Mid-Spring Review: Linebackers

It's another obvious fact of spring football that it always leaves you with more questions than answers, simply because there's still fall camp to go before any actual games are played. When foundations are laid, you wonder in the back of your head; is this going to work?

When looking at Washington's linebacker play this spring so far, only one question has to be asked - will they finish spring with enough bodies to even compete? Of all the positions out there, the linebacking corps has been hit the hardest with injuries and suspensions. By the time the first half of spring ball was done, the Huskies were working with five scholarship linebackers. That's never a good sign.

With Cory Littleton and Scott Lawyer out for spring with injury and John Timu out for the first half of spring due to suspension, that's 47 combined starts out for at least the first two weeks. In other words, a sizable chunk of Washington's starters would not be available to work with new LB Coach Bob Gregory to learn how he teaches and how they'll work within Pete Kwiatkowski's defensive schemes. Time lost is crucial in a transition, but even more so when you're talking about a defensive captain. Fortunately for UW, Timu will be back April 1st, and not a moment too soon.
7 Shaquille Thompson - Jr.
41 Travis Feeney - Jr.
36 Azeem Victor - RFr.
29 Connor O'Brien - RFr.
34 Sean Constantine - RFr.
25 Keishawn Bierria - RFr.
56 Devon Phillips - RFr. Walk-On

What have they done in practice? - There's always a couple of silver linings in all this. For starters, the four redshirt freshmen - at least until O'Brien sustained a leg injury - have all taken a massive amount of reps. "All of our guys are playing all positions," Gregory said. "It's a lot of the young guys…Azeem Victor is playing our inside position, Sean Constantine, Connor O'Brien…even Shaq took a couple reps in the inside position. Really, we're short a few guys so everybody has to take reps everywhere."

And what has Gregory been looking for in his new charges? "You have to be a physical player, regardless," he 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."

Victor certainly looks the part of a menacing middle linebacker at 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds, and according to some of the offensive players packs one of the biggest punches in terms of hitting ability. We won't be able to see all of that until Chris Petersen gives the green light on scrimmaging, but it's clear Azeem has all the natural physical tools you need to be successful as a linebacker. He played with his hand down nearly all the time in high school, so he's not afraid to get downhill at the line of scrimmage and lay the lumber.

"I think those guys are perfect," Gregory said when asked about hybrid athletes like Thompson, Victor and Littleton, and their place in his position group. "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."

Constantine, at 6-foot-2 and 221 pounds, was a favorite of Steve Sarkisian two years ago. He identified Sean before ever taking a look at Budda Baker or Myles Jack. Now that Constantine has had time to settle into college life, he has battled with Victor for that middle linebacker spot so far in spring. Obviously both redshirt freshmen will start behind Timu when he shows up in April, but it's a good thing to know that Gregory has some options, as well as bigger bodies, when looking at who can commandeer the middle of the linebacking corps if Timu needs a breather.

Slowing down spread attacks has been a focus for UW ever since Sarkisian hired Justin Wilcox and Peter Sirmon, and it continues to be a focus for Petersen, Kwiatkowski, and Gregory. Sark signed Keishawn Bierria as a spread-stopper because of his natural instincts, size, speed, and ability to get from sideline-to-sideline quickly to make plays in space. With Feeney working at one of the outside linebacking spots, it's allowed Bierria time to get comfortable with Gregory and his coaching style. It's also allowed the 6-foot-1, 216-pound Bierria to work with Travis Feeney to help shore up the position left by the graduating Princeton Fuimaono.

Arguably the biggest silver lining of limited numbers this spring to date has been the return of Feeney from footballing Siberia. Feeney, the 6-foot-4, 217-pounder from the Bay Area, was a honorable mention All-Pac-12 player two years ago, but lost his linebacking spot to Fuimaono. Feeney did start the final two games of the regular season, which has acted as a springboard to a positive off-season and progressively a move to get back to the form that saw him rack up 76 tackles, six tackles for loss and four sacks in 2012.

Where does the position stand after two weeks? - So far it's been all about fundamentals and installation - nothing more. "Football's football; we've got to do a great job of teaching fundamentals," Gregory said. "We've got to do a good job of teaching effort. All the scheme stuff, whatever it is, will take care of itself when you've got great fundamentals."

With Timu and Littleton out, Thompson and Feeney have filled in as the veterans of the group. Thompson, in particular, has really led by example - and on both sides of the ball. We've always known the 6-foot-2, 231-pound U.S. Army All-American was a special talent; so far this spring he's been able to show off that talent as a linebacker and as a running back. I'm sure those at UCLA will want to take credit for the return of the one-platoon system by using Myles Jack the same way - but the truth is Thompson has always been the ultimate hybrid athlete. Sarkisian publicly talked about this particular quandary. He wanted to try him as a return specialist, but at the same time didn't want to detract from his defensive responsibilities.

Apparently Petersen has no such qualms when it comes to putting piles of plays on Shaq's plate. Obviously we'll see how much time on offense Thompson gets during the season, but the fact that he's being tried at all on offense shows just how impressed Petersen is with Shaq's physicality and versatility as a complete football player - something those that cover prep ball in the greater Sacramento area have known for years.

What to look for in the second half of spring - Clearly the biggest story line come this time next week will be whether or not the media get a chance to talk to Timu, who is expected to re-join the Huskies this coming Tuesday. Thursday is the first time defensive players and coaches will be made available to reporters, so will Timu talk? Will he be allowed to go into the details of what found him on the wrong side of the law, as well as the wrong side of the program? Obviously we'll know that soon enough.

The senior captain's return will be big for this position group, a relatively young group right now that is learning and growing with the reps they've received. Timu won't be allowed in full pads for at least the first couple practices per NCAA rules, but at the same time it will be interesting to note how well he's kept himself in shape during this imposed exile.

The other thing to watch out for is how Timu's presence affects reps for the younger players. Clearly Gregory is going to want to get the senior up to speed as soon as possible, but will that be to the detriment of Victor and Constantine? They've made a lot of progress so far in Timu's absence. Using Gregory's idea of playing all his guys everywhere, is this the time when a player like Victor gets reps along the defensive line and puts his hand down in the hybrid spot normally occupied by Littleton? It's a spot - at least positionally - he's comfortable playing. Will Constantine get more reps outside when Timu is out and Victor is playing in the middle? Or vise-versa?

With Littleton and Lawyer still out, Timu's inclusion will help to shore up numbers somewhat, but Gregory should still be able to give all the linebackers plenty of chances at all the different spots to build up a nice catalog of film to study and teach.

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