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Consulting the Chart: 2019 UW Inside Linebackers Review

It was a tough year at ILB but at least one bright shining star emerged

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Utah at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Washington Huskies underachieved preseason expectations by a fairly significant margin during the 2019 season and perhaps no position played a larger role in that outcome than inside linebacker. Today we’re going in-depth at the dreaded ILB spot. Buckle up.

Check out previous editions of Consulting the Chart covering the QB/OL, Wide Receivers, Running Backs, Tight Ends, Defensive Line, and Outside Linebackers.

2019 UW Inside Linebackers Statistics

Player Snaps Tackles TFLs Pressures Defeats Missed Tackles Pressure % Defeat % Missed Tackle %
Player Snaps Tackles TFLs Pressures Defeats Missed Tackles Pressure % Defeat % Missed Tackle %
Wellington 713 68 1.5 4 5 11 7.3% 0.7% 13.9%
Manu 460 45 1 4 4 10 11.4% 0.9% 18.2%
Sirmon 221 16 2 1 4 3 7.7% 1.8% 15.8%
Ulofoshio 214 47 3.5 5 6 3 35.7% 2.8% 6.0%
Tafisi 92 13 0 1 0 5 12.5% 0.0% 27.8%

2019 UW Inside Linebacker Coverage Statistics

Player Coverage Snaps Targets Yards per Target Passer Rating Success Rate on Targets Opp Success Pass Opp Success Run
Player Coverage Snaps Targets Yards per Target Passer Rating Success Rate on Targets Opp Success Pass Opp Success Run
Wellington 338 40 7.1 137.14 70.00% 43.30% 48.00%
Manu 200 24 7.42 155.22 62.50% 41.70% 50.30%
Sirmon 113 9 12.33 203.6 66.67% 41.26% 43.02%
Ulofoshio 122 14 7.64 187.77 71.43% 45.58% 47.06%
Tafisi 52 4 8.75 173.5 50.00% 38.33% 53.56%

Brandon Wellington

In 2018 as a senior Ben Burr-Kirven led the nation with 176 tackles plus 2 sacks, 2 interceptions, 8 pass breakups, 4 forced fumbles, and 3 fumble recoveries. Obviously it was unfair to expect anything close to that out of Brandon Wellington who played about 675 fewer snaps than BBK that year and had never been a full-time starter before. But Husky fans got pretty spoiled with Azeem Victor, Keishawn Bierria, and Ben Burr-Kirven all starting during the Chris Petersen era. Wellington was a highly rated recruit coming out of local Eastside Catholic and while he was coming off a torn ACL during his college career there were flashes to think he’d at least be able to be average after accumulating 2 tackles for loss and 2 pass breakups in just over 200 snaps as a junior.

Sadly, both those totals were higher than what Wellington put up as a senior while playing over 700 defensive snaps. Nothing really stood out in a positive way about Wellington’s play in 2019. He was just kind of there. Washington’s defense in the past has been designed to funnel ball carriers towards an instinctive inside linebacker who can clean up and make plays in the hole. Instead Wellington more often than not seemed to guess where the play would wind up and didn’t have the patience to read everything happening in front of him. It resulted time after time in gaping holes which allowed running backs to pick up an extra 5+ yards before encountering a Washington defender.

The struggles to pick the right hole carried over to pass rushing as well. Wellington’s pressure rate was about the same as UW’s best defensive linemen but when Washington blitzes with an ILB it means they should have a chance at a free rush. Even with that advantage Wellington could rarely get close to the QB let alone bring them down. The lack of playmaking was also evident in picking up just 5 total defeats while playing in the middle of the defense. His 0.7% was the lowest for any UW defender that played at least half of the total defensive snaps.

Wellington’s lack of instincts outweighed his athleticism in pass coverage as well. Of the 33 completions where Wellington was the closest defender/person most likely responsible for the pass catcher he ended up making the tackle just 15 times as opponents gained 8.6 yards per completion with an 85% success rate. Most of those throws came within a few yards of the line of scrimmage and resulted in an average of 5 yards after the catch. Getting Wellington lined up against your running back was a constant recipe for success for opposing offenses.

I would be derelict in my duties if I didn’t note that there were positives to Wellington’s 2019 campaign. He returned a pair of fumbles for touchdowns showing off his background as a running back in high school. He had 16 tackles against Washington State playing against Mike Leach’s short gain air raid passing game. When his performance though was contrasted with that of some of the younger guys like Ulofoshio it became clear just how little Wellington developed during his time as a Husky.

Kyler Manu

We arrive at target number two for the ire of most fans on social media. Brandon Wellington missed some snaps at the end of the season due to injury but Kyler Manu saw a much more dramatic shift in his usage throughout 2019. Manu played at least 56% of the defensive snaps in each of Washington’s first 6 games including 90% against Cal. That total never climbed above 48% the rest of the year including just 7 total snaps combined in UW’s final 2 games as the defensive staff chose to go with the younger guys at the end of the season.

Manu tended to struggle in many of the same areas as Brandon Wellington. His instincts at the position were likely better than Wellington’s but his athleticism was clearly a step below. He simply didn’t have the foot speed to keep up when chasing down Pac-12 running backs and didn’t have the instincts/size to prevent throws over the intermediate middle when dropping into coverage. He did show flashes as a pass rusher and ended up with as many pressures as Wellington in only about 60% of the opportunities including one sack against USC.

If Kyler Manu were in Washington’s 2020 recruiting class he would be the second lowest rated non-special teams player. The Huskies have had plenty of guys under Chris Petersen with similar recruiting rankings pop and become all-conference type players. It was clear though that Manu had athletic limitations that hamstrung his chances of success and his snap counts were an indication of the subsequent roster failures at the inside linebacker position rather than a failure by Manu himself. Still, the Husky defense should improve next season with Manu’s (and Wellington’s) snaps being taken by either the players listed below.

Jackson Sirmon

It took a little while for Sirmon to see consistent playing time but a combination of factors saw him increasingly step up throughout the year. Remember that for the first two games Sirmon was pulling double duty as he was asked to also play fullback on offense before the coaches mercifully ended that experiment. He ended up playing at least 30% of the snaps in 4 of Washington’s final 5 games including nearly 2/3rd of the time in the bowl game.

There weren’t many standout moments for Sirmon and that’s not necessarily a terrible thing considering he was a redshirt freshman. His tackle opportunities were low when you consider his total number of snaps which is slightly worrisome. However he had just as many defeats as Kyler Manu and one fewer than Brandon Wellington in dramatically fewer snaps so Sirmon did step up to make stops on 3rd and 4th down or behind the line of scrimmage. His 1.8% defeat percentage was the same as Levi Onwuzurike and while they play different positions that’s still a positive sign.

Sirmon’s overall success rates were the best of any of the inside linebackers but that might be a symptom of his 3 highest snap counts coming against Boise State, Oregon State, and Eastern Washington. And I’m not quite ready to give Sirmon the lion’s share of the credit for UW’s general dominance in those 3 contests.

I’m still concerned about Sirmon’s skills against the pass. Sirmon was torched when asked to cover away from the line of scrimmage as opposing quarterbacks went 3/3 for 82 yards targeting him more than 5 yards downfield. He also was just as ineffective as Brandon Wellington at getting near the QB with a pressure rate just over 7%.

While Sirmon’s playing time increased throughout the year it was helped along by the poor play in front of him by Manu and Wellington as well as injuries to Tafisi and Ulofoshio. Based on Sirmon’s 2019 season I’m not ready to hand over a starting spot for next year. But there were enough positive moments in his first year on the field to at the very least suggest that Sirmon will consistently challenge for serious playing time over the next 3 seasons.

Edefuan Ulofoshio

I may not be ready to hand over a starting spot to Sirmon but I’m basically there for “Eddie U”. Ulofoshio earned his scholarship in about the most convincing fashion that you can, by winning conference defensive player of the week in your first week as a starter. He played just 7 defensive snaps in Washington’s first 8 games but instantly shone bright once inserted in the lineup beginning in the Utah game.

The production differential between Ulofoshio and the rest of Washington’s inside linebackers is somewhat staggering. He averaged about 1 tackle every 4.5 snaps which is a higher rate than even Ben Burr-Kirven was able to pull off in his record setting 2018 season. That’s an unrealistic expectation moving forward but hints at the kind of player Eddie could become.

Even with those general tackle totals, Edefuan’s biggest strength might be as a pass rusher. His pressure rate of 35.7% was almost 5 times higher than that of Wellington or Sirmon and the highest on the team for anyone with at least 3 pass rushes. He has shown an uncanny ability to both time his blitzes correctly as well as pick the right hole and has the speed to get to the QB before he’s unloaded it already. His defeat percentage of 2.8% was also unsurprisingly the highest on the team regardless of snap count.

There are still a few flaws. Ulofoshio will have to show improvement in pass coverage next season. He was beat to the edge on a swing pass to Zack Moss for a TD in the Utah game. A lot of linebackers got beat by Moss during the course of his career but it sticks out. He also got lost in coverage when Colorado converted their 3rd and 16 backed up deep in their own territory which allowed them to run out the clock.

I feel quite comfortable saying no player on Washington’s defense outperformed their expectations more than Ulofoshio in 2019. He very deservedly has staked claim to one of UW’s starting inside linebacker spots in 2020 and it will take sustained poor performance by Ulofoshio and a similar breakout rise from someone else to pry it away from him. We have 3 more years left of watching the now former walk-on lead the Husky defense and I’m excited to see if he’s able to take it up yet another level this offseason after becoming a sophomore.

M.J Tafisi

It was extremely unfortunate that Tafisi’s season was cut short against Arizona when he suffered a neck stinger and was carted off the field with his neck stabilized. Luckily all indications are that Tafisi is expected to make a full recovery and will hopefully be ready to play by spring ball.

Before the injury, Tafisi was getting one to two series worth of snaps each game in relief of Manu and Wellington and appeared to have a slight edge on Jackson Sirmon on the depth chart. When the coaches finally turned to other options beginning against Utah it’s reasonable to think that Tafisi would’ve gotten a long look along with Edefuan Ulofoshio.

When we did see Tafisi on the field it was clear that his reputation as a hard hitter was well earned but his form resulted in several more missed tackles than the defensive staff would generally allow from that spot. That will have to improve for Tafisi to win a starting spot alongside Ulofoshio. Unfortunately, having his season cut short without more time to gain experience probably puts him on nearly equal footing with the redshirt crew and it will require a lot of work to escape a backup role next year.

The Rest of the Position

Ariel Ngata was the only other player to earn snaps at inside linebacker this season but I covered him with the outside linebackers. 4 ILBs redshirted this past year, all part of the 2019 recruiting class, in Daniel Heimuli, Josh Calvert, Miki Ah You, and Alfonzo Tuputala. Reports during fall camp were that Calvert looked to maybe have a leg up on Kyler Manu for a starting spot before he tore his ACL. If he recovers fully from the injury by August then there’s a good chance he is heavily in the rotation next year. Daniel Heimuli was the highest rated of the bunch and with a year in the weight room hopefully he will also be ready to challenge for time.

The 2019 season was a disappointment at the ILB spot but with Ulofoshio at one spot and a horde of other young linebackers (including incoming freshmen Carson Bruener and Cooper McDonald) in open competition alongside him things should be trending up in 2020 and the following few seasons as well.