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Spring Position Preview: OLBs

The Edge is Absolutely Loaded

Stanford v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Taking a play out of Gabey’s playbook, I’m gonna skip the usual intro. It’s not like I’m very good at those anyways...

Position Overview

Key Departures:

  • NONE

Considering how deep and talented our OLB group could have been last year at full strength, the fact that we bring back everyone is a huge win. Ryan Bowman returns for his 10th season (OK 6th, but it feels closer to 10) as the steady veteran presence on the edge. Laiatu Latu hopefully comes back this season fully healed up from the injury that held him out during the abbreviated season, and he’ll rejoin a rotation that saw Zion Tupuola-Fetui come out of nowhere to replace Joe Tryon’s production off the edge.

Our platoon system last year at OLB also gave a couple of the youngsters a chance to gain valuable reps with Sav’ell Smalls picking up a prominent role in the rotation, and Cooper McDonald surprising many as a quasi-DE/OLB with a ILB frame. Similar to the OL, this group will be able to focus on building off of 2020 rather than spending time reshuffling the line up.

Spring Additions:

  • Jeremiah Martin, 6-5, 262 lbs

In a surprising move, Coach Lake & the staff went out and landed former 4-star recruiting target Jeremiah Martin as a transfer add despite all of the aforementioned depth and talent. Martin was a guy we recruited hard out of HS, and he left a big enough impression on the staff that when the circumstances lined up this off-season, we jumped at the opportunity to bring him into the fold.

Martin brings solid experience as a 3-year contributor at Texas A&M where he was cast as a 4-3 DE, but he has a chance to capitalize on his untapped potential shifting to a more hybrid DE/OLB role in our defense. Refocusing his athleticism off the edge in passing situations could be a real boost to the gauntlet of rushers that we’ll be sending after opponents, and at worst this is a high-upside depth move for a recruiting class that was particularly raw.

Anticipated Summer Additions:

Maurice Heims, 6-6, 245 lbs

Milton Hopkins, 6-5, 220 lbs

Speaking of the 2021 class, the staff decided to take a calculated risk going with high-upside developmental prospects. Maurice Heims is essentially brand-new to football after growing up in Germany before recently moving to California to finish HS. He has a prototypical frame and the raw talent to be a stud DE/OLB (he’s got some of that soccer quickness in his multi-sport background), but he’ll probably need a few years to develop.

Milton Hopkins on the other hand has a very different football background but enters at a similar development stage as Heims. Hopkins will be walking-on coming from local powerhouse O’Dea, and at first glance you might think that would put him miles ahead of Heims. However, Hopkins primarily played QB in the O’Dea triple option offense, so his OLB-specific background is pretty limited. Hopkins has a very similar frame when compared to Heims, and he has the athletic talents to potentially earn a scholarship down the line. What will be important is his ability to translate his football IQ playing QB to the defensive end of the ball and piecing everything together. In brief clips that I’ve seen of him playing defense, I think he has what it takes.

Spring 2021 Washington Huskies OLBs

Name Jersey # Height Weight Class
Name Jersey # Height Weight Class
Laiatu Latu 13 6-4 265 JR
Sav'ell Smalls 17 6-3 250 RS-FR
Cooper McDonald 41 6-3 235 RS-FR
Bralen Trice 45 6-3 240 SO
Jordan Lolohea 51 6-2 270 RS-FR
Ryan Bowman 55 6-0 280 6th Yr
Zion Tupuola-Fetui 58 6-3 280 JR
Maurice Heims 6-6 245 FR
Jeremiah Martin 6-5 262 SR
Milton Hopkins 6-5 220 FR
*Denotes Walk-On

Main Rotation:

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Ryan Bowman (6th Yr, 6-0, 280 lbs)

Zion Tupuola-Fetui (JR, 6-3, 280 lbs)

Laiatu Latu (JR, 6-4, 265 lbs)

Sav’ell Smalls (SO, 6-3, 250 lbs)

As I alluded to before, this group comprises all of the primary OLB contributors from last 2020, plus Laiatu Latu, who was becoming a major contributor himself before sitting out last season with an injury. There are only so many snaps to go around at OLB, and the staff has shown a preference for using a robust 4-man rotation to keep guys fresh and maximizing our talented bench.

Bowman’s stout edge setting has been an afterthought at times throughout his career, but our perimeter rushing defense wasn’t up to our standards last year. A renewed focus on that skill set should solidify Bowman’s hold on one of the starting spots, and at least a role on earlier downs (probably ~30% of snaps).

Latu is in a similar position as Bowman in that his largest contributions thus far have been in his solid run defense. We didn’t get a chance to see a 1st to 2nd year jump since he sat out last year, but he flashed great pass rush potential in HS. He might start out focused more on early downs as he shakes off the rust, but I’d expect strong every-down production in all situations from Latu as the season progresses. Latu might be our most talented all-around edge player, and if it weren’t for the potential rust, he probably should be dominating the snap count (he’ll probably get 30% of snaps).

ZTF managed to become the flashy name in the OLB room last season, despite being one of the less well-known recruits, after finishing near the top of the country in pass rush statistics and rates. He should continue to be a fixture in our rotation with a healthy share of the snap count simply because of the havoc he can wreak in the opponent’s backfield. However, one big point of emphasis this off-season should be to improve his edge setting. On-going inconsistencies against the run got exposed last season, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Latu’s return puts pressure on ZTF to focus in this area, or else be relegated to pass rush-only duties. (I anticipate a minimum 30% share of the snaps)

Smalls is the wild-card here. I’m not sure if it was due to both Latu and Bowman being out for parts of last season, or if it was due to his raw talent forcing the staff’s hand to play him, but Smalls got a nice share of the snaps last season. As expected, Smalls was raw in his opportunities, but he looked like he belonged physically when he was on the field. With such a deep position group, I don’t expect Smalls to make a huge leap in playing time, but he almost assuredly will remain a fixture in the primary rotation. (My guess is ~10% of snaps)

Potential Breakout:

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Jeremiah Martin (SR, 6-5, 262 lbs)

Cooper McDonald (rFR, 6-3, 235 lbs)

Jordan Lolohea (rFR, 6-2, 270 lbs)

As I mentioned earlier, Martin brings experience and talent to this position group that isn’t desperately needed. He’ll get a chance to work himself into the defense slowly if need be, and if one of the members in the primary rotation get hurt, he’ll be in the best position to step up.

After Martin, the rest of these guys are largely unknowns. McDonald got a chance to see some reps last season, but he’s been reportedly bouncing back and forth between OLB and ILB. His athletic profile would suggest that he’s probably better off in an off-ball LB role, but the fact that he got a chance to play ahead of Lolohea and Trice despite playing somewhat out of position should be something to consider. However, that’s not to say that Lolohea and Trice aren’t slowly developing into ZTF-esque breakout candidates.

I’ve heard from my own sources that Lolohea is fully back into football-mode after going on his mission trip after HS. By the time Spring Practices begin, Lolohea would have been a full 18+ months back in some sort of S&C program, and he should be in prime football shape. We don’t have a lot to go off of other than that nugget of information, but its a lot more than what we have on Trice. Lolohea was a star pass rusher coming out of HS, and his blend of power & technique could lend itself to early returns in both the run and pass game.


Stanford v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Bralen Trice (SO, 6-3, 240 lbs)

Maurice Heims (FR, 6-6, 245 lbs)

Milton Hopkins (FR, 6-5, 220 lbs)

Speaking of Trice, he is a wild card here with so little being heard about him since he arrived, and my recollection is that we have yet to see him play. He came in as a somewhat under the radar prospect (high 3-star recruit), and I didn’t see a specific trait that Trice could really hang his hat on. He may end up being a solid depth guy for the foreseeable future as I’m unsure where to project his career/development arc relative to the talent that’s ahead of him.

By comparison, it’s pretty easy for me to see the high and low ends of Heims & Hopkins’ developmental arcs for the reasons I stated above. Either way, I don’t expect much from these guys this year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t expect to see strong performances in the spring lead to pushing them into the potential breakout group.

Storylines to Watch:

  • How does Malloe split up the snaps between the primary 4 (Bowman, Latu, ZTF, & Smalls)?
  • Where does Martin fit into the rotation?
  • How does Malloe & Gregory’s new positions affect the roles & responsibilities on the defensive front?

The first two storylines are pretty obvious and will likely get a straight forward answer by Fall Camp. However, the third storyline might have the biggest impact to the defense as a whole. I’ve discussed my OLB & DL observations several times over the last couple years, and I’ve written fairly extensively about Coach Kwiatkowski’s defense (shameless plug here & here).

Last year I noticed a much more deliberate shift towards a more traditional 4-2-5 look at times, and our OLB personnel have started to look more like traditional 4-3 DEs than 3-4 OLBs. Bowman, ZTF, and Lolohea are all in the 270-280 lb range, and Latu, Martin, and Heims all either have been, or could get to be around 270+. We still drop our OLBs into coverage on a semi-regular basis, and we move guys all over the front to present different pressure looks (like a 3-4 style defense), but we are also seeing a lot more snaps with guys having their hand in the dirt.

Most HS defenses are pretty straight forward and don’t produce ready-to-go OLBs that can rush, set the edge, and cover. At best, you might get guys that can rush and set the edge. Simplifying the OLB responsibilities to align better with a traditional DE (they’ve already been filling that role, and then some) might be the best path towards playing our talent earlier in their careers. It’ll be interesting to see if Malloe & Gregory put that stamp on the defense.

Let me know what you’ll be watching for in Spring Practices in the comments below.

And as always,

Go Dawgs