Happy 2016, Dawgpounders. And 2016 looks to be as big a year for Husky sports as we've anticipated in quite some time. But before we fully move on, here's one final look back at the 2015 season, and the foundation that's been laid for a big step forward this year.
First up for the "2015 Season in Review" is the linebacking corps. Heading into the start of fall camp this past season, there were large questions at linebacker, most notably who would fill the large shoes of departing All-American Buck Hau'oli Kikaha, do-everything All-American Shaq Thompson, and four-year starter John Timu in the middle. Here's what the 'Pound had to say this past fall about the state of the linebackers heading in to 2015:
On paper it would be irresponsible to rate this unit as any better than middling in the Pac-12. There are far too many unknowns, even concerning the veteran players. The aforementioned BUCK situation and the pass-rush in general will be a huge question mark for this defense, and the linebackers will have to provide at least part of the answer.
Suffice it to say that all of the questions about the linebackers any Husky fan might've had heading into this past season were answered, and with flying colors. On a defensive unit that was seemingly filled with strengths, the linebackers more than held their own.
2015 in Review
After just about every healthy body on the roster outside of the kickers and quarterbacks was given a look at the BUCK position in the spring, senior Travis Feeney was named the starter early in fall camp, showing that the moniker is more about letting playmakers make plays than fitting any set definition of a prototype for the position. Feeney made 12 starts at the position, missing the Stanford game due to injury, and doubled his career totals for sacks and tackles for lost yardage on the year. Though undersized as an edge rusher, Feeney has always been one of the most athletic players on the roster with sub-4.5 speed in the 40, and superlative jumping and change-of-direction numbers, and he put that ability on display from the first game of the season. No play exemplified his athleticism or tenacity more than his chasing Oregon State running back Paul Lucas 76 yards down the field, after starting 10 yards behind Lucas. Although his statistics weren't eye-popping (56 tackles, 8 sacks, 17.5 TFL), Feeney was a veteran presence in a mostly young and/or inexperienced front seven, and was awarded a second-team all-Pac 12 nod for a senior effort that showed his versatility and went far in meeting the potential he flashed throughout his career as a Husky. Much the same way Danny Shelton did in 2014, Feeney showed tremendous growth as a player in 2015, subverting some of reckless tendencies that kept him off the field at times in previous years, and became the consummate leader and team player.
After making the move to outside linebacker in 2014 and seeing a handful of starts at his new position, senior Cory Littleton was the starter on the strong side all season. Like Feeney, Littleton is supremely athletic, and his versatility allowed the UW coaching staff to play "sides" with the outside linebackers instead of "positions," particularly in the nickel. Like Feeney, Littleton didn't put up huge statistics for the Huskies (59 tackles, 6 sacks, 11.0 TFL), but he was quietly very consistent for the Huskies all season, and seemed to make his biggest plays at the times the defense most needed him to. Opposing coaches saw Littleton as an honorable mention all-conference player, but his teammates and coaches saw his true value, recognizing him with the Chuck Niemi Big Hit Award and the L.Wait Rising Front 7 Man of the Year award.
Sophomore Azeem Victor broke out in 2015. In a big way. Victor has ideal size to play the inside 'backer position at 6'3" and 240 pounds, and showed the ability to really move. After notching 14 tackles in the season opener at Boise State, Victor put in a campaign only rivaled by Mason Foster's senior year for the Huskies going back 15 years or more. A prototypical run-stuffer early in the year, Victor really developed as a pass coverage linebacker as the season wore on. After missing a couple of "woulda, coulda, shoulda" picks early in the season, he made a great play on the ball in the Apple Cup, took his first career interception back for a touchdown, and ended up fifth on the team in passes defended. Victor plays the game with tremendous emotion and passion. As he matures as a player, the sky is truly the limit for him. Statistically, he had a very good year (95 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 9 TFL), and the fact that he was "only" honorable mention all-conference was quite a snub. Perhaps it was the sack numbers, but from a team that doesn't really blitz, he just isn't going to get the opportunities. Regardless, expect to see a motivated and improved Azeem Victor in his junior season.
Sophomore Keishawn Bierria veeeeery quietly had a very productive season. After making a handful of starts as a freshman in 2014 when Shaq Thompson was busy running the ball, and mostly looking like an overmatched freshman, Bierria came back in 2015 bigger, stronger, and was really able to show how solid a linebacker he's going to be. While he didn't have a season filled with spectacular plays, Bierria is a "right place, right time" guy with above-average athleticism and solid fundamentals for the position. With another year to get bigger and stronger, he and Victor could very well form the most dominant, dynamic inside tandem in the conference. If not for the huge strides Victor took from 2014 to 2015, Bierria would be a guy Husky fans would be talking about as the most improved linebacker this season. Second on the team in tackles (77 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 7.5 TFL), Bierria will be a solid player moving forward.
From the first game of the season, the Washington defensive coaches showed great faith in the depth that the team had at linebacker, liberally rotating five players into the lineup, and at times playing all four backups at linebacker at the same time in crucial situations. Not only does that depth bode well for the future, but it also went a long way in keeping the starters fresh throughout the season. Maybe the most impressive of this group was true freshman Ben Burr-Kirven, whom no rational Husky fan would've predicted would play meaningful snaps this season, but led backups with 34 tackles and was named Special Teams player of the year. What Burr-Kirven lacks in size he more than makes up for in intelligence at the position, a nose for the football, and solid tackling fundamentals. Scott Lawyer finished his Husky career as a versatile backup, making starts at both inside linebacker spots and one at outside linebacker. Sophomores Sean Constantine and Connor O'Brien both saw action throughout the year, and another true freshman, Tevis Bartlett, also played a significant role that no one would have predicted. Psalm Wooching was the primary backup at the BUCK position, and seems to be the favorite to win that role as a senior in 2016 following a productive season in 2015.
2015 Key Statistics
|Azeem Victor (Rs SO)||95||1.5||9||1||2||1||7|
|Keishawn Bierria (Rs SO)||77||3.5||7.5||1||1|
|Cory Littleton (SR)||65||6|
|Travis Feeney (Rs SR)||56||8|
|Ben Burr-Kirven (FR)||34||1|
|Psalm Wooching (Rs JR)||23||2|
|Scott Lawyer (Rs SR)||22||1|
|Sean Constantine (Rs SO)||12||1|
|Tevis Bartlett (FR)||11||1|
|Connor O'Brien (Rs SO)||9||2||3|
Looking Ahead to 2016
It's not going out on a limb to forecast Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria maintaining their starting jobs heading in to next season. At all. The only question here is what the depth looks like behind them. Given how confident the coaches were in playing all of the youth in 2015, and the talent that returns, it's not unreasonable to think that three or four players see significant time behind the starters. Ben Burr-Kirven seems a given, and the only question there is how much size he's able to gain heading into the season. Sean Constantine seemed destined to be an inside player for the Huskies under the previous staff, but was moved outside under Pete Kwiatkowski and Bob Gregory. He could potentially move inside. DJ Beavers and Kyler Manu are coming off their redshirt seasons, although Beavers appears destined to play outside. Manu could provide depth here, though. Jusstis Warren is another player coming off a redshirt, and although he could be a BUCK candidate, he's also a guy that has played on the inside.
Replacing two highly productive senior leaders will be a tall task, and there's no doubt that Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton will be missed--for their leadership, if nothing else. The competition here will be wide open, and the coaches will surely be looking for versatility at these two slots. If last season is any indicator, then the BUCK spot will be filled with the best available athlete. While Psalm Wooching received the backup reps in 2015, it's quite possible that a number of players will get a look there again this spring. Don't be surprised if the starter ends up coming slightly out of left field. With at least two highly regarded freshman joining the team in the fall, the competition for the strong side could last quite a while. Unless one of the backups from last season (O'Brien, Bartlett, Constantine) puts a stranglehold on the job, that is....
In two years at the UW, the current coaches have built and developed as much depth at the linebacking positions as Husky fans have seen since the Jim Lambright era (which was largely held over from the Don James era). The future at these positions is as bright as it's been.