So where do the Huskies stand at the inside and outside linebacker positions heading into Fall training camp? In my humble opinion, enough has been said about the turnover of talent on the defensive side of the ball for Washington. Just like the defensive backs and defensive line, there is a small core of veterans, some of whom have significant game experience, followed by a legion of young, mostly unproven talent. I won’t belabor the point that there will be a lot of new faces getting significant playing time in the linebacking corps this upcoming season, because out of necessity, there will be.
Let’s briefly cover why there is a need for the young bucks (get it?) to step up so early in their careers. Most recently, ILB DJ Beavers, who played extensively last year and was expected to be a starter this season, decided to medically retire from football. Prior to that, four linebackers from last season graduated, two of whom are now trying to make NFL rosters (see Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Barlett). Additionally, a number of other linebackers including Milo Eifler and Amandre Williams have transferred away from the program in the past two seasons. Finally, Benning Potoa’e has added some serious weight and moved from OLB to DL.
Sr Brandon Wellington is the most experienced ILB returning this season and is expected to start and play a significant role. He’s the most likely candidate to take over the leadership role from the now departed B.B.K. and has the talent to collect a ton of tackles this season. As of now, the player most likely to start along side Wellington in the middle is Sr Kyler Manu. While it was assumed by most that this would be Beavers’ role heading into this season, Manu will have to step up and fill the vacancy that was created by his medical retirement. As you can see above, Manu certainly has in-game experience and has actually seen playing time every year since his redshirt season as a true freshman. While he’s solid, he has yet to show that he’s an elite level talent that can be consistently relied upon to step up and make the big play in a big moment. In the Spring he was given every chance to win the starting role, but only time will tell if the coaching staff believes in him enough to give him the job. Regardless of whether or not he wins the starting job, we’ll likely be seeing a lot of both Wellington and Manu this season.
Next In Line
Right behind Manu is redshirt freshman Jackson Sirmon who played in four games last season and has the size and talent level to step right into a prominent role in this defense. Sirmon is the most likely candidate after Manu to start along side Wellington, and weather or not that actually happens, Sirmon will certainly be called upon early and often this season. Fellow redshirt freshman MJ Tafisi should also be a regular contributor and by all accounts has the potential to be an impact player on this defense, if not this year, then soon.
Two other players of note in this group are Ariel Ngata and Edefuan Ulofoshio. While Ngata is listed as an OLB and has been used primarily as a 3rd down/pass rush specialist, he received a notable amount of reps at ILB during the Spring and could make either a partial or full time move to the inside. Something to keep an eye on for sure. Meanwhile, Ulofoshio came out of nowhere last season (he’s a walk on from Alaska via Las Vegas) and ended up playing in three games. On his first snap for the Huskies, he forced a fumble against Oregon State during kickoff coverage. He followed that up by doing the same thing later in that same game. This kid is very talented and is clearly willing to work hard to earn playing time. Don’t be surprised if he finds his way into the ILB rotation this season while he continues to play a major role on special teams.
This group is mostly comprised of the true freshman, of which there are five this year. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Huskies scored an absolute haul of talented linebacker recruits from the 2019 recruiting class. The two most notable headliners who will have a future at the Will and Mike positions are Daniel Heimuli and Josh Calvert. While this coaching staff seems intent on redshirting as many true freshmen as they can every year, I imagine that both of these guys will end up playing in all four games that will still allow them to preserve their redshirt seasons. Alphonso Tuputala might also see limited playing time this season, however the injured Miki Ah You and walk on Drew Fowler will both likely be redshirt candidates who might not see the field for another season of two.
Ryan Bowman returns as the most experienced OLB on the roster. He already has two productive seasons for the Huskies under his belt and reportedly had a very good Spring. However, all eyes will be on the 6’5” Joe Tryon, who is looking to break out this year after really coming on late in his redshirt freshman season. Tryon has the size and skills to be an elite level pass rusher. The coaching staff will most likely look to him as their best chance to increase the low sack total from last season. Let’s hope he delivers.
Next In Line
We’ve already discussed Ariel Ngata, but he is certainly still in the mix to help supply a pass rush from the outside. Like Tryon, Ngata is still fairly young but the potential is there for big things this season and moving forward in his Washington career. Junior Myles Rice is another guy who could potentially receive quality playing time this season, however he has yet to really break through at the UW and remains something of a mystery to most Husky fans. The coaching staff will really need him to step up this season and contribute, if not at a high level, then just a consistently solid level. The last member of this group is redshirt freshman Zion Tupuola-Fetui. He saw action in 2 games as a true freshman and even recorded a tackle. He has the right size and skill to start receiving regular reps at OLB this season, and can hopefully make an impact on the field.
Washington was able to recruit two scholarship and one walk-on WDE/OLBs in the 2019 recruiting class. Of the two scholarship players, 4* Laiatu Latu is the one that has drawn the most attention and fanfare. At 6’4” and 275 lbs, he has the potential to be a monster for the Huskies in the coming years and is certainly a candidate to meet the four game maximum while still preserving his redshirt this season. In fact, of all the true freshmen who might burn their redshirt this season, Latu is my leading candidate. Bralen Trice was also a nice pick up by the coaching staff, and he has plus speed and a good size to be a real contributor from the outside in the coming years.
If it wasn’t clear from the summary above, this is a position group in transition. While the potential is certainly there for a handful of guys to take the next step and have huge seasons this year, its more likely that most of them are a year or two away from making a real impact. Washington has added a lot of talent to the linebacker room in the last two recruiting classes, but expecting significant early returns from these guys might be asking too much. However, given the amount of overall talent in this group, it seems reasonable to expect a solid performance from most of the returning players, with the hope that one or two of the younger guys can step up and be difference makers.