Key departures on the defensive side of the ball has been one of the biggest talking points of the off-season for Huskies fans. Stars Elijah Qualls, Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Kevin King all departed this off-season for the NFL.
While the staff will be faced with replacing some of UW’s most productive defensive players in the last ten plus years, they can take comfort in the fact that the linebacker position group is one of the deepest on the team. Despite departures of Joe Mathis and Psalm Wooching, the Huskies currently list 17 scholarship linebackers on the roster, 9 of whom saw varying amounts of playing times last year including seniors Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria.
Victor and Bierria will be the leaders of the Huskies linebacker core, and anchors of the defense as a whole. Pac-12 analyst Yogi Roth declared the duo to be the “best in the country” during Pac-12 media day. While it may be fair to say Roth’s comment is a bit of hyperbole, they are certainly a force to be reckoned with. The two combined for 137 total tackles last season, a number that certainly would have been higher had Victor not suffered a season-ending injury against USC towards the end of last season.
The Huskies also have two other senior linebackers on the roster this season in Connor O’Brien and Sean Constantine. O’Brien started seven games last season and recorded 35 total tackles, while Constantine is back after missing all of last season due to a broken ankle he suffered in fall camp. O’Brien proved himself to be a solid, if somewhat limited contributor last season, and Constantine adds depth and experience to an already deep and experienced position group.
The biggest story line to watch for this group heading into the beginning of the season will be who fills the spots of Mathis’ and Wooching’s aforementioned departures on the outside. The duo combined for 11 sacks last season, (Mathis was limited to seven games before suffering a season ending foot injury) and their production will need to be replaced.
Sophomores Benning Potoa’e and Justiss Warren, along with O’Brien will compete during camp and possibly early into the season for the right to start at the BUCK position. In his latest podcast, Adam Jude of the Seattle Times mentioned that Potoa’e has spent more time this camp with his hand on the ground than he has ever seen, leading fans and media members to speculate whether the Lakes High School product may convert to a more traditional defensive end. While it is certainly not outside the realm of possibility for Potoa’e to convert to the defensive line, our own Chris Landon has pointed out that former Huskies great Hau'oli Kikaha spent the majority of his time at the BUCK position with his hand in the ground during his senior year. Potoa’e is the likely front runner to start at BUCK for the Huskies this season. According to the Tacoma News Tribune’s Todd Miles, Warren has seen action with the number two defense at the BUCK position so far in camp.
Two young players who may also work their way into some playing time at the BUCK position this season are redshirt freshman Myles Rice and sophomore Bryce Sterk. Sterk, from Lynden, played in just two games last season but is listed at 6’4 and 246 pounds and would provide good length at the position. Rice, for his part, is coming off a redshirt year and is pretty new to football but the combination of his size (6’3” and 240 pounds) and athleticism may make it hard for the coaching staff to keep him off the field this year.
For Wooching’s vacated spot, Tevis Bartlett looks like the favorite to start at SAM. That being said, there’s also been rumors that Potoa’e has been working out at SAM as well which, at 6’3” 280 pounds, would be one huge strong-side linebacker. There’s also been some people saying Bartlett’s been moved to BUCK and him competing with O’Brien while Potoa’e takes over at SAM. Either way, with the BUCK and SAM being, in DC Pete Kwiatkowski’s words, somewhat “interchangeable” in the Dawgs’ scheme, the best outside linebackers will get on the field one way or another.
Improving this unit is a host of young players who add a tremendous amount of depth to the two deeps. Sophomore DJ Beavers started in four games last year, including the Apple Cup where he recorded four tackles, an interception, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble. He will likely battle with Constantine for the back up inside linebacker spots. Additionally, Sophomores Brandon Wellington and Kyler Manu will provide depth for the Huskies in 2017.
In sum, it’s hard not to look at this group and be excited for what they’re able to accomplish this season. They look poised to be the deepest position group, as a whole, on the defensive side of the ball, and could very well end up being the Huskies’ most dominant position group this season.