Spring Preview: Linebackers

While some of Chris Petersen's first-year Washington staff don't have experience coaching at the BCS level, new linebackers coach Bob Gregory is plenty familiar with the Pac-12. Before his nine-year stint as Jeff Tedford's defensive coordinator at Cal, Gregory also coached defensive backs at Oregon for three years.

But there is one thing the Spokane native had not done during his extensive coaching career until 2014; he never coached in his home state. That will all change starting Tuesday as the Huskies begin spring football.

"Very excited," Gregory said when asked about the opportunity to coach at Washington. "Growing up in the state of Washington, I've always known this is a very special place. It's a great school. Obviously the things they've done here and the support these last couple years in terms of the facilities - that's just going to help us even more."

His attention then turned to his position group, the linebackers, and what he needs to see from them this spring. "You have to be a physical player, regardless," Gregory said. "Football is a physical game and you have to be a physical player. With all the spread stuff with one back it still comes down to physical players. You have to be able to make plays in space. If you can do those two things - be physical and make plays in space - you've got a chance to play football."
10 John Timu - 6-1, 235 Sr. Long Beach, Calif. (Jordan) - After redshirting his first year rehabbing a knee injury, Timu has taken his opportunities very well and two years later was named a team captain. Timu, who was a quarterback in high school, brings truckloads of ability and leadership to the middle of the Washington linebacking corps. He's just as adept in space as he is running downhill and stuffing the run at the line of scrimmage. A very intelligent player, Timu supplements his knowledge of the defense with great instincts. He will be missed after the 2014 season.
42 Cory Littleton - 6-3, 230 Jr. Spring Valley, Calif. (Mount Miguel) - Another wonderful job of evaluating under-the-radar talent by Steve Sarkisian's staff, Littleton is the present and future of linebacking. He's an extremely rangy athlete who is equally comfortable rushing the passer or handling the edge on run plays. Littleton had to grow up quickly, starting at Oregon his true frosh season, but he has really matured and taken the hybrid OLB/DE position over from Josh Shirley and made it his own, coming up with five sacks and 62 tackles in 2013.
41 Travis Feeney - 6-4, 224 Jr. Richmond, Calif. (Pinole Valley) - Feeney's future looked incredibly promising after the 2012 season, one where he was an honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection - but 2013 was a bit of a reversal of fortune. Feeney still played in all 13 games, but more as a reserve. His production dropped slightly but he should be expected to bounce back strong after having to deal with a year rebounding from off-season shoulder surgery. It didn't look like he completely recovered from it and suffered a bit as a result. Feeney is another rangy, tough linebacker that adds experience and moxie to a group that will need his presence, in part to help some of the younger players push through and compete for time in the two-deeps.
7 Shaquille Thompson - 6-2, 225 Jr. Sacramento, Calif. (Grant) - As solid and as dependable as Thompson has been in his first two years at UW - he's been an honorable mention All-Pac-12 pick both seasons - this should be Shaq's breakout campaign. In his first year he was allowed to rove a little bit, playing up closer to the line of scrimmage and hawking there while Cory Littleton got the hang of the hybrid OLB/DE spot. Last season he became more of a dependable WIL tackling machine as John Timu's main lieutenant, coming up with 80 stops. Thompson, Scout.com's No. 1 safety prospect nationally for the 2012 recruiting class, has all the natural athleticism and drive to become a Butkus Award candidate in 2014 under Gregory's guidance. Now is the time for Thompson to show he's ready to take that next step in his development.
47 Scott Lawyer - 6-2, 227 Jr. San Jose, Calif. (Oak Grove) - A career backup to date, Lawyer is another one that physically and athletically could be a great weak-side tackling machine - but playing behind guys like Princeton Fuimaono and Shaq Thompson the last couple years can certainly stick even a solid prospect like Lawyer on the bench. Lawyer played in all 13 games in 2013, mostly on special teams, and the clean slate handed out by the new UW defensive staff this spring should help a guy like Scott figure out if he's got a future in the Huskies' two-deeps.
25 Keishawn Bierria - 6-1, 208 RFr. Carson, Calif. (Narbonne) - Originally recruited by Sarkisian, Wilcox and Peter Sirmon as a 'spread killer' because of his ability to play sideline to sideline and pursue with zeal, Bierria is a player - like Timu - that has a natural footballing instinct. Simply put, he has a nose for the ball and is always around the action. He had over 150 total tackles his last two years in high school. Another key ingredient when looking at Bierria is that he's a winner. Along with quarterback Troy Williams, Bierria was a huge part in Narbonne winning back-to-back All-CIF Los Angeles City Section championships in 2011 and 2012.
34 Sean Constantine - 6-2, 229 RFr. Hunts Point, Calif. (Bellevue) - It wasn't Myles Jack that Steve Sarkisian fell in love with at Bellevue three years ago - it was Sean Constantine. While the Wolverines were winning three-straight 3A titles, and players like Jack and Budda Baker were stealing footballs from the opposition and ripping headlines, it was Constantine that was a stalwart in the middle. Physically, Constantine has the athletic makeup to be John Timu's understudy. Can he be the same kind of vocal leader and captain of the defense and locker room that Timu has become? Obviously that will show in time, but Constantine is, at heart, a rugged 'backer that will never shy away from contact and will dissuade offenses from going his way by the manner in which he lays lumber.
29 Connor O'Brien - 6-3, 235 RFr. Trabuco Canyon, Calif. (Santa Margarita Catholic) - Certainly looks the part of being a WIL in waiting behind Thompson and Feeney, O'Brien comes to Washington on the heels of a very productive high school career, one where he had 12 interceptions his final two seasons at Santa Margarita, also a two-time All-CIF Southern Section Pac-5 pick. A classic big safety at the prep level that will be asked to play closer to the line of scrimmage ala Nate Fellner, but he came to UW already bigger than Fellner ever was as a Husky. He also comes to Washington as a true two-way talent that has athleticism and big-hit ability to burn.
36 Azeem Victor - 6-4, 232 RFr. Upland, Calif. (Pomona) - Can't wait to see what Azeem does in spring. He came to UW as a raw, rangy athlete with a rep as a hard-hitter; none of that has changed since his time at Montlake, but the previous UW staff loved him as a middle 'backer prospect. Will Gregory and company feel the same way? With the new linebackers coach and his comments about how he'd love to get more and more versatility with his group, he has a Swiss Army Knife in Victor. I could see Victor competing with Littleton for playing time as a hybrid OLB/DE or as Timu's backup at the MIK LB spot. Either way, there's no question there has to be a spot on the field for such a talented, aggressive athlete - and his time is now to grab the coaches' attention while the getting is good.
53 Eric Rauch - 6-2, 225 RFr. walk-on Issaquah, Wash. (Issaquah) -
54 Ronnie Espedal - 6-0, 205 RFr. walk-on Hoquiam, Wash. (Hoquiam) -

Departing Players: 3 (Princeton Fuimaono, Thomas Tutogi, Jamaal Kearse)

Incoming This Fall: 1 (Drew Lewis)

Where the Position Stands: The position group is in great hands this spring with Timu and Thompson leading the way from the middle of the field. "Those guys are great kids," Gregory said. "I've had a chance to sit down and talk with them too. They are great leaders and do things the right way. We can do some stuff with those guys. They are versatile players."

Gregory is also very enamored with the potential for continued growth for players like Littleton and Feeney, guys that have a chance to really cause problems out on the edge for offenses. "I think those guys are perfect," Gregory said. "You want those guys that are very versatile - that term hybrid - that can rush the passer and make plays in space. The more of those guys we can get the better we can be."

And then there's the four redshirt freshmen coming on board to stake their claim with a new coach watching, which should really elevate proceedings. In total, the linebackers group has a great mix of experience and youth, inside and outside body types, and also leadership.

Who Has the Edge?: In the beginning the veteran guys will always have the edge, but this won't be a typical spring camp either. With a clean slate, Gregory is approaching the group with fresh eyes and few preconceived notions as to how things shape up. As long as they've done everything right heading into Tuesday, there's no question Timu, Thompson, Littleton and Feeney should continue to excel and solidify their places as starters, or at the very worst impact players that will rack up starter's reps.

That clean slate just might allow the younger guys in waiting an early chance to show what they've got, which means those players that came in with big promise - Azeem Victor, Connor O'Brien, etc… - could surprise. That's the beauty of spring ball, to see who has been putting in the work during the off-season, and who hasn't.

Who Will Step Up?: Typically this would be an easy question to answer; the young players eager to make a first impression as they mount their attack on the two-deeps. But obviously this isn't going to be a typical spring for any of the position groups, so it may be that the veterans are going to have to once again start from square one and build their credibility and reputations back up to where they were at the end of the 2013 season. I'm sure much of the movement along the linebacker depth chart will have to do with how Gregory and UW DC Pete Kwiatkowski want to utilize certain body types and how can they be put in the best situations to achieve success. That will also go a long way in determining who wins trust early on and who the Huskies are going to lean on in 2014. Again, when asking who will step up, it would be an easy answer if Justin Wilcox and Peter Sirmon were still at Montlake. They aren't, so that muddies the waters.

In Waiting: With so many redshirt freshman ready to ascend, there wasn't as much of a need to recruit linebackers for 2014 as say, defensive backs. But Washington got a good one in Drew Lewis, a player like Connor O'Brien that played defensive back in high school but was recruited to play linebacker in college.

"That's what a lot of people are going to - recruiting those guys that are big safeties that might not be quite fast enough to be a safety in college but they can be that very good, athletic linebacker at this level," Gregory said. "Those guys give you a lot of flexibility, for sure."

In Summary: It may sound like a broken record, but the linebackers are another position group Steve Sarkisian and the departing UW staff left in good stead. There's talent, athleticism and leadership at the top of the group, with plenty of big, physical bodies in waiting, ready to make their mark this spring.

On paper, you'd think the rotations are in place, you'd think the depth chart would be pretty similar to the way it was left in 2013, especially with only a small handful of departing players involved. But with everyone now on a level playing field and all spots supposedly up for grabs, it's anyone's guess as to how things will shake out. That's what makes watching this position group unfold during the 14 spring practices and spring game; we may see guys that were locked in at one position battling it out with others at a completely different spot, depending on how the new staff want players to be utilized. We could see the redshirt freshmen battling the incumbents for immediate playing time. Anything is possible with the linebackers right now.

What we do know is that there's bodies and talent to burn, so watching the position battles unfold this spring with regard to the linebackers should be exciting to watch.

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