There’s no doubt the linebacker group heading into spring is in a similar situation to that of the group right in front of them by the line of scrimmage. They are trying to replace a ton of production and some incredible athleticism. Two of the top three top tacklers on the 2014 team - John Timu (120) and Shaq Thompson (91) - will have to be replaced. And even though players like John Ross and Budda Baker will certainly have something to say about it, it may be some time before Washington sees a player more versatile than Paul Hornung Award winner Shaq Thompson.
But there is one big difference between the DL room and the linebacker room; there’s returning starters in the LB room - Travis Feeney, Cory Littleton, and Keishawn Bierria - while there’s none on the defensive line. But even that silver lining is tarnished by the fact that Feeney and Bierria will be out for spring.
So in a way this spring is shaping up for the linebackers like it did last year. Bob Gregory had to deal with players being nicked out and out for a practice here and there and Timu was out for the first half. At times Gregory was saddled with just a handful of fit linebackers to work with, and that may happen again this spring.
The numbers have been bolstered a little bit with the inclusion of a couple walk-ons and a true freshman, and that’s never a bad thing when it comes to spring ball.
Here’s the position group heading into spring:
Travis Feeney (6-4, 218, RS Sr.)
Cory Littleton (6-4, 229, Sr.)
Scott Lawyer (6-2, 225, RS Sr.)
Psalm Wooching (6-4, 225, RS Jr.)
Keishawn Bierria (6-1, 221, RS So.)
Azeem Victor (6-3, 244, RS So.)
Sean Constantine (6-2, 224, RS So.)
Connor O’Brien (6-3, 238, RS So.)
Drew Lewis (6-2, 189, RS Fr.)
Matt Preston (6-2, 199, RS Fr.)*
Jake Wambaugh (6-2, 206, RS Fr.)*
Kyler Manu (6-1, 220, Fr.)
* denotes walk-on
The Incumbents: Feeney, Littleton, and Bierria are the incumbents strictly based on starts, and while Lawyer missed a few games early on last year he came on strong at the end of the season and was a consistent contributor.
In fact, with Bierria and Feeney out, there’s little doubt Lawyer and Littleton will be the two outside linebackers if they stick to the even front as their base defense. The battles will certainly be joined when Keishawn and Travis get back in there, but in a way it’s a good thing that Lawyer and Littleton are the ones healthy for spring. They need the work, and hopefully it’ll give Gregory a chance to really coach them up on both sides of the MIK so they can interchange and add that versatility to their skill set.
Making a Play: Psalm Wooching has always been a bit behind the 8-ball, having moved from offense to defense and then trying to find a niche as the BUCK behind Hau’oli Kikaha. But he had a year to learn from Kikaha, and it certainly sounds like he’s taken those lessons to heart. Being a junior, his time is now to see if he can make a difference, because he’s always shown a spirit and a real knack at being able to get very physical at the line of scrimmage. It would be a huge shot in the arm if UW was able to get some production in terms of sacks and tackles for loss from Wooching.
The other guys that need to start making a play for the two-deeps right now is the rest of that 2013 linebacker class, minus Bierria. Azeem Victor has dropped a few pounds and all reports have the sophomore MIK primed and ready to take over for Timu this fall. He looked like a beast the minute he walked on campus and the expectation has always been there; now Azeem has to take the opportunity and run with it. It’s his time to shine, and there’s very little in the way of competition. Doesn’t mean he’s a shoe-in by any stretch. It just means the Huskies need Victor to take that next step up in his development, and with no steps back.
With Feeney and Bierria out, that certainly gives outside linebackers like Sean Constantine and Connor O’Brien a chance to impress Gregory and set themselves up for some great battles come fall. To my way of thinking, any improvements Constantine and O’Brien have made from last year to this year under Gregory, as well as the off-season conditioning efforts under the watchful eye of Tim Socha, will ultimately show whether or not the Huskies will have some genuine quality in the two-deeps, or whether the group will be painfully thin in 2015. We’ll get a great glimpse of that immediately this spring because they’ll be involved straight away.
The New Guys: For the disappointment of not having a couple of the veterans available for spring, Gregory must be equally thrilled to have a handful of players going through their first spring. Drew Lewis tops the group, and as much for his off-season weight gain than anything else. The redshirt frosh from Redmond gained a whopping 27 pounds from the last time he was weighed. That’s remarkable. Now at 216 pounds, Lewis will be expected to compete with the sophomores at either WIL or SAM.
There are two redshirt frosh walk-ons - Matt Preston and Jake Wambaugh - brought in by Gregory, and we’ll get a good feel early on as to whether or not they are just more bodies or if they will genuinely compete for two-deep spots this fall. One thing is for sure; they will get their turns. Preston will be tried as an outside linebacker, while Wambaugh will compete at MIK.
Lastly, true freshman Kyler Manu is expected to join Washington, and because UW is waiting for spring quarter to start before they start practices, that should allow Manu to get a full 15 practices in. We also spoke to another 2015 linebacker signing, Jusstis Warren, and there was a chance that he might be able to enroll in time for spring but haven’t been able to confirm if the Tacoma native will be available Monday. If he makes it, Warren would immediately add to the mix at MIK.
What does spring mean for this group?: It bears repeating; with starters out there’s nothing out there but loads of opportunity. Doesn’t matter if you’re a junior trying to make the best of your remaining eligibility, or a true freshman just trying to take it all in - there are turns out there to be had. And that’s why it’s going to be very interesting to watch this particular position group from the start.
And despite Feeney and Bierria’s absence, there’s still enough bodies to provide a lot of film for Gregory to pour over to see who has taken their off-season work to the field and have made the kind of jump he would have hoped.
Based on what he saw in 2014, UW DC Pete Kwiatkowski will have adjusted things for this spring to take advantage of the talent on hand, maximizing their strengths and trying to cover up shortcomings where possible. In that sense, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear things have been simplified, schemes tightened up. This should really benefit the younger linebacker group that will be expected to show improvement now that they’ve had a year of Gregory’s tutelage under their belts.
Spring Preview - Linebacker
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