- OLB Cory Littleton (6-3, 227, Sr.)
- OLB Travis Feeney (6-4, 223, Sr.)
- OLB Scott Lawyer (6-2, 230, Sr.)
- OLB Psalm Wooching (6-4, 228, Jr.)
- OLB Keishawn Bierria (6-1, 223, So.)
- MIK Azeem Victor (6-3, 239, So.)
- MIK Sean Constantine (6-2, 228, So.)
- OLB Connor OBrien (6-3, 234, So.)
- OLB Drew Lewis (6-2, 216, RFr.)
- OLB Matt Preston (6-2, 214, RFr.)*
- MIK Jake Wambaugh (6-1, 220, RFr.)*
- OLB Kyler Manu (6-1, 224, Fr.)
- Tevis Bartlett (6-2, 218)
- Jusstis Warren (6-2, 226)
- D.J. Beavers (6-0, 202)
- Ben Burr-Kirven (6-1, 202)
Where does the linebacker group find itself after spring: Much like the offensive line, the 2015 linebacking room was missing a couple of key contributors for spring due to injury. Potential starters Travis Feeney and Keishawn Bierria were out, so that gave LB Coach Bob Gregory and Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski an opportunity to see some other players step up.
Scott Lawyer, Azeem Victor, and Sean Constantine were the three that seemed to take the most of their increased turns. There’s no doubt they will be expected to contribute in the fall. For Feeney, Lawyer, and Cory Littleton, this is their last chance so they clearly need to maximize every chance to impress.
The mantra we’ve been hearing all spring is how the chemistry of the defense and the closeness of that bond is what’s going to bring everything together and help that side of the ball recover from losing four first and second-round players to the NFL Draft.
We may never see a situation like that at Washington again, so the 2015 defense is, in some ways, finding themselves in uncharted waters. Perhaps their group mentality will be enough to push them forward, and even though Danny Shelton, Marcus Peters, Shaq Thompson and Hau’oli Kikaha were all picked in the first 44 players of the draft, it wasn’t as if Washington’s defense set the world on fire in 2014. They were third in scoring defense, but sixth in total defense.
Those same numbers are certainly within reach of duplication. It’s hard to truly know if the linebackers are in a great place to help in that aim, but when they get Feeney and Bierria back they will be at full strength. That’s why this fall is going to be crucial as a barometer for taking that needed step toward matching last year’s totals - or even besting them.
So what we did find out about each linebacker during the 15 spring practices held at Husky Stadium? Here are some quick Cliff’s Notes on each player:
NotesThe fourth-year senior has made 18 starts so far as a Husky, and if it felt like we didn’t provide much coverage into what Littleton did during spring practice it’s because he didn’t stand out. And that shouldn’t be taken as a negative at all; he played in all 14 games last year and has a ton of tape Bob Gregory and Pete Kwiatkowski can go back to when assessing Littleton’s play. The best thing I can say about Littleton right now is that he’s rock-solid, and that’s what UW needs.
NotesFeeney has started 25 games at UW, including every one in 2014, so that means he’s a known quantity. It was unfortunate that Feeney missed out on this spring rehabbing an injury, but like Littleton, Feeney is a guy that the Washington defensive coaches can count on for minutes as long as he’s healthy.
NotesAccording to Gregory, Lawyer was one of the ‘backers being asked to take over some of Timu’s duties this spring - including making sure everyone is lined up where they are supposed to be. Even though he has yet to start a game at UW, he has played in 23 games the last two years so the coaches won’t hesitate to use him if needed. His time is now to impress.
NotesWooching moved from offense to defense in 2013, but has yet to really make his mark. On top of that, he is kind of a player without a true position. He’s a smaller pass rusher, but in Kwiatkowski’s defense he’ll be asked to cover in space some as well. We’ll see how much he’s counted on, but based on the fact that he did miss some time during spring probably didn’t help his cause much, but there’s no question he’s an aggressive player that could have a role somewhere in this defense.
NotesBierria, along with Feeney, was one of those linebackers that was out for all of spring rehabbing an injury. Similar to Feeney, Bierria saw action in all 14 games last season, so Gregory and Kwiatkowski are well aware of what he can do as a linebacker. He was originally brought in by the previous staff to be a ‘spread killer’, a ‘backer that could use his sideline-to-sideline speed and upfield instincts to cause havoc in space.
NotesWith Timu’s graduation, Victor was the natural replacement at middle linebacker given his size, athleticism and predatory instincts roaming the center of the Washington front 7. This spring was supposed to be his breakout moment, the time where he cemented himself as a player to be reckoned with for years to come. I’m not sure he fully got to that place, but he did nothing to take away from the fact that he’s still very much on track to get the starting MIK nod when Washington heads to Boise State. It won’t be handed to him, but it should be there for him if he stays on point.
NotesConstantine was singled out by Chris Petersen at the end of spring as a player who had come on and made great use of the 15 April practices. With his size and athleticism, he’s a player that could certainly battle Victor for that starting MIK spot this fall. And that’s a position that frankly needs a position battle to occur, if for no other reason than to provide some quality depth.
NotesO’Brien, like Wooching, is kind of a man without a position right now. He’s certainly big enough to play middle linebacker, but he also can play outside as a converted high school safety. At this point he’s a jack of all trades but master of none, and I’m not sure that changed all that much this spring. He got his work in, but I don’t know how far he may have moved up Gregory’s seating chart.
NotesForget just the linebackers for a moment; there wasn’t a player on the whole UW team that transformed his body this past offseason quite like the redshirt frosh from Eastlake High. He gained a whopping 27 pounds, and now looks like a proper linebacker that can make plays in space. This spring Lewis was used as a nickel ‘backer, one that could be spread out and played closer to the line of scrimmage. We’ll see if he continues his progress to the point where he can be counted on this fall.
NotesPreston is one of the two walk-ons that were brought in last summer by Chris Petersen, and Preston did some offseason body reshaping of his own. He gained 16 pounds in the winter, and now he and Lewis have very similar physiques. That will help the Huskies this fall when they need extra bodies for the scout squad.
NotesIf Preston is the OLB walk-on, Wambaugh is the inside linebacker walk-on, and he will perform the same function as Preston will this fall, namely scout team support. The important thing is that both of them went through the entire 2014 season and this spring, so they should know the defense as well as any of their scholarship brethren.
NotesOne thing became abundantly clear watching the true frosh during spring; he’s capable of playing right away. Physically he fits the bill. The only thing Manu will struggle with is simply getting the playbook down to the point where he’s right in line with his experienced teammates. The quicker he gets to that point, the quicker he’ll contribute meaningful minutes.
Based on history, as well as how each player finished spring, this is how I would see the starters for the first week of fall camp (given a four-man front):
- OLB: Cory Littleton
- MIK: Azeem Victor
- OLB: Travis Feeney
Should any of the true freshmen linebackers play this fall?: Clearly Kyler Manu is the one that should have an opportunity to contribute. And if Washington does play an even (four-man) front, that would normally mean three linebackers in their base defense. Add to it the use of more defensive backs in nickel and dime situations and you can see that if Feeney and Bierria are at full strength in August there’s no reason why the rest of the true freshman group would ever sniff the field, let alone put on pads this season.
Even with the walk-ons factored out of the total equation and Manu is factored in, that still gives Gregory and Kwiatkowski 10 scholarship bodies to work with. That should be more than enough for 2015, and their overall number will grow by at least one in 2016.