Linebackers looking to fill holes

Mike Cox must feel at times like he's robbing Peter to pay Paul. With the graduation of inside linebacker Donald Butler, Cox - UW's LB's Coach - didn't have a true answer at that position last year. So he put his smartest guy on the job, Cort Dennison. Problem was, Dennison was really a weak-side linebacker, a player who got his first start at Notre Dame in 2009 when E.J. Savannah went down.

Truth be told, Cox only had one sure-fire, dependable player at the position he was supposed to play - Mason Foster - and the only reason that was true is that Foster could play any one of the three linebacking positions. Cox's first year, he had Butler in the middle, flanked by Savannah and Foster - as promising a UW 'backer trio as they'd had in years. Not only were they talented and prolific, but they were all in the right spots too. Fast forward to 2010, and Cox had to start from scratch with essentially two experienced players - Foster and Dennison.

He worked a minor miracle in bringing Victor Aiyewa up from safety and putting him closer to the line of scrimmage. That experiment paid off handsomely; he finished his senior year leading the Pac-10 in tackles for loss (22.5), and also contributed 83 tackles from his strong-side linebacker spot.

But when it came to having capable backups for the veterans, the specter of Tyrone Willingham's recruiting efforts - or lack thereof - really exposed the soft underbelly of the Husky defense - especially at linebacker. Senior Matt Houston should have been counted on as a reliable option behind Aiyewa, but he never seemed to hold the trust of the new coaching staff. 2008 signees Bradly Roussel and Kurt Mangum were gone, and they were the only linebacking recruits Willingham signed that year.

2009, Steve Sarkisian's first recruiting class to UW, was clearly a rush job through no fault of his own - but the timing certainly hurt when it came to getting the type of linebackers they would normally be looking after. They scored a late coup in Jordan Wallace, younger brother of former UW safety C.J. Wallace, and that signing looms larger and larger as the Huskies are having to load up on young talent in the absence of veterans at all three linebacking positions.

"We've got a lot of good, young talent at linebacker, and some of them haven't played before," Dennison said this past week as the Huskies opened up spring practice full of energy and enthusiasm brought on by their 2010 late-season heroics. "They have great potential, so I just tried to help them out as much as possible. The biggest thing for them is experience. The more experience they get, the faster they'll play."

There's no doubt many of them will play, and play a lot, as Cox tries to find a way to replace a senior linebacking class responsible for 71 percent of tackles (250/353), 80 percent of tackles for loss (35/43.5), 85 percent of sacks (11/13), and 86 percent of forced fumbles (6/7). And outside of Dennison, the rest of the returning linebacking corps totaled 20 tackles and one forced fumble - and that forced fumble and 12 of those tackles were tallied by a player not really available for spring - Princeton Fuimaono. Add Cooper Pelluer as another promising linebacker sidelined for spring by a shoulder injury, and the group practicing at Husky Stadium this April keeps getting younger and younger.

"Every year it's a different team and a different group, and you adapt to it," Cox said. "Cort is one of the better leaders I've been around. He'll do a solid job of leading those guys. The young guys, it's all brand-new to them. You have to get through, you have to wade through and get them to play with a fast speed without thinking about it. And that's the hard part right now."

Sarkisian and his staff are playing that cruelest of games - Linebacker Catch-Up. If you don't count Josh Shirley, who is going to be used more as a straight speed defensive end, the Huskies still signed eight linebackers in 2010. Three of those players have already bombed out - either for academics (Chris Young and Darius Waters) or a mutual parting of the ways (Brent Williams). In 2011, they signed four more. This fall, two newcomers - John Timu and Thomas Tutogi - are expected to be a big part of UW's plans.

"That's one of the things in recruiting…we like to get guys that are somewhat similar in their body-type, if you've noticed," said Cox. "They have the ability to play all three positions, because depending on the formation we end up doing the same thing as everybody. We don't have those true outside-'backer types right now. We might have a couple, maybe, coming in that we'll look at and see where we're at. The closest guy we had was Mason (Foster), but Mason was truly an inside 'backer the way we used him the whole time."

Tutogi is that thumper in the middle that the Huskies haven't had since Butler. "He's got some suddenness," Cox said of the junior college LB, whose brother Taimi plays for Arizona. Sarkisian has always said he would only scour the JC ranks if he could find a player who could help right away, and the 250-pound Tutogi fits the bill. He better - UW beat out home-town favorite USC to get him. "He's got good size, and hopefully he'll be a good run defender. When we get the pads on, he has the physical-ness that we're going to need out of this group."

Timu is a player that originally signed as part of the 2010 class, but delayed enrollment due to a knee injury he suffered during his senior year at Jordan High School in Long Beach, Calif. - the same school that produced Fuimaono. The Huskies signed Timu as a 205-pound athlete that was a prep quarterback, but now he's turned into a 225-pound linebacker that will challenge for the strong-side 'backer position Aiyewa called his own last season.

"He's one of our bigger guys," Cox said of Timu. "He's got strength too. He's a good athlete. Now he just has to learn to play at this speed every day, every down - and it's all brand-new to him."

With Fuimaono and Pelluer out, Timu is competing for starting time with former Lakes safety Jamaal Kearse. Bringing in great, smart athletes to fill in new roles? Absolute Beginners - It's a familiar tune for Washington when it comes to linebackers, but expect that David Bowie song to ease its way out of UW's top-40 soon enough.

There is precedent for all this player movement; when it comes to replacing a linebacker as productive as Foster, you have to go all the way back to David Rill's senior season in 1987. That year he had 188 tackles, putting him at 575 total career tackles - good enough for second all-time behind Michael Jackson by only three stops.

The following year, senior Ricky Andrews - the leader of that UW linebacking corps, had nearly as productive a season, racking up 170 tackles. He was helped that year by a junior - Martin Harrison - and a bunch of underclassmen, namely freshmen Chico Fraley and Brett Collins. In 1989, Harrison, Fraley, and Collins were joined by Dave Hoffmann, James Clifford, and Jaime Fields. And I think we all remember what they ended up doing a couple of years later.

Is that to say the pieces are in place for a similar run at UW when it comes to the linebackers? We'll see. Only time will tell on that score. But when you look at the fact that Washington effectively had six scholarship linebackers for use when Sarkisian got here - Matt Houston, Donald Butler, E.J. Savannah, Cort Dennison, Mason Foster, and Trenton Tuiasosopo - and now that number will double in 2012 - Thomas Tutogi, Princeton Fuimaono, John Timu, Cooper Pelluer, Jamaal Kearse, Tim Tucker, Victor Burnett, Garret Gilliland, Jordan Wallace, Corey Waller, Scott Lawyer, and Matthew Lyons - it shows where they were and just how far they've come in stockpiling their cupboard for the future.

In the meantime, the Husky coaching staff will do what they did last year, and the year before - rob, steal and kill - to make sure their linebackers get the job done, no matter the method or those involved. They are taking applications, and the line forms to the left, starting last Tuesday.

"No one on our team has hit their potential," said Dennison. "And we all feel that way. There's always room for improvement."

"I thought we were a little further ahead mentally than I anticipated, which was good," Cox said of their first spring practice. "But we're a very, very young group. I was encouraged by that. There were some young mistakes that we're going to have to get through, and I'm going to have to be really patient and fight through it - but I was encouraged."


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