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Roundtable: The new adventures of the OLBs

With Joe Tryon off the the NFL, what changes — particularly for a certain young pass-rusher?

HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: JAN 02 Under Armour All-America Game Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While we’re waiting for the season to materialize, some of us at UWDP have been having the occasional roundtable discussions. Most recently, I posed the following question the crew:

Now that Joe Tryon is NFL-bound, how and to what extent do you think that affects Sav’ell Smalls’ role as a true freshman?

Max: Washington doesn’t rotate through their outside linebacker position as much as they do on the defensive line. Last season the average defensive snap had 1.6 of the Bowman, Tryon, ZTF, and Latu foursome on the field at the same time. With all 4 of them returning it seemed unlikely we’d get a lot of Smalls on the field outside of garbage time potentially. Especially once it became a conference-only schedule. However, the 5th and 6th guys on the depth chart in Myles Rice and Ariel Ngata are both gone so it was clear that should there be an injury or an unforeseen circumstance that Smalls had a chance to slide into the rotation.

Lo and behold, welcome to the unforeseen circumstance. Last season ZTF generally backed up Tryon while Latu backed up Bowman. Bowman typically had more of the field responsibilities as a better run defender while Tryon was allowed to let it rip as a pass rusher more often. Things become slightly awkward now that I expect Latu to replace Tryon in the starting lineup and thus have your two best run-defending edge players in the starting lineup at once. What this likely means is the need for a more nuanced rotation pattern from the coaching staff. Just putting out the 1’s and the 2’s as a pair is going to lead to some holes with 2 raw pass rushers like ZTF and Smalls paired together. That’s more difficult in football than say in basketball since usually players get tired around the same point but some additional creativity may be needed. This all of course assumes that Smalls immediately gets that 4th spot.

I personally think given the narrative around the program of highly-ranked guys not seeing the field as soon that the coaching staff will give him the edge if it’s at all close. Is there any chance in your minds though that he gets beat out by Trice or a several years older Lolohea? Or that he steps in and immediately leaps over Latu or ZTF?

Gabey: I think that’s interesting you put ZTF in the more pass-rush-specific category; based on my (limited, granted) observations of him last year I felt like he’s more suited against the run — that dude’s leg drive is impressive in a way that lends itself really well on the ground. Plus, while he’s a big dude, he’s pretty sturdy more than lanky a la pass-rush specialists’ prototype. Do you have snap data re: how often he played against the run versus against the pass?

Coach B: I get the impression that we are putting the best players on the field on the defensive side based on Latu getting early snaps last year. Smalls is expected to have a similar path next season, and it’ll be largely up to the staff to craft a role for him that meshes with the rest of the defense. At this point, his skill set and build is not that of an edge setter like Latu or Bowman, so I expect him to get early reps in pass sub packages rather than a situation-versatile platoon rotation.

As far as the rotation itself, I don’t think the rotation will be based on individual mixing and matching of run or pass skill sets. My first impression is that Coach K utilizes more stunting in his pressure packages than Lake did as a play caller. I don’t have the data to back up that impression, but if true, it would provide an opportunity for manufactured pressure without extra blitzers and without relying on individuals rushers winning one-on-ones.

Gabey: I think you’re right as far Coach K’s calling — personally I preferred his philosophies over Lake’s, even though it’s not like they were crazy different. But his aversion to blitzing in favor of stunts and just, in general, more creative pass-rush approaches is my happy place.

I think I agree with your take re: where Smalls’ reps are more likely to come, situationally. Especially considering that, now that Tryon’s gone, our OLB’s are more inclined towards run edge-setting than pass specialists. To me it feels like Latu is kinda a bit of both but is still more a run-stopper for the time now, whereas Smalls is probably the only one who’s natural inclination would be as a pass rush guy.

Kirk: While Max’s point about the perception of the best young players not necessarily playing right away (which really is only backed-up by the wide receiver group last season — at other positions highly-ranked freshmen have seen the field quite a bit) is something to consider, the observation from a lot of folks is that Smalls has tremendous talent but is very raw and will need to work on his technique, more than the typical 5-star recruit.

For that reason I wouldn’t necessarily assume he leapfrogs someone like Trice or sees the field sooner than Lolohea. But there’s going to be a LOT of pressure to play Smalls from a program sales standpoint — he was the headliner in the 2020 class, he’s the local 5-star stud that can set a tone for recruiting future highly-rated local kids vs. the national blue-bloods and he’s a guy that’s very active on social media. In short, there are a lot of reasons to play him right away beyond strictly his current ability to do the job .

Gabey: I think you’re totally right there in that A) defensive players especially in this program play as true frosh (when ready) plenty often and B) Smalls probably will still see a learning curve and I think it’s really important for fans to not overreact to that.

Also... I feel bad now realizing I totally forgot about Trice... (Insert Michael Scott guilty cringing gif)

Andrew: I’m late to the party, so the point I was going to make about ZTF and Latu being the primary beneficiaries has already been made quite a bit.

I tend to agree that Lake having the final say will slightly benefit Smalls relative to Petersen making the decisions. If nothing else, Lake has made a point of saying that he wants to get talented young players on the field earlier. As noted above, he has practiced what he’s preaching as a position coach and coordinator. In the end, I think we’ll see a lot more ZTF because his pass rush ability will be at a premium without Tryon. Latu will also play more because he’s probably the best hybrid of run and pass defense and his upside isn’t that much lower than Smalls’s.

I think we might actually see a bit less of Bowman because the guys coming up behind him had more room to develop and close the experience gap. I don’t think the playing time will be split evenly between those three and Smalls, but I think Smalls might see something close to 30% of the defensive snaps, whereas it would’ve been mostly garbage time or injuries if Tryon had stayed.

So that’s some of our thoughts. Obviously they’re not comprehensive because we could keep that up for about a bajillion words.

Either way, with the Pac-12 now looking like it’ll start earlier than planned, hopefully we’ll soon be able to be either vindicated or proven super wrong and everyone can make fun of us for being stupid losers.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.