washington’s game the following week against Oregon, a close contest in Seattle that the Huskies lost 26-20.
“[Victor] knows he’s going to be a little bit of a marked man,” UW linebackers coach Bob Gregory said to Adam Jude of The Seattle Times following the USC game. “And that’s just college football these days. We cannot hit the quarterback, or anybody, above the neck line. We have to target and target low. That’s just the way it is.”
Washington’s 2015 defense acquired a reputation for being both stingy and physical, yielding just 18.8 points yielded per game (11th among Power 5 teams and first in the Pac-12) and only 4.9 yards per play; those numbers ranked 11th and 16th among Power 5 teams, respectively, and both were first in the Pac-12. And though safety Budda Baker and cornerback Sidney Jones became household names throughout the Pac-12 by earning first-team all-conference recognition, no one player embodies the defense’s philosophy of jealously guarding every yard on the field as much as Victor, who earned an all-conference honorable mention nod for his play.
Foremost among Victor’s strengths is his ability to recognize plays and put himself in a position to attack the ball. That instinct allowed him to make 59 solo/95 total tackles last season, both of which led the Huskies, and it is what put him into a position to sack Kessler on the very first play from scrimmage of last year’s USC game.
In addition, Victor possess terrifying speed for a man of his size. That aspect of his game was best on exhibition last season when a breakdown in Arizona State’s offensive line assignments allowed Victor an unblocked path to quarterback Mike Bercovici, who barely got the ball out Victor took him to the ground.
Perhaps no play from 2015 illustrates Victor’s cerebral qualities better than his hit on Oregon State quarterback Nick Mitchell that resulted in a fumble recovered by Sidney Jones. Victor smartly stays upfield to guard against Mitchell’s receiving options, and waits for the him to commit to scrambling before launching a devastating hit that resulted in a turnover.
Finally, in last year’s Apple Cup, Victor showed that a hard-hitting middle linebacker can also possess soft hands by securing his first career interception, which he promptly returned to Washington’s end zone for six points.
This season, Victor will again look to lead Washington’s defense in tackles, and will likely be near the conference’s lead in that category. While he may not secure the highest draft pick of any member of the Husky defense when he eventually goes to the NFL, make no mistake: Washington’s punishing defense is a direct reflection of Victor’s high motor and tenacity. As the defense’s heart and soul, he is an easy pick as Washington’s most unstoppable defender.
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