Fall Camp Preview: Linebackers

As we count down to the start of fall camp, which kicks off on August 5th, it's time to take a position-by-positon look at the Huskies. Today, we look at the linebackers. The starters look to be set, and there are quality backups within this group - as well as a number of true freshmen that should be allowed to redshirt. Let's take a closer look.

The Players:
LB: 41 Travis Feeney So., 6-4, 209 - Feeney is arguably the one player Washington fans are chomping at the bit most to see this fall just because he was out in spring with shoulder surgery. Steve Sarkisian has said Feeney has been fully cleared for fall camp but did stress that the staff will pay close attention to Feeney to make sure he's 100 percent healthy for the Boise State opener August 31st. Feeney came out of nowhere in 2012, ending up fourth on the team in tackles with 76, including six tackles for loss and four sacks.
37 Princeton Fuimaono Sr., 6-1, 211 - Fuimaono was the beneficiary of Feeney's spring absence, getting most of the workload at the one linebacker position. A fourth-year senior, Princeton offers solid cover for Feeney in case of injury or when Travis needs to take a quick breather.
58 Jamaal Kearse Jr., 6-1, 226 - Another linebacker that seemingly has been around forever, Kearse is one of those steady eddies that not only can be relied on at linebacker, but also on special teams. Kearse's size means he can play anywhere along the three linebacker positions if needed, but he's best when coming downhill to stop the run.
Connor O'Brien Fr., 6-3, 205 - A converted safety, O'Brien already has the size and hard-hitting resume to step in and be a natural at this position like Feeney. He should be given plenty of time to adapt to playing closer to the line of scrimmage so that in two years he be an integral part of the depth.

LB: 10 John Timu Jr., 6-1, 231 - It's not often a sophomore is named a team captain, but that's what happened with John Timu last year - and it paid off for Justin Wilcox and the UW defense. Timu led the defense in tackles with 91, including 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. He also came up with a key interception versus Oregon State that should have been a pick-six but was nullified because of a penalty. Expect Timu, Sean Parker, and Danny Shelton to be the literal spine of the Huskies' defense this fall, leading from the front and showing why he's one of the best linebackers in the Pac-12.
50 Thomas Tutogi Sr., 6-1, 242 - A most capable backup, Tutogi came in as a real thumper but has adjusted his body and game to become more of a versatile, balanced threat when he comes in the game. Tutogi, who picked UW over USC, is a bigger, tougher throwback kind of linebacker that certainly has his place in jumbo packages and short-yardage/goal-line situations.
Azeem Victor Fr., 6-4, 220 - Many are excited about Victor simply because of his physical upside - but there's a lot more to Victor's game than just size. Until he was moved to linebacker his senior season, Victor had always played with his hand down, so he almost brings a defensive lineman's mentality, approach and toughness to the middle of the UW linebacking corps. On top of that, he's a supreme athlete, so the sky is the limit for Azeem in terms of his potential.
Sean Constantine Fr., 6-3, 230 - A local product, Constantine is a player Sarkisian has coveted since seeing him play as a sophomore for Bellevue. Another rugged, sure tackler, the closer to the line of scrimmage is where he's going to make his biggest impact. Sean has plenty of time to develop his physique and learn the tools of the trade under Wilcox and Peter Sirmon. He will be ready to make his presence felt in a couple of years.

NI: 7 Shaquille Thompson So., 6-2, 225 - The real 'rock star' of the linebacking corps, Shaq came into the 2012 season as the No. 1 safety in the country, only to be moved up closer to the line of scrimmage to impact the game in a different way. The transformation has been beneficial for all parties, as Thompson has been able to roam and impose his sizable presence. Not knowing where he could be lined up from one play to another has freed up Wilcox to use Shaq in so many ways that it feels like No. 7 has carte blanche to do anything he wants to within the scheme and play called. Expect the jump in Shaq's development from year one to two to mirror that of others that have taken that next big step up - including Bishop Sankey, Kasen Williams, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
47 Scott Lawyer So., 6-2, 223 - Lawyer is a lot like Fuimaono and Kearse in that he's the Swiss Army Knife of the linebacking corps - he can do a little bit of everything well and can take on spot duty at any of the positions when necessary. Lawyer was a prospect that impressed early at Rising Stars, where he showed he could be a sideline-to-sideline player as well as one that could get into opposing backfields. Now in his third year, Scott is in a position to impact the game in a positive way and take that next necessary step up in his UW career.
Keishawn Bierria Fr., 6-1, 210 - Bierria represents a little bit of a departure for UW linebacker recruiting. They've already started to implement the 'safety as projected linebacker' philosophy with players like Thompson, Feeney, and O'Brien - but now they are augmenting that philosophy with prep linebackers that fill a specific role; no-huddle spread stoppers. With Oregon and Arizona having cut up the Huskies' defense, Washington has tried to address their shortcomings first through recruiting. Bierria, who is a little smaller than their typical linebacker signees, isn't the first one to try and fill that role; Matthew Lyons was also an undersized linebacker that eventually transferred out. But Bierria prefers coverage and can run all day long. Consider him the Energizer Bunny for the 2013 LB class.
The Depth: Right now Washington's linebacker depth is in surprisingly good shape considering they lost three players since the end of 2012: Nate Fellner, Blake Rodgers, and Evan Zeger. Fellner graduated, and both Rodgers and Zeger weren't expected to be integral parts of the 2013 group, so that's helped to mitigate the numbers. But they have nice balance in terms of their body types, cover guys versus run-stoppers, spread guys versus third-and-short/goal-line guys. But the reality is every linebacker UW has needs to be able to do a little bit of everything. Under Wilcox and Sirmon, Washington jumped up to 61st nationally in rush defense (up from 76th in 2011), 23rd in pass defense (up from 116th in 2011!!!) - which put them 31st in total defense, up from 106th in 2011. Incredible jumps, especially in pass defense - and a lot of that credit can be spread out to not only the secondary, but the linebackers, who effectively shut down the short-to-intermediate routes and were also able to contain and limit the effectiveness of backs catching passes out of the backfield.

The bottom line with regard to Washington's linebacker depth is that they can go legitimately two-deep with players that are going into their second years as starters or third years as contributors - and I believe it's been quite a while since you could say that about this group.
The Battles: As long as Feeney makes it through fall camp unscathed and starts August 31st, the trio of Feeney, Timu and Thompson will be the group the Huskies rely on - and there isn't too much debate about that at this point in time. But if any of those players go down and now it could be a real battle between the likes of Fuimaono, Kearse and Lawyer to pick up the slack. So more than anything, the position battles at linebacker this fall are going to focus more on how the depth continues to develop and evolve over time, as well as whether or not any of the true freshmen flash to the point where it's going to be tough to keep them off the field. I'm not anticipating that happening, but until they get out there in pads and show what they've got - you never know.
The Future: As you can tell, the future is extremely bright for the Washington linebacking corps. They'll retain all their starters for 2013 and 2014, which is key for the immediate future. And then, as depth is properly built and developed, the 2013 true freshmen role right into 2015 as competitors for immediate playing time as the new starters and key backups - as it should be. It's amazing to be talking about the natural progression of depth again and how it can help keep the UW Football program rolling again as it used to. There's still all sorts of work to be done to ensure a proper succession in terms of guys graduating/leaving early for the NFL/etc… but right now the Huskies can look to the progression, development and recruitment of their current linebacking corps as a blueprint on how to get it done right.

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