Spring football will be upon us in about two weeks.
That’s right. Two weeks.
(Ok, relax. Take a breath. No need to hyperventilate. The ‘Pound has you covered).
As is our tradition, we will be previewing each of the position groupings heading into the spring practices. Today we begin with the Linebackers.
If you are like many Husky fans, odds are that you looked at the UW linebacking corps as the third most impactful group among the three position groupings on a defense that, by most statistical measures, was one of the best in the nation.
Given the context that we are speaking of - UW was 8th in the Football Outsiders Defensive S&P in 2016 - third may not be such a big deal. However, there is a pretty good chance that the 2017 Linebacking corps might emerge as the strength of the defense. Spring ball will give us a glimpse into that potential.
2016 in Review
A whole lot happened with this linebacking corps last season. Let’s see if I can put this in terms and brevity that would hold the interest of my 10 year old.
UW opened the season hungry....
...we realized very quickly that Azeem Victor was going to have a monster season...
...Keishawn Bierria emerged as a leader and one of the most productive guys on the roster ...
...the entire linebacking corps had a coming out party in UW’s blowout of Stanford...
...Psalm Wooching and Joe Mathis created their own pass rush early in the season...
...Jojo got hurt...
...so did Azeem...
...young players like DJ Beavers, Ben Burr-Kirven and Connor O’Brien had their moments, but not enough...
...and then the Peach Bowl saw a record-setting RB run wild on the Husky backers.
That’s about it in a nutshell. It was really a great year for the Husky linebackers, even if their developed depth wasn’t enough to get through the injuries to Mathis, Victor and, later, Connor O’Brien.
The bright side is that the young Huskies - Burr-Kirven and Beavers, in particular - got valuable experience and demonstrated that they could take on significant responsibility for the Husky D. As we turn the corner looking towards 2017, that experience will surely play huge dividends.
Returners and newbies
Here is a look at the linebackers who will be participating in spring practices.
I’ve included in this list all of the linebackers and outside linebackers listed on the roster, even if some of those players (e.g. Potoa’e) will primarily be suited for the rush end / buck role in Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense. We’ll be addressing those players in the defensive line preview.
The first thing that you’ll notice with this group going into the spring is the depth of experience that exists across the roster. Because of how handily UW won many of their games last season, players like Burr-Kirven, Beavers, Bartlett, Brandon Wellington, Benning Potoa’e and Kyler Manu were able to get time - many of them logging substantial reps throughout the season. That experience sets up a real competition this spring.
The next thing that jumps out from the list is how similar in size and stature many of the players - in particular the “true” linebackers - are. UW coaches have recruited to a certain standard of versatility that, not surprisingly, results in a lot of players who look similar to one another occupying depth chart roles. Petersen and Kwiatkowski have a lot of bodies to work with and have the luxury of doing some experimental mixing and matching over the next six weeks.
The spring time storylines
How does Azeem look?
It was November 12 - in that disaster against USC - when the Huskies D lost their emotional captain. Victor, who along with Bierria gave UW two all-conference linebackers, has been working to get back on the field and appears set to participate in spring practice.
But how will the Husky senior look? Will he participate in full contact? Will his emotional edge be on full display?
We all know that a healthy and motivated Victor is a critical ingredient in UW’s recipe for dominating defense. All eyes will be on #36.
Who wants to rush the QB?
The tandem of Joe Mathis and Psalm Wooching created a surprisingly effective pass rush for UW early in 2016. The Mathis injury created a challenge and forced UW to adopt by both accelerating the development of freshman Benning Potoa’e and implementing a more aggressive blitz scheme than what we had seen early in the season.
This spring, UW will be looking to see which of their young players will step into the role of outside backer / pass rusher. The prime candidates are Tevis Bartlett (let’s just assume Potoa’e plays the role of a Hau’oli Kikaha style BUCK) and Connor O’Brien. But could there be a few surprises in the mix? There are no clear answers with the options that Kwiatkowski has. I’ll be curious to see if players emerge or if something more resembling a traditional 4-3 defense emerges as a philosophical option for the UW defensive coordinator.
Who are the next young players up?
The Huskies have been stockpiling exciting linebacking talent over the past three recruiting cycles. Some of those players have an opportunity to make their mark - Beavers, Burr-Kirven, Bartlett - and have UW fans excited about what their next steps look like. Others - Myles Rice, Jusstis Warren, Amandre Williams, Camilo Eifler and Brandon Wellington - offer tantalizing potential but have not done much in the plain view of the hopeful public. This is a big spring for each of those players as they work to define their roles, if there are to be any, going into the fall.
The big finish
It is a challenge previewing UW linebackers in the spring. First, you never know exactly where to draw the line between defensive lineman and linebackers. Second, UW has shown a bold willingness to morph roles and positional rotations liberally over the course of a season.
Nevertheless, it is hard to argue that this isn’t the deepest, most diverse and experienced linebacking corps that UW has had going into a Chris Petersen spring camp. In fact, it might hold that title across the reigns of both Steve Sarkisian and Tyrone Willingham. There is a tremendous amount of potential reinforcing a core of exceptionally proven players. How all of this gets assembled this spring will go a long way in determining if this particular position group has the potential to be the strength of the UW defense in 2017.