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State of the Position: Inside Linebacker

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A timeline from the recruitment of Kyler Manu to the recent Jordan Banks news

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Eastern Washington at Washington Photo by Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

And you may ask yourself, well how did I get here?

Coming into the season it was clear from the responses to a few of our 30 Day Countdown articles that inside linebacker was the greatest position of concern on the roster. There was good reason for that. Ben Burr-Kirven was the leading tackler in the country a year ago and one of the most important parts of the defense. Tevis Bartlett was also a senior and while he saw the most success playing outside while at Washington, he was still a steady cog. Replacing them were seniors Brandon Wellington and Kyler Manu who had very little starting experience.

Through the first four games of the season it is clear that inside linebacker remains one of the weaknesses of the defense. Especially in the loss versus Cal there were times when, either due to freelancing or a lack of proper play diagnosis, the linebackers have not been in the proper spot to prevent cut back lanes in the run game. BYU carved up the spot behind the inside linebackers in the middle of UW’s zone this past week.

And on top of all of that criticism from the fanbase came the news last night that 4-star prospect Jordan Banks would not be taking his planned official visit this weekend. Banks was seemingly a Washington lean before it appears that the Huskies decided not to pursue his recruitment any longer. There was an groundswell of criticism across UW twitter and UW recruiting blogs last night as Banks was seen by many as one of the remaining gems left in the 2020 recruiting class.

Does the coaching staff deserve criticism for the way the linebacker position has been handled? To show how we got here, let’s go through each of the past 5 recruiting classes to figure out what could have or should have been.

Class of 2015

It was clear that the Huskies decided they needed to infuse some depth at the linebacker position. Washington extended offers to 7 ILBs and 16 OLBs and ultimately brought in 5 of them. Ben Burr-Kirven was the only one listed in the 247 database as an ILB but DJ Beavers and Kyler Manu also ended up in that spot. Justiss Warren and Bryce Sterk were the others at OLB.

Sterk was the lowest rated player in that class and ended up transferring to Montana State and moving to defensive end where he has actually gotten some NFL draft buzz as he’s among the national leaders in sacks with 8.5 through 4 games. Warren was moved to an H-back style TE/FB role the last few seasons before grad transferring to Eastern Washington before the season.

BBK obviously grew into potentially the best ILB in the entire country but the progress was slower for Beavers and Manu. Beavers redshirted in 2015 but started two games in Washington’s breakout 2016 season and looked solid doing so with an interception and forced fumble in the Apple Cup victory. In both 2017 and 2018 he suffered injuries which limited him to just 5 games and he medically retired this past offseason. Manu saw very little playing time in his first three years in the program before getting extensive action in the opener against Auburn. He finished the year having played 54 snaps or about 5.5% before earning the starting job this offseason.

Some have criticized that BBK wasn’t redshirted in 2015 and therefore wasn’t a redshirt senior this year. He won Most Outstanding Special Teams player as a true freshman and was clearly a net benefit to the team while playing 12 of 13 games. If the 4-game rule were in place at the time then maybe he is able to redshirt but it isn’t as if he burned his redshirt playing 10 snaps.

Class of 2016

Washington extended only 2 offers to players designated as ILBs per 247 but they offered 16 OLBs and two of them were again moved inside with Camilo Eifler and Brandon Wellington. Both were 4-star players and they were the 2nd and 3rd most highly rated players in the entire class behind just Byron Murphy. Expectations were understandably high.

Eifler was viewed coming in as an athletic freak who was still raw and might need a little bit of time to learn the position. He redshirted as expected in 2016 and then played in every game in 2017 although mostly on special teams. After spring ball his sophomore season it appeared that he would likely be a 2nd teamer on the depth chart and thus one injury away from potentially starting. Nevertheless, he apparently decided that he wasn’t going to get the chance and transferred to Illinois where he currently has 18 tackles with 3 tackles for loss through 4 games.

This is where the first crack in the ILB glass started to appear as I think replacing Manu with a redshirt junior Eifler in the starting lineup this year likely makes everyone feel a lot better about the positional depth.

Wellington started out on special teams from day one and played in every game of his freshman season then saw limited game action as a sophomore. An injury kept him out of the first few games last year but he eventually cracked the rotation once healthy and played about a quarter of the defensive snaps.

The killer in retrospect here is missing on Evan Weaver who has turned into the most dominant ILB in the country this season. The coaching staff felt they had one spot left at linebacker and the two candidates were Amandre Williams and Evan Weaver. Both were listed as Defensive Ends at the time in the 247 database and both were in the 84-86 range in the composite rankings. Williams committed to the Huskies on August 9th over offers from Oregon, Utah, and Boise State. That seemingly took away the spot for Weaver who instead committed to Cal just 5 days later over offers from Oregon, Utah, Arizona, and Washington State.

Class of 2017

This is where the wheels really fell off. The Huskies offered 6 ILBs and 8 OLBs and ended up with just Ariel Ngata who was recruited outside and has remained so despite some brief experimentation with him playing inside in spring camp. Ngata just made the cut as a 4-star player and was a solid recruit but a goose egg at the inside linebacker spot despite decent depth at the time is what gets you into trouble after a few injuries/transfers which ended up coming to fruition.

I didn’t follow recruiting quite as closely at this time but I don’t believe the Huskies were particularly close to landing any of their targets either. None of them took an official visit to Washington. It should be noted that this was a pretty terrible year for linebackers out West. There were 0 ILB/OLB prospects with at least a 90 composite grade in the Pac-12 footprint and just 3 that merited 4-star status of which the Huskies landed one in Ngata. Nate Landman at Colorado and Colin Schooler at Arizona are really the only Pac-12 linebackers who have made any kind of impact out of that class so far.

Class of 2018

After striking out in 2017 there was a serious need for more bodies in the 2018 class and the Huskies almost got everything they wanted. Just a few days before the start of fall camp they had Ale Kaho, MJ Tafisi, and Jackson Sirmon all on the roster. Kaho would have been the highest rated linebacker signed in the Chris Petersen era per the composite rankings and the first 5-star period per just the 247 ratings.

Washington fans know what happened from there, or rather can guess what happened from there. The initial report came out from Adam Jude that Kaho, because of several family tragedies had become homesick which had resulted in him falling out of football shape, would need to transfer. Of course the math ultimately didn’t add up as he instead headed further away from home to Tuscaloosa and was ready to play there just a month later. We’ll never know the true full story but some combination of Kaho struggling to meet the academic entry requirements (in terms of credits, not intelligence) and members of his family never truly signing off on him turning down Bama resulted in his leaving just before the season.

Sirmon and Tafisi were both high 3-star players in the recruiting rankings and each redshirted along with the rest of the 2018 class a season ago. So far this season they’ve been the 2nd string duo at ILB as Tafisi has played 26% of the defensive snaps while Sirmon has played 22% of the snaps in addition to a few at fullback on offense. Neither has really shown anything in limited action so far to suggest they are either vastly better or worse than their recruiting rankings. It should also be noted that Edefuan Ulofoshio walked on with this class and was fantastic as a special teams contributor and has run with the 3’s so far this season at ILB.

Class of 2019

By the time we got to signing day this past year it was clear that the Husky depth was severely limited following the transfers of Eifler and Kaho. The coaching staff needed to bring in a ton of bodies and they did just that signing Daniel Heimuli, Josh Calvert, Alphonzo Tuputala, and Miki Ah You. Those were 4 of the 10 linebackers that the Huskies offered.

The cherry on top of the linebacker Sunday would have been Henry To’oto’o who was the highest ranked player of anyone the Dawgs offered. He ultimately signed with Tennessee after a 3-way battle including UW and Alabama. Rumors however swirled around the recruitment that Henry had wanted to come to Washington but his family intervened to steer him to the SEC. Rumors have also continued to swirl that he was a transfer candidate to still wind up at Washington including in response to the Banks news last night. But as of right now Henry is leading the Volunteers in both tackles and tackles for loss as a true freshman despite playing for a terrible Tennessee team.

Heimuli and Calvert were the two biggest prizes in the recruiting class but it looked like Calvert would have the best chance to crack the rotation as a true freshman. He arrived in time for spring ball and was running with the 2’s for part of fall camp before suffering a serious knee injury which has knocked him out for the entire season. Barring another injury it appears that all four of the linebackers will end up redshirting this season. Similar to Ulofoshio above, Drew Fowler walked on with the Dawgs over a scholarship offer from Utah which doesn’t happen every day.

Class of 2020

With Wellington and Manu graduating plus another 7 scholarship inside linebackers as either freshmen or redshirt freshmen, it made sense that the coaches would only take 2 ILBs in the 2020 class. The coaching staff has offered 10 ILB/OLB prospects so far. The two highest rated inside linebackers Justin Flowe, and Noah Sewell never seriously considered Washington. It looked like the Dawgs were in great shape to land Jordan Botelho given the success they had recruiting the state of Hawai’i in the 2019 class but he committed to Notre Dame on his first visit. His teammate Nick Herbig who was likely viewed more as an outside linebacker also decided to head from Hawai’i to the Midwest and committed to Wisconsin.

Without those two on board the Huskies turned to Texan Cooper McDonald and local legacy Carson Bruener and both 3-stars committed fairly early on in the recruiting cycle. Still, the Huskies seemingly wanted another body in the room as they pursued Jordan Banks in what seemed destined to be another Alabama vs. Washington battle. Instead, the coaching staff moved on. It’s justifiable for the staff to only take two inside linebackers in this class given the numbers infusion from 2018/2019 but it certainly seemed like they felt that Banks was worth taking anyways. Until he wasn’t.

That leaves 3 realistic options. The first is that the coaching staff hasn’t been impressed with Banks’ senior film and no longer views him as a guy worth disrupting the numbers for and so they cut him loose before the visit to allow him to move on as well. This is the simplest explanation. The second is that Henry To’oto’o has reached out to Washington and declared his willingness to jump the Tennessee sinking ship and come back West. Given that he isn’t in the transfer portal yet it feels unlikely that they backed off a recruit just because they received back channel feelers of interest about a transfer. And the third is that they have a silent commit, most likely someone they’ve flipped who doesn’t want to announce it yet.

Those who live and die with every shift in the recruiting winds (I’m so sorry, seek help) are understandably confused/angry/sad at the news that Banks appears to be out of the picture. Especially with how our linebackers have looked 1/3rd of the way through the season. Maybe a week from now a corresponding move will become public and things will not only make sense but turn out for the best. Then again maybe come signing day we keep the linebacking crew we have, Banks goes elsewhere in the Pac-12, and ends up kicking our ass for the next 4 years. After reading 2,000 words detailing the history of the position over the past 5 seasons I don’t blame fans for assuming it will be the latter.