Digging Into the Depth Chart

There's no avoiding it- replacing Cort Dennison will be priority No. 1 for the Washington Huskies when it comes to dealing with the linebackers heading into next season. Regardless of how you feel about his athletic ability, Dennison made a serious impact on the defense from a leadership and production standpoint.

A team captain and second team All-Pac-12 selection, Cort was the orchestrator in the middle of the defense and will not be easy to replace. There's no doubt that the Husky defense was not a team strength in 2011 - no one will dispute that. Three coaches lost their jobs because of it. But, natural leaders can be hard to come by and Cort embraced the role. He also knew the defense inside-out.

In the grand scheme of things, his efforts didn't make up for the defense's overall ineptitude, but then again - many of his strengths didn't show up on the stat sheet either.

Let's take a look at the three positions that comprise the linebacker group:

Middle Linebacker:
After a solid year on special teams and on spot duty at linebacker, Thomas Tutogi appears to be Dennison's successor at the middle linebacker position. The JUCO transfer from Southwestern College was originally brought in as someone who could play anywhere along the linebacking front last season. After only a few practices, though, it was evident he would be better suited playing inside following Dennison's graduation.

Frankly, Tutogi - who is the younger brother of Arizona senior H-Back Taimi Tutogi - doesn't have the speed and open-field athleticism to match up on the outside at the Pac-12 level. These deficiencies largely relegated him to special teams duties last season as he adjusted to BCS-level football. Now that No. 31 has graduated, expectations for Tutogi to step into those shoes will be high from fans and coaches alike.

The good news in watching Tutogi's tape from junior college and at UW last season is that he is the kind of tackling machine coaches look for in a middle linebacker. The Chula Vista, Calif. native is very physical and seems to have a penchant for doling out punishment - traits imperative for success at the position. At 6-foot-1 and 244 pounds, Tutogi will bring strong tackling and tremendous physicality to the middle linebacker spot.

Another possibility here is sending Tim Tucker back to the defense after trying him at fullback last season. In theory, Steve Sarkisian said that Tucker was available last year for both sides of the ball, but after failing to find a mainstay at fullback last season, Sarkisian called Tucker over from the defense to plow the way for Chris Polk, and that's where he stayed. A First-Team All-City Section linebacker at Narbonne High School in Harbor City, Calif., Tim is athletic enough to play offense, but is assuredly more comfortable on defense.  Tucker looks to have good size for the position (6-foot-1 and 240 pounds) but was a victim of Dennison's success. That's why he was moved to a position of need; Tucker was just too good a football player to keep him on the bench.

In 2012, however, he just might get another look at MIK with the new staff, presumably to explore all personnel options, as well as create some much-needed competition at the position.

If Tutogi or Tucker are slow to place a stranglehold on the starting middle linebacker position, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon may look at moving Garret Gilliland back inside. The junior from Anaheim, Calif. has primarily played outside 'backer during his time at UW but he did make his first start at the MIK as a true freshman for Dennison against Nebraska, so it's not as if he hasn't played the position before.

Incoming freshmen Blake Rodgers or Ryan McDaniel may also be beneficiaries due to the lack of numbers at the middle linebacker position.  It sounds as if Rodgers is the candidate more likely to get a serious look here with McDaniel could be considered to add depth at running back. McDaniel is also in the throes of rehabbing a knee injury, so the 2012 early enrollee won't be doing much this spring. How much he learns from the time he hits campus at the end of March until the fall will determine whether or not McDaniel is one of those true frosh that sees playing time.

As a senior at Tesoro High School in Anaheim, Rodgers earned first-team All-CIF Southern Section honors, and recorded 103 tackles, 13.5 for loss, and eight sacks. His tape is impressive as he shows sound fundamentals and a good nose for the football. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Rodgers needs to add 15-20 pounds but that shouldn't be a problem once Ivan Lewis gets him in the weight room. This will be an intriguing battle at an extremely vital position.

Outside (Weakside) Linebacker:
Expect Wilcox & Co. to have high expectations for this position heading into the fall.  Princeton Fuimaono played decently at weakside backer for the Huskies last year but lacked consistency to make the impact one would like to see at the position. Fuimaono's size (6-foot-1 and 215 pounds) played a factor, as it's very hard to take on Pac-12 linemen and other blockers all year long as an undersized linebacker. Fuimaono does a lot with the skill set and body he has, but in my opinion the new staff will set higher standards for this position and the defense overall.

Expect Fuimaono to see stiff competition from Gilliland, who came up with some big plays for the Dawgs last year. He's a bit undersized as well but Gilliland has good football instincts and the ability to make plays at important times. He was the only player listed after Fuimaono on the depth chart at the end of last season, so conjecture as to what the new staff will do at this position heading into spring is all that remains.

One possibility would be to give redshirt freshmen Evan Zeger  (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) or Travis Feeney (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) a shot. Both were recruited as safeties but appear to have the size that could certainly translate to linebacker at the college level.  They are both very good athletes but will need to add bulk to handle the weekly rigors of Pac-12 football. Coach Sarkisian has said that a priority on the defensive side of the ball is to get longer and more athletic. Zeger and Feeney fit that mold and if they can come into spring ball in the vicinity of 220 pounds, both could get legitimate looks at outside linebacker - especially when, on paper, there appears to be a logjam of talent at safety.

Outside looking in..

Jarett Finau, Matthew Lyons and Scott Lawyer could make a push for playing time but possess different body types. Finau is more of a 3-4 outside backer or defensive end at about 265 pounds, while Lyons and Lawyer are built more like safeties at 6-foot-1 and 198 pounds. If the new staff wants to go big and deploy a three-man front, Finau could be a good fit as a stand-up 'backer on the outside. As a former tight end, Finau appears to have the athleticism to handle such a role. Given how much he's bulked up since his arrival, he may be used as a hybrid-type player who can play with his hand in the dirt, while also getting some snaps at outside 'backer when a bigger body is required - say maybe goal-line or short-yardage situations.

Lyons and Lawyer are also "tweener" types who possess good rushing ability and speed but will need to add some size before their impact is felt. They could be used in special rush situations in 2012 until solidifying themselves at a particular position, but as we saw with USC's Dion Bailey last year, you don't have to be a big linebacker to have a big impact. Right now at linebacker, the game is all about speed.

How this position unfolds will hinge significantly on what type of scheme the incoming staff decides to implement and what personnel best fits that particular defense. For now, Fuimaono has the inside track at this WIL position, but not an iron-clad grasp by any means.

Outside (Strongside) Linebacker:
John Timu started eight games for Washington last season at the SAM 'backer spot, and saw playing time in 12 of the 13 games. One thing that sticks out in looking at Timu's play in 2011 is how he did in two of UW's biggest games. Against both Oregon and Baylor, Timu notched eight tackles, both season highs.  So he showed up on the big stage - but as is the case with younger players, he didn't show up consistently, and that will be one expected area of improvement as Timu heads into 2012.

Along with Fuimaono, Timu was recruited out of Jordan High School in Long Beach, Calif., and after delaying enrollment due to a knee injury quickly made his mark on the defense last year as a true freshman. Timu plays with good aggressiveness, relying last year more on instinct because he was learning on the fly.

Challenging Timu for the SAM 'backer spot will be Lakes High product Jamaal Kearse. Since high school, Kearse has bulked up to 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds and elevated himself to a starter equivalent on the depth chart in 2011, as well as a special teams stalwart. As a former three-star safety prospect, Kearse brings very good range and athleticism to the linebacker position. His role next season will bear watching as Kearse seems to have solid upside from an athleticism standpoint. As long as he keeps progressing, he'll be counted on for valuable playing time in 2012.

Former Skyline standout Cooper Pelluer, listed third on the depth chart, is a good overall athlete and seems to be a jack of all trades at linebacker. However, he will have to make a significant leap this offseason to supplant the other two, as injury has curtailed his development. His role will likely be on special teams and reserve duty to start.

Lastly, the transition for true freshman Cory Littleton to the big time will determine whether or not he redshirts. Recruited as an outside linebacker out of Mount Miguel High School in the greater San Diego area, Littleton has great size at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds. His high school coach, Tom Karlo, characterized him as a good athlete who could come in and play right away. Littleton appears to be the wild card of the group and has the right frame and athleticism to play the position, but ideally this is the kind of raw talent that you keep under wraps, redshirt, and then unleash in the spring of 2013 as a bigger, faster and stronger 'backer who also now has a knowledge base to be a serious factor in the depth. But keep an eye on him as this position shakes out over the next six months; you never know how players react to making the move to the college game.

  Overall, the linebacker corps appears to be one of the weaker groups on the team going into next season. The position is currently lacking in experience, great size, and a clear-cut leader. Adjusting to new coaches and new defensive schemes should also prove to be a challenge, but Wilcox and Sirmon have shown that they can come into new environments and successfully tweak their own philosophies to the talent on hand, so expect that to be the case starting this spring. 

So it is possible the new staff can get a lot out of this unit based on the schemes they implement. For instance, expect to see blitzes that capitalize on the speed of players like Shaquille Thompson and the physicality of Sean Parker from the safety position. Moves like that could help offset some of the defense's deficiencies and change the complexion of the defense from reactionary to aggressive.

Incoming freshmen Blake Rodgers, Cory Littleton, and Ryan McDaniel could provide a significant boost to this group. Finally, the maturation of returning players should result in improved production and hopefully produce more than one defensive leader in 2012.

Go Dawgs!

Next up: Part III- Defensive Backs

Digging Into The Depth Chart - Part I: Defensive Line

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