Season Grades: Linebackers

For those that have been following the season grades to this point, you'd never think this Washington team finished the 2012 season with a winning record. C's and D's across the board so far, but here's where the grades start getting good…very good. There's no question the strength of UW's defense - and frankly the entire team - starts with the linebackers and ends with the defensive backs.

The Good - Just breaking down the statistics, it's clear this group of linebackers were really the heart and soul of the UW defensive group. They had the pieces in place to start out with; it was just a matter of getting them experience and letting them play as a group. UW Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox completely revamped this group by bringing in a number of safeties - Shaq Thompson, Travis Feeney, Evan Zeger and Taz Stevenson - to help supplement the group already there. The results were hard to ignore. With John Timu as his captain, Wilcox was able to get the defense to surrender 5.4 yards per play, down over two yards a play from 2011. That's nearly 30 percent. That's staggering. In my opinion it came down to three key ingredients: third down defense, turnovers and health.

For the first time in the Steve Sarkisian era, Washington had a third down defense keep offenses off the field nearly two-thirds of the time - another staggering improvement over 2011, where opponents were sustaining drives on third down basically half the time. And they were even better on fourth down, so not only does that mean more plays for the offense, but it also meant less wear and tear on the defense - so they could play more aggressively and more effectively for longer periods of time. And they did all of that with less sacks than at any other time since Sark took over. That points to the linebackers being equally strong in coverage as well as getting to the point of attack post haste - as well as the defensive backs doing their jobs. There was also a significant balance with regard to sharing the tackling load. John Timu's 76 tackles were just six more than Sean Parker. Compare that to 2011, when Cort Dennison was 37 tackles ahead of Parker, or 2010 when Mason Foster was 56 tackles ahead of Nate Williams. The obvious inference is that the earlier teams were relying on one or two players to shoulder the responsibility of being at the right place at the right time with the right run fit. In 2012 the Huskies had five players within 10 tackles of the leader; that means a lot more defenders around the ball carrier and a much greater opportunity to build a swarming, attacking defense with multiple options.

Onto the turnovers…Washington's defense forced 32 turnovers, 23 (2009), 19 (2010) and 23 (2011) - including an amazing 19 in the last five games of the season. That's getting after the ball! Seventeen of those turnovers were interceptions, and the linebackers had seven of those. That's just two less than the entire total of picks by linebackers the three years prior, and that includes the five interceptions combined by Donald Butler and Mason Foster in 2009. That means in the last two years Washington linebackers came up with four picks, three of those by Cort Dennison. Shaq Thompson came up with three in his true freshman season. The only conclusion you can draw is that there's been an improvement in the athleticism and range of the linebackers to not only cover in space, but also to make plays on the ball. Washington's linebackers were directly responsible for turnovers that the offense was able to turn into 30 points, compared to 17 in 2011. With as many tight games played in 2012, 13 points was meaningful, as well as the fact that they were part of a group that helped force well over a third more turnovers this year than at any time under Sark.

Lastly, this group was able to (mostly) stay together as a unit for the whole season. We also saw how injuries wreaked havoc with the offensive line, but outside of a couple instances where Travis Feeney missed a couple of starts and was limited in his availability the other two spots were rock-solid with John Timu and Shaq Thompson. That was huge, and it also helped that there was some quality depth available when needed in players like Thomas Tutogi, Princeton Fuimaono and Jamaal Kearse.

The Bad - As well as the linebackers did in helping in the pass game and getting interceptions and getting themselves off the field on third down, they still made it very hard for themselves in the run game. Considering UW had one of the best pass defenses they've had in two decades, it's a little surprising they weren't more successful on run defense. They basically gave up as many yards per carry as in 2009 and 2010 (2011 was just bad), and they did it with less yards for loss than at any time under Sark. That means less help up front than usual, so they weren't dealt the best hand. Still, as aggressive and as athletic as they were, and playing with as much confidence as they did under Wilcox, it's still a little surprising they didn't lock the run game down a little more. In my opinion it's as much a factor of a poor defensive line not fitting the runs as well as they should but the linebackers are culpable too.

The Grade: B - The linebackers helped to mask a lot of inconsistent play up front, that much is very clear after looking at the season as a whole. When the defensive line matched the physicality and intensity of the offenses they were going up against - Stanford and Oregon State are the two main examples - the linebackers were free to fly around, make tackles, and help keep Washington in those games. But even when the DL didn't necessarily step up to the challenge, the linebackers were still leading the charge. The Cal game was a prime example of a game where players like Timu and Thompson were forcing turnovers, making plays in a hard-fought defensive struggle where they were getting little help from the offense. And against Utah, a Timu pick and Jamaal Kearse fumble recovery led directly to 13 of UW's 34 total points. They almost outscored the Utes on that day. The move of Feeney and Thompson down into the box where they could affect play nearer the line of scrimmage was a masterstroke by Wilcox; Feeney loves to attack and lay the lumber, while Thompson is as athletic as any linebacker that has ever played at Washington - and it showed. But the improvement of Timu as a tackler and vocal leader of the linebacking corps is what tied everything together and made the group work as a whole.


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