Post-Spring Review: Linebackers

Starting Wednesday, Dawgman.com will be breaking down all the position groups to see where the Washington Huskies stand after the first 15 practices of the Chris Petersen Era. Up now is the linebacker group, one stacked with athleticism and experience, with more in waiting. Can they parlay that talent as the heart of a stout defense?

Outside Linebacker:
7 Shaquille Thompson - Jr.
25 Keishawn Bierria - RFr. OR
47 Scott Lawyer - Jr.


Middle Linebacker:
10 John Timu - Sr.
36 Azeem Victor - RFr.
34 Sean Constantine - RFr.


Outside Linebacker:
41 Travis Feeney - Jr. OR
42 Cory Littleton - Jr.
29 Connor O'Brien - RFr.


What did they do in the spring? - This is the one defensive position group that was hit hard with players out for the 15 spring practices. While the quatertback, running back, and receiver rooms all had players missing for one reason or another, the linebackers had Cory Littleton and Scott Lawyer out for injury. John Timu was suspended for half of spring due to a violation of team rules, and Connor O'Brien missed bits and pieces because of injury (but was available for the final spring practice). At certain points during the second half of spring, new LB Coach Bob Gregory had only four scholarship players available for practice, clearly a far cry from what they are expecting from the group come fall.

Because of the loss of these players for part or all of spring, it allowed the talented redshirt freshman group time to really get their feet wet with multiple reps at multiple positions. This started with Azeem Victor at middle linebacker, taking Timu's place for the first six practices - and he really took his opportunities well. At 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds, Victor appears to be the next Kai Ellis in terms of being that physical creature that does things at his size you wouldn't expect. He runs very well sideline-to-sideline, and he'll get stuck in with a tackle more often than not. Even during thud-tempo practices, Azeem would put his helmet in and put a ballcarrier to the ground. On the outside the UW coaches want to make sure they keep everything off the floor and healthy, but on the inside they are loving the fact that players like Victor are not afraid to show off their physicality when given the chance.

"You have to be a physical player, regardless," Gregory said back in January when the media got a chance to speak with him after he took the UW job. "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."

Keishawn Bierria earned praise all spring long from Gregory for his improvement during the 15 practices. "I think the guy that has probably showed the most since we got here is Keishawn Bierria," Gregory said in the second half of spring. "He's done a really good job, he's making plays, he's getting lined up quick, he's making calls. He's progressed the most."

Sean Constantine is the other redshirt frosh to earn accolades form Gregory during spring. "I think Sean Constantine is a really aggressive, physical player, and we like his progress," Gregory said of the 6-foot-2, 221-pound Constantine. With the lack of bodies during the majority of spring, it's allowed players like Constantine and Bierria to get reps at a number of different positions, not only earning them valuable practice time learning the new defense under DC Pete Kwiatkowski, but they also now have a bit of a head start over injured players like Littleton, Lawyer, and fellow redshirt frosh Connor O'Brien when it comes to understanding what Gregory wants and how he teaches - both on and off the field.

It hasn't been all doom and gloom when it comes to the veterans, starting with Timu. The 6-foot-1, 244-pound senior captain came on like gangbusters when he was allowed to practice again at the beginning of April, showing up in reasonable shape and hitting the field for practice like he had never left. During the eight subsequent practices, all Timu did was reel in his fitness and continue to show that he can be a force in the middle of the UW defense when he's healthy and in a good frame of mind. I suppose it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, as Timu is a smart player and showed that he had taken his mental reps well in his time away from the team. It really did look like he had never been away.

Ironically enough, with all the players out due to injury it was the first spring ever for Travis Feeney injury-free, and he relished the opportunity to get after it 100 percent. The 6-foot-4, 217-pounder from Northern California seemingly made up for all the time lost in the past springs all this year, as his number of reps was pretty ridiculous. It means the Huskies will simply be in a much stronger, and deeper, position when the time comes to figure out a starting linebacker rotation for the Hawaii opener. Feeney looked fast, strong, tough, and always eager to get his hat in the middle of the action. You can always tell when Feeney is enjoying his football; he's jumping around, active, vocal. He was all of those things this past spring, and that can only make Gregory and Kwiatkowski very happy going forward.

Lastly, there was Shaquille Thompson. Rated the No. 1 safety in the country coming out of high school, Thompson was moved to linebacker after his first year on campus and has never looked back. Because of his ridiculously massive reputation coming out of Grant High School in Sacramento, Thompson was never going to be able to immediately live up to the hype. If anything, all he could do was stay healthy, play his ass off, and let the maturation process take its course and allow him to eventually become a sure-fire NFL talent. This spring we started to see glimpses of that on defense, but it also showed up when Chris Petersen asked him to try his hand at running back - a position not totally unfamiliar to Shaq.

Thompson was nothing short of a whirlwind with Jesse Callier and Dwayne Washington out; he came in and immediately made the running back group much stronger. The blend of athleticism, size, strength, and open-field speed make the 6-foot-2, 231-pound Thompson a unique talent, and it was clear early on in spring that Petersen wanted to try and utilize Shaq as often as possible.

You could argue that by giving Thompson reps at running back, Petersen has diminished Shaq's defensive learning curve, as well as his time with Gregory and Kwiatkowski at his primary position. Both coaches are on board with Shaq's double-duty if it helps the Huskies win games - and ultimately, isn't that what they were all hired to do?

Where does the position stand heading into the summer? - Obviously when you have a number of veteran players out for spring with a new coaching staff, that's never a good thing. That will only leave question marks that can only be answered in the fall.

But there was a lot of linebacker experience returning in 2014 for the new Washington coaches, which helped mitigate the lack of bodies. They did lose the leading tackler from 2013, Princeton Fuimaono, but Thompson, Timu, Littleton, and Feeney were all among the top-10 tacklers last season, combining for 272 total tackles, including 22.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks.

As it was along the offensive line, injury allowed some younger players significant playing time with the ones that otherwise wouldn't have gotten those quality reps. Time will tell whether or not players like Victor, Bierria, Constantine, and O'Brien have ultimately benefitted and ramped up their development due to the reps they received in spring, but the optimistic view is that the new staff have been forced into the position to have one eye squarely focused on the future, and getting those younger players significant time can't be seen as a negative.

So as of right now, the veterans like Timu and Thompson got in the work they needed, while Feeney needed to get through a full spring for a psychological boost as much as anything. It's clear he's 100 percent and fully ready to get the 2014 season underway.

What to look for in the fall - Both Littleton and Lawyer have unformed roles as of now, and their fall inclusion will only help solidify the two-deeps - but it opens up questions to how they'll be used. Littleton especially, as he was a big part of the 2013 linebacking corps as an outside linebacker/rush end backer. Depending on how Kwiatkowski wants to approach his base defense, he'll go with regular defensive ends, or he'll employ Littleton on the line of scrimmage much the same way Justin Wilcox did under Steve Sarkisian. I think, when it comes to the linebackers, this will be the first question that has to be answered when fall camp starts. We should get a pretty good idea within the first week as to the defensive coaches' plan for Littleton.

If I had to hazard a guess, I suspect there will be a battle royale between Feeney and Litteton for that linebacker spot closest to the line of scrimmage so they can be a factor in run support, as well as in coverage with receivers and running backs in the flats. That position battle will only make that outside spot rock-solid in terms of rotating in and out bodies to put that group in the best position to be successful in any down-and-distance situation. Regardless, both have shown enough with the previous staff to give the new coaches every belief that they can provide quality play, depth and experience to a position group that needs to have their veterans produce while the younger players are being developed.

Secondly, how much the offense uses Shaq Thompson should be something closely monitored by fans. Obviously Thompson has become an integral part of the plans for both sides of attack; now it remains to be seen what the balance will be. Again, linebacker is Thompson's primary responsibility and it would be hoped that there's enough running back quality and depth in the fall to keep Thompson on the other side of the ball. But anyone with working eyeballs can see just how devastating the idea of Thompson wreaking havoc on defenses and what that could do in helping out whoever starts that Hawaii opener at quarterback.

Lastly, which players from that talented redshirt frosh group will continue to improve and ramp up to the point where they make it impossible for Gregory and Kwiatkowski to ignore them? By the coaches' own words, it seems like Victor and Bierria would be the odds-on choices, but Constantine also deserves a shout. O'Brien's immediate future is still a little bit hazy due to how much time he missed during the spring compared to the other redshirt frosh, but if he comes out red-hot this August he could quickly put himself right in the middle of a position battle. The 6-foot-3, 229-pound O'Brien clearly has the size and physical ability to make an impact, but can he make up for lost time? That's going to be one of the key questions going forward with that group of players.


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