The Washington Huskies’ football program under coach Chris Petersen has elevated to the level of “perennial conference champion contenders.” When that’s the case, fans needn’t really worry about which players are gone; instead there’s a level excitement over who is still here, and which new players will to lay claim to the roles left vacated by the departed stars.
At no position is this more true than linebacker. The nation’s leading tackler Ben Burr-Kirven and three-year starter Tevis Bartlett are gone. An injury to the most experienced returning linebacker, D.J. Beavers, will keep him out of spring practice and puts his Husky future in doubt.
Good. You shouldn’t be.
UW Athletics Spring Roster: Inside Linebackers
|Miki Ah You
UW Athletics Spring Roster: Outside Linebackers
Wait, Who’s Outside?
This whole Inside/Outside thing is kind of misleading. First, there’s going to be a lot of plug and play with many of these guys. Players will get reps at multiple positions in an effort to get the best players on the field come fall. That’s pretty much always the case. Secondly, a large portion of this group breaks down into two different types of player. You’ve got the roughly 225-lb fast guys (of which there are eight), and the 265-lb guys (of which there are three). The interesting part is that the big fellas are on the outside and the smaller players are inside.
Most of the smaller linebackers will take on the role of inside run stopper with underneath zone responsibility. These players need to be fast and instinctive. Also in the group of smaller linebackers, the Huskies will hope to develop an outside speed pass rusher or two. Look for Ariel Ngata and Edefuan “Eddie” Ulofoshio to have their chance to shine in that area.
Ryan Bowman and Joe Tryon figure to be the big bodies on the outside playing a defensive end position like we saw from Benning Potoa’e the past couple of seasons (Potoa’e has officially been listed as a defensive lineman for 2019). Redshirt freshman Zion Tupuola-Fetui (ZTF—great potential nickname) fits the mold to be groomed for this type of role as well.
Tackles for the Taking
Since Petersen arrived in 2014, the Husky middle linebacker position has averaged 121 tackles per season, with John Timu, Azeem Victor, and Burr-Kirven patrolling the middle over the past five seasons. This year someone will step into the middle linebacker position, and he will be making a ton of tackles.
It’s hard to believe that Brandon Wellington is already a senior. He played in every game as a true freshman, albeit on special teams and in mop-up duty. As a sophomore, Wellington played in 11 games before injuring his ACL leading up to the Fiesta Bowl. The rehab from that injury caused him to miss the first four games of 2018, but he returned to full strength by season’s end, starting the Pac-12 Championship game as well as the Rose Bowl. He now is the heir apparent to the UW tackling crown.
Among other players who will contend for playing time inside are redshirt frosh Jackson Sirmon and true freshman Josh Calvert. Sirmon looks the part of a Tevis Bartlett with his size and strength. Calvert arrives in time to get in a full spring with the team and has been pegged by many as “ready to play right away.”
As it stands now, the other inside linebacker spot belongs to senior Kyler Manu, but his fit on this defense is a little hard to pinpoint. He’s not one of the smaller, faster players, nor does he weigh in around 270. Regardless, he does bring experience at a number of the linebacker spots. While I do expect one (or more) of the younger guys to leap Manu on the depth chart, he is someone that the coaches can count on knowing multiple roles in the Husky defensive scheme.
Getting to the Quarterback
Pass rush has been a hot-button topic for Husky fans for a few years. The Dawgs don’t blitz often, nor do they have that one guy that can get after the passer on every down. Tryon and Bowman seem like the most natural pass rushers that UW has in terms of big-bodied defensive end-types. Ngata has that long and lean Travis Feeney body, and the great explosion that the Huskies are hoping to see develop into a terrifying outside pass rusher. The way the UW defense has been built, different guys will get their chance to rush the passer, whether it’s an outside/inside twist or that rare extra man coming up the middle. There are a lot of really good athletes at this position now, and we should expect to see the four-man rush (which always includes at least one LB) get home more often.
Best Guess at Depth:
There is so much fluidity with the UW defense that it’s hard to nail down set positions or starters, other than the middle linebacker, so a depth chart is hard to calculate. Out of the spring participants, here’s a guess at who I expect to see on the field this season.
Plays most of the time:
Joe Tryon, Ryan Bowman, Ariel Ngata, Jackson Sirmon
Josh Calvert, M.J. Tafisi, Eddie Ulofoshio
With five redshirt freshmen ready to contribute this season after a year in the program, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise for the younger linebackers to leap guys like Manu and Myles Rice who have been at UW for a few years. This position is stocked with great potential, and it will be fun to hear how this begins to unfold over the next few weeks.