Post-Spring Review: Outside Linebacker

Looking at the numbers, this year's crop of Washington's outside linebackers have Bigfoot-sized shoes to fill. The statistical hole left by seniors Mason Foster and Victor Aiyewa is one Andy Dufresne would be proud of. We're talking careers that totaled 504 tackles, 62 tackles for loss, and 15 sacks, as well as 56 combined starts. Wow. But statistics only tell one side of the story.

So what is left in the wake of their departures? What's left is a group loaded with potential, but there's only two career starts and less than 20 live tackles between the six players listed in Washington's official post-spring depth. From a production standpoint, it's the equivalent of going from the penthouse to the outhouse in one flight of stairs.

To compound their problems, UW Linebackers Coach Mike Cox doesn't have two Cort Dennisons at the WIL and SAM spot to plug in between the real Cort Dennison. If he did, things wouldn't look quite as bleak, but the reality is both outside linebacker positions are virtual unknowns going into the 2011 season. Only the Washington coaching brain trust knows what they have, and they know they have to get what they have going in a hurry.

The two players that do have starting experience for the Huskies in this position group are both true sophomores, meaning they earned their stripes in 2010 the hard way. Princeton Fuimaono got his first career start at Arizona - never an easy place to play at - and Garret Gilliland found himself manning the middle against Nebraska after Dennison came up ill. I'm sure Gilliland wasn't feeling so hot himself after getting thrown into that grease fire, but if you are a Washington fan you have to hope the experiences had by the true freshmen were valuable teaching tools and lessons they can fall back on as they most likely make up the starting linebacking corps with Dennison September 3rd against Eastern Washington.

Fuimaono frustratingly had to sit by and watch others get better during contact periods this spring while he rested a repaired shoulder. Because of the rest, he'll be full-go for fall camp, and it's clear he found the trust of the coaches early - so expect him to jump right in with the first team without too much rust. The 6-foot, 201-pound Fuimaono isn't the biggest player, but he can really run and has a nasty streak that showed itself - especially on special teams, where he had a couple of great hits in the Holiday Bowl, including the first tackle of the game. A bad wing means Fuimaono couldn't lift to get bigger and stronger, but hopefully UW Strength and Conditioning Coach Ivan Lewis has been able to do some things to get him back on track without incurring any physical setbacks.

Another player plagued by the shoulder bug was a freshman that saw substantial special teams action early in 2010 - Cooper Pelluer. At 6-foot-3 and 221 pounds, Pelluer gives the SAM spot a Foster-like physical presence, but he needed spring more than Fuimaono did. While Princeton got his start against the Ducks, Pelluer only played the first five games of the season, so he really needed the work. Just like Fuimaono, Pelluer is expected to be 100 percent for the fall, and this summer's weight training and conditioning will tell a lot in terms of where Pelluer ends up in the fall depth. He has a chance to be an excellent player holding down the edge, as well as rushing the passer when it suits Washington Defensive Coordinator Nick Holt (Pelluer was a great outside rusher at Skyline), but will he get lost in the shuffle with players like Jamaal Kearse and Johnny Timu moving ahead of him?

Speaking of Kearse and Timu, their play this spring really felt like what the future of Washington's linebacking corps is going to look like - big, rangy, physical athletes that can go sideline-to-sideline - but with a caveat; they are going to really have to take in the teachings of Cox, because they aren't natural fits. On the contrary: Kearse was a former safety at Lakes, while Timu played quarterback and safety while prepping at Jordan High School in Long Beach, Calif. Timu was also the Panthers' punter and kicker, lending credence to his athleticism.

Both players have grown since graduating from high school - Kearse is listed as 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, while Timu is listed at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, but he's at least 220 after spring ball. They bring bloodlines and a high football IQ, but they are very much still learning the outside linebacker positions. Timu spent last year rehabilitating a torn knee, and appears to be in phenomenal shape. The UW coaches clearly love the headiness and versatility Timu brings to the game, as they list him at both OLB spots in the linebacker depth. Kearse has taken to his new role playing SAM very well, earning top spot on the depth for now. He brings a lot of athleticism to the table, but has to still show he's willing to stand tough on every down and take on the best tight ends the Pac-12 has to offer.

To be frank, going up against the likes of Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Michael Hartvigson will get the SAM 'backers absolutely prepared for what they'll see in space, but they are nowhere near as physical as they need to be to give them a serious taste for what they'll see during the season at the line of scrimmage. Hopefully the TE's will start smacking some folks in the mouth this fall, and then we'll get a chance to truly see what the outside linebackers are made of.

Gilliland took giant steps in April to solidify his standing as the Huskies' number-one weakside linebacker option. The 6-foot, 215-pounder from Orange County has always been a very productive linebacker, ever since his days at Orange Lutheran tracking down players like current USC QB Matt Barkley. Besides his lone start against the Cornhuskers, Gilliland played in every game of the 2010 season but one, proving his mettle and reliability as a game special teamer. That work should pay dividends down the road. The Huskies are counting on Gilliland in a big way, but with just the lone start behind him, he'll have to be a quick study. There's nothing to suggest he isn't up to the task, but it's still going to take him some time before he can reasonably adjust to the pace of play to the point where he's just playing, and not having to read and react to every situation out on the field. But all indications point to Gilliland being as tough and as dependable as Dennison has proven to be. Let's hope that development comes sooner, rather than later.

The other WIL option, given UW's depth chart, is Jordan Wallace - younger brother of former Husky standout safety C.J. Wallace. Wallace has shown glimpses of his brother's football aptitude, but it's been just that - glimpses. On the plus side, the 6-foot, 225-pound junior is the only player at either outside linebacking spot to have more than one year of experience playing at the Pac-10/Pac-12 level. He's played in 14 games, but doesn't have a start to his name yet. He's been a special teams fixture, but apparently hasn't earned the trust of the coaches yet to get his breakthrough on defense. I expect that to happen this year, and I also believe he'll be up to the task. Wallace was a late signee in Steve Sarkisian's first UW class, and they obviously saw something in him.

Because of the success of Fuimaono and the subsequent signings of players like Corey Waller, Matthew Lyons, Scott Lawyer, and Jarett Finau, it's pretty easy to get a clear idea of what Washington is looking for in their outside linebackers during the recruiting process - players that can run and are relentless in pursuit, but are also players they can physically develop over time into the kinds of athletic specimens they want.

Right now it appears as if both Lawyer is going to delay his enrollment - like Timu, but for different reasons. The Washington coaches want him to get bigger, faster and stronger before his eligibility clock starts. It worked with Timu.

For Lyons, who comes from the same program that produced Beno Bryant, Washington sees the same thing in him that they saw in Fuimaono - a smart, tough-minded player who plays the game the right way and finds himself always around the ball. Lyons was thinking about enrolling early, but will now come in with the rest of his 2011 freshman teammates during the summer. Like Fuimaono, he'll get his first taste of UW football on special teams, and then should crack the defensive depth in short order. According to reports out of Dorsey High School right now, Lyons is now 210 pounds, so he's well on his way toward getting to the place where he can physically compete week-in and week-out in the Pac-12.

Waller is a very intriguing player. Much like what Josh Shirley was coming out of high school, the 6-foot-2.5, 215-pound Waller is an undersized, but cat-quick defensive end that caused opposing offensive lines nothing but trouble. Who knows if the UW coaches want to slide Waller right behind Shirley in that newfound 'RUSH' end spot, but right now they've told the Long Beach Poly star that he'll start out at SAM. Either way, they are getting a player that played in arguably one of the toughest leagues in the state of California, and he's not afraid to take on bodies considerably bigger than he is. He inhales quarterbacks.

Finau is physically the opposite of Waller - a bigger linebacking prospect at 6-foot-3.5 and 235 pounds, who is slated to start his UW career at OLB, but certainly could move inside, or even up to the defensive line if he gets bigger. The two players are very similar in one respect; they love to play along the line of scrimmage and will not shy away from contact.

Despite a lack of experience at both the outside linebacking positions, Washington is finally starting to build up their depth to the point where players now will be able to redshirt instead of having to deal with the rigors of Pac-12 play from the jump. Fuimaono and Gilliland didn't have that luxury, but players like Waller and Finau should be able to - as long as they don't do something crazy, like blow the socks off the coaches this fall and push their way into situations where they could be difference-makers right away. It's possible, but ideally they should be given time to make their way.

Outside Linebacker
Jamaal Kearse (RFr.) OR
Princeton Fuimaono (So.) OR
John Timu (Fr.) OR
Cooper Pelluer (So.)

Outside Linebacker
Garret Gilliland (So.) OR
Jordan Wallace (Jr.) OR
John Timu (Fr.)


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