Do I have to do an intro? What's that? You don't want to read one either? Man, I love that! We're all always on the same page!
So let's check out what Washington's outside linebackers will look like this season, whenever that may be.
Not a lot.
The only true OLB the Dawgs lose is Ariel Ngata, who transferred to Sacramento State. This move doesn’t have a huge effect on the room but as a fan it stinks just because Ngata showed moments of excitement — the issue with him all along, however, was that those moments never turned into consistent productivity. Rather, over three years in the program, his Achilles’ heal appeared to be an incredible difficulty gaining weight, which in turn limited his ability to get on the field other than in occasional clear passing downs. Ngata was listed as a recruit at 210 lbs, and would play last year at only 213 lbs. Being so (relatively) skinny, his value was limited in that he couldn’t exactly hold the edge in the run game, so any given snap with even a little bit of running possibility pretty much excluded him from being involved. It stinks that he couldn’t gain weight since his wiley pass-rushing could be fun, but since he couldn’t gain weight and contribute in other situations, it doesn’t affect much.
And that’s it.
(I mean, is anyone considering Benning Potoa’e since he played as a ginormous OLB the first three years even though last year they finally beefed him up to move him to the true defensive line which arguably should’ve been his natural home all along since he was pretty much the anti-Ngata in that he never developed legit pass-rushing moves but was valuable at sealing the edge in the run game and had brute strength? No? Cool.)
And now the fun begins!
There’s two here. Let’s start with Jordan Lolohea. Since it’s been a while (two years, to be exact) since we’ve talked about him, a refresher: Lolohea was a surprise signing on the morning of February 1st, 2017, who emotionally chose Washington over Utah and BYU just a few weeks after the passing of his father.
Since he’s a freshman, I’m not expecting a bunch, but he’s a mormon mission-freshman so kinda a different situation altogether. On one hand, older and subsequently more physically mature, on the other, he hasn’t played football or been in a strength and conditioning program for two years. In general, I expect him to redshirt while getting his body back in shape.
Then the newcomer who everyone’s excited about: Sav’ell Smalls. Obviously he’s the first five star to join Washington under Pete/Lake (Brandon Kaho was a five star when signing, but obviously that whole saga never saw him actually in the program). Personally, however, I frequently remind myself to temper my own expectations both to make sure my own brain doesn’t explode if he doesn’t dominate right away and for his sake — nobody plays their best if they feel the weight of the world on their shoulders; hopefully that won’t happen to Smalls.
That being said, there’s a reason he’s a five star. He’s ultra quick with hands that exacerbate that for opposing blockers, he diagnoses plays with good instincts instead of just going 0-60 straight at the quarterback, and is versatile enough to harness that intelligence when dropping back into the flats etc. in coverage.
Plus, if you want to make fans and myself love you even more: kick ass at football and be patriotic about repping your city and state while doing so. State-triotic, if you will. Smalls is all of that.
Still though, he needs to get stronger and refine his technique. Unlike some players who just dominate off of superior athleticism and strength, Smalls already has a good arsenal of moves on the edge, but said arsenal is neither complete nor perfect in execution. For example, he sometimes can be too upright so, after getting around a lineman with speed and moves, his upright axis (uprightness? upright-ity?) deflects him to an angle where the lineman can recover at least partially.
All things considered, I don't think he'll dominate from the beginning, but I do expect to see some really exciting flashes as the season goes on. (Knock on wood about the season happening.)
Rarely do you sign a five star at a position but get more excited about the dudes who have just... been there the whole time. But for Washington, this is the first time in a long time where the edge rush has been in a good position. Like... a really long time. The most liberal interpretation of "good” could argue that we haven't seen this since the first part of 2016 — the most conservative, since the 2014 season. I'll let you guys argue this out in the comments.
By my view, this is the first time since 2014 where the whole room itself is in a good position; sure, 2015 had Travis Feeney breakout and 2016 had Joe Mathis as a presence, but once Mathis was out for the year, the Dawgs faced the reality that there was no one behind him and the room really had been on thin ice the whole time. And then it pretty much stayed that way for years.
Last season, however, the light began to show. Not only was Joe Tryon clearly the guy with Ryan Bowman having been established as an important role player for a few seasons already, but for the first time in forever, Washington wasn't pinning all their hopes on one player on the edge. Laiatu Latu clearly was cutout for snaps as a true freshman, Zion Tupuola-Fetui began to develop as the physical specimen project we knew he was upon signing, and Bralen Trice began his career redshirting on the same trajectory as ZTF one year earlier.
This year (or whenever football is played), the top two are clearly Tryon and Bowman — Bowman as the steady-but-unspectacular contributor and Tryon as a freaky terror. Last year they had eight and six-and-a-half sacks, respectively, and everything's in place for Tryon at least to hit or likely exceed that number. Or, at least, for him to do that on a sacks-per-game basis, since the Dawgs are only playing 10 games best case scenario.
Why I only say Tryon's in that position is simply because of the increased depth, particularly considering Laiatu Latu's emergence last year. I expect him to be the third man in and that that would naturally eat more into Bowman's snaps than anyone else's. The fact is that Bowman's been a fantastic, reliable presence considering his physical limitations — rarely would you expect to see a 6’ walk-on to earn a scholarship as an edge rusher — but physical limitations are kind of the ultimate unfair endgame in football. I mean, pound-for-pound I can throw a football almost as far as Jacob Eason, but that handicap doesn't mean crap on a field where the end results are what matter. (Yes, I actually just did the math on this and was shocked to find out this is true. Yes, I will be kinda cocky about this moving forward.)
Furthermore, Latu showed last year as a true freshman that he has a lot to contribute to the run game both in the thump-factor and at sealing the edge. As ZTF got the occasional playing time, he too got a few tackles in that displayed excellent leg drive. In clear short-yardage plays, I wouldn't be surprised to see him make some more things happen this season too.
Meanwhile, I don't expect Bralen Trice to have any meaningful contributions yet, but wouldn't be surprised to see him on the field a little bit similar to the frequency ZTF was playing last season.
And then there's redshirt freshman walk-on Hunter Hansen, who also exists.
Position Battle to Watch
I don't know if there's one single position “battle” to watch given how the players’ situational values differ, especially given how much Pete Kwiatkowski and Jimmy Lake like to rotate the defensive front six/seven. What I do feel will be more relevant is just looking at the share of snaps between Bowman and Latu and, to an extent behind them, Sav’ell Smalls. For the latter, that's not me thinking that he'll eat into a significant number of their snaps (at least for a while), but how much he gets on the field and whose snaps those would take up in that case. ZTF? He's situationally different as a line-holder in the short run game whereas Smalls’ value for the time being is quickness in the pass or in more variable running situations. Tryon? Obviously not, since he's the clear leader and freakiest athlete of the room.
The possibilities as I see it are probably between A) Smalls sees a few snaps but not enough to significantly impact any other OLB or B) Smalls sees a few snaps, which turn into quite a few more snaps, which turn into some more. I suppose that's obvious, but once Smalls’ abilities hit a certain threshold, the coaches have little choice but to put him in scenarios that would normally see Bowman or Latu. Which of those two it affects more depends on Latu, which brings us back to the first "position battle”:
If Latu continues on the trajectory that he set last year, it feels inevitable that he'll at least be splitting time evenly with Bowman. Really, Bowman was a placeholder — an excellent, above-average player than would normally have that title — for a time when Washington had few or no options at pass rush. He had an exceptionally high floor but quite a low ceiling, and in many stretches when the OLB room was its bleakest, he kept it functioning just well enough for the rest of the defense to do their job. For that, and for how fun he was to watch out-playing his stature, I'll always really like him. But Latu's trajectory looks a lot like Bowman's did as a true freshman just if that ceiling were much higher. If he continues, he'll likely be the feature edge rusher once Joe Tryon leaves. The amount of snaps Ryan Bowman gets will vary depending on how much Laiatu Latu realizes that. And, if Sav’ell Smalls takes snaps away from either of those two, the one most affected will also be determined on Latu's development.
In other words, everyone's playing time hinges on these two. Except Joe Tryon.
Do good things, don't do bad things, and bow down to Washington.