Where does the linebacker group find itself heading into fall camp?
Well, compared to spring the Washington Linebacking corps is much healthier - so that’s a good start. Back from injury will be Travis Feeney and Keishawn Bierria, who combined for 12 starts last season. Their experience and wealth of knowledge will be key in pushing forward past the departures of Thompson and Timu. They’ll also get back players like Psalm Wooching, which will only add to the breadth and depth of the linebacking talent available.
There’s very little the Huskies can do to replicate the production of Thompson, the 2014 Paul Hornung Award winner, given yearly to college football’s most versatile player. His four defensive touchdowns were the most by any college defender the last decade! It highly unlikely the Huskies will have four defensive returns this coming fall as an entire unit, let alone by Thompson’s replacement. So they will have to find other ways to impact the final score.
What Washington’s linebackers lack in sheer star power, we’ve been told they make up for it with a cohesion that will make their group stronger as the sum of their parts. Obviously that’s yet to be seen. What we do know is that they lost two linebacking starters, and that’s never easy to replace. But three players do return to the unit with a combined 17 starts last season (Feeney, Bierria, and Cory Littleton). They will form the core of UW’s linebacking identity. How much they are able to play and impact the game will go a long way toward not just seeing how the ‘backers do in 2015, but how the front seven as a whole perform.
Players like Scott Lawyer, Joe Mathis, Azeem Victor, Sean Constantine, and Kyler Manu should form the nucleus of Washington’s Linebacking corps for this upcoming season. If they get additional production from players like Wooching and Connor O’Brien, it’s simply a bonus. And at this point, every true freshman outside of Manu should start out the season on a redshirt track. Obviously injuries can derail even the best-laid plans, but all things equal there shouldn’t be another redshirt frosh Gregory needs to use. He has two walk-ons in Matt Preston and Jake Wambaugh that can step in and take the punches if need be.
If defensive chemistry is going to be the hallmark of Washington’s 2015 defense, that harmony must begin with the linebackers and radiate outward to the rest. They are the heart and soul of any defensive scheme, and are responsible for making sure communication is timely and accurate. A lot of importance is going to be placed in the hands of some younger players, and they will need to produce on some of the biggest stages college football has to offer.
It will be a lot of fun watching them giving it a go.
Cory Littleton (6-3, 227, Sr.) - Littleton has become somewhat the silent assassin of the linebacking corps, a player that probably isn’t going to come up with dramatic defensive touchdowns like Shaq Thompson or stunning sacks like Hauoli Kikaha, but he’s always in there and he’s rarely where he shouldn’t be. When you lose players of that caliber, the next group in needs to be rock solid and dependable. That’s what Cory Littleton is right now, and the more the players around him follow his lead, the better Washington’s linebacking corps will be in 2015.
Travis Feeney (6-4, 223, RS Sr.) - The Washington defensive coaches missed out on seeing Feeney this past spring, but that’s not all that unusual; Feeney has only been through one healthy spring in his entire UW career. But they did see him enough last year to start eight games, so he’ll be counted on to provide a lot of experience and leadership with this relatively young unit. Feeney has plenty to prove this fall; many NFL Draft experts believe he might be the most pro-ready player at UW for the 2016 class. That should be motivation enough for him to go out and have a strong season.
Scott Lawyer (6-2, 230, RS Sr.) - Up until now, Lawyer’s role within the Washington linebacking corps was to provide serviceable backup, and his 23 games played the last two seasons attests to the fact that he’s been counted on. But the senior, who has never started a game in his career, will be asked to do more. Washington Linebackers Coach Bob Gregory asked Lawyer to take a bigger role getting the defense lined up, so the plan is already well underway to get him more involved. Lawyer is certainly one of the ‘x’ factors when it comes to the linebackers; if he has a very productive season, it could bode well for general improvement all around.
Joe Mathis (6-2, 249, Jr.) - The heir apparent to Hau’oli Kikaha, Mathis came out in the spring and showed that he can definitely be counted on to get in the backfield on a regular basis. Mathis certainly seems more at ease with his role on the team as he gets ready for his third season on Montlake, and that comfort level should help him realize his potential. He will be asked to do a lot more than just rush the passer though; like Kikaha he’ll have to work on his backpedal and skills in space, because he will be asked to cover a little bit. But Jojo has always been a confidence player, and the better he feels about his play the more productive he’s going to be.
Psalm Wooching (6-4, 228, RS Jr.) - The Hawaii junior has always had the reputation of being a rough player, one that would love to be a pest to opposing offensive lines if given a chance. At this point though, he’s still very much on the learning curve when it comes to the BUCK linebacker position, and anything they get from him in 2015 would probably be considered a bonus. He didn’t really play much in spring, so he’s definitely a big unknown in terms of what he might be able to provide this coming season.
Keishawn Bierria (6-1, 223, RS So.) - Bierria is another linebacker that was sidelined for spring due to injury, but he’ll be back and ready to go this fall. He started four games in 2014, so Gregory and the Washington defensive staff have a good handle on what the weak side linebacker does well and what he needs to work on. He’s gained over 20 good pounds since he got to Montlake, and he’ll have to put those pounds to good use. Bierria is known for his speed and relentless play, two characteristics every good WIL has to have.
Azeem Victor (6-3, 239, RS So.) - It would be unfair to heap a ton of expectations on the redshirt sophomore MIK, but when good teams are replacing seniors they have to rely on their underclassmen to step up and seize the moment. And the responsibility placed on Azeem Victor’s shoulders this fall is crucial. He’s expected to replace John Timu in every way, shape, and form. That means being in the center of all the action; making all the calls, lining everyone up, making sure the runs are fit properly, and so on. Physically, Victor is every bit the athlete Timu was, perhaps even more athletic than Timu. But has he had enough time to soak everything in to the point where he can call out the playbook at a second’s notice, make the checks, see everything the offense is showing and adjust accordingly? If Victor’s football aptitude measures up to his athleticism, Washington’s linebacking group is in good hands.
Sean Constantine (6-2, 228, RS So.) - The former Bellevue standout has shown he can play either inside or outside, but I suspect with his size and aggressive nature he’ll be asked to compete with Azeem Victor for the starting middle linebacker job. He was just about to take off at the end of spring, singled out by UW Head Coach Chris Petersen for his play. If Constantine ends up being one of those players that takes advantage of the opportunities given, he would essentially kill two problems at once; provide depth at a position of need and also push toward increased playing time - which is never a bad thing.
Connor O’Brien (6-3, 234, RS So.) - I’m putting O’Brien out at the BUCK simply because he could play almost any position along the four linebacking spots - but he really hasn’t taken to one position over any of the others. His size lends itself to playing closer to the line of scrimmage and limiting his need to play in a lot of space, but as a former safety he can certainly run around and make plays. But will he latch on to a role within the linebacking corps and truly make it his own? That will be the key to O’Brien’s development moving forward. If he can do that, his chances of producing for the Huskies’ defense increase dramatically.
Kyler Manu (6-1, 224, Fr.) - With Drew Lewis leaving the program, there is a real question as to who might step in for that extra linebacker when UW Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski makes the call. Lewis, who had gained 27 pounds in the off-season, seemed destined for the spot by the way the Huskies were using him in the spring. But now that role just might go to Kyler Manu. He has the size, speed, and ability; now all the true freshman has to do is master the playbook so he can be trusted to be in the right place at the right time. Normally the frosh would redshirt, but Manu showed up early for school and took part in spring practice. He didn’t look out of place for a first year player, but his understanding of scheme and responsibilities will determine how much playing time he gets on defense this fall.
Tevis Bartlett (6-2, 218, Fr.) - Bartlett is a rough-and-tumble player with big range, solid athleticism, and a wrestler’s ethic and heart. In short, he’s a great prospect to put at SAM. But with players like Cory Littleton and Travis Feeney in front of him - at least for this year - there’s little question the Wyoming native should have plenty of time to assimilate into college life and the playbook too. Bartlett was a quarterback too for Cheyenne East High School, so he should bring some leadership intangibles with him to the football field when the Huskies call on him next spring.
D.J. Beavers (6-0, 202, Fr.) - Scouted as a prototypical WIL for college, Beavers is another frosh that will certainly need to bulk up to handle the rigors of Pac-12 play - and he’ll get the time to do so. Another player touted for his leadership abilities, as well as his work ethic and hustle. As the WIL he’ll be required to be around the ball a lot and clean up a lot of plays, and that was something he was very good at in high school. Like Ben Burr-Kirven, anticipate Beavers opening and closing down the weight room on a daily basis as they work to get bigger, faster, and stronger.
Ben Burr-Kirven (6-1, 202, Fr.) - Although currently undersized, Burr-Kirven has always been in the middle of the action ever since he starred at Sacred Heart Prep in the Bay Area - so just as we saw with players like Drew Lewis and the walk-on linebackers, Burr-Kirven should gain some weight in the off-season and get on the MIK learning curve as soon as possible. He has the instincts, the football intelligence, and the leadership skills to be a strong presence in the middle of Washington’s defense for years to come.
Jusstis Warren (6-2, 226, Fr.) - Initially brought in as a sideline-to-sideline middle linebacker, Warren - even though he’s officially listed at 226 pounds - has outgrown the position. When we saw him in May he had already gained another 15 pounds or so. Expect the Lincoln grad to push at BUCK behind Mathis, Wooching and others. Physically Warren has always looked the part, and now he gets to show off his pass-rushing skills, as well as holding an edge and playing the flats.
Projected Fall LB Depth Chart (assuming odd front in 3-4 defense)
Joe Mathis (6-2, 249, Jr.)
Psalm Wooching (6-4, 228, Jr.)
Connor O’Brien (6-3, 234, So.) OR
Jusstis Warren (6-2, 226, Fr.)
SAM (strong side):
Cory Littleton (6-3, 227, Sr.) OR
Travis Feeney (6-4, 223, Sr.)
Kyler Manu (6-1, 224, Fr.)
Tevis Bartlett (6-2, 218)
MIK (middle) :
Azeem Victor (6-3, 239, So.)
Sean Constantine (6-2, 228, So.)
Jake Wambaugh (6-1, 220, RFr.)
Ben Burr-Kirven (6-1, 202)
WIL (weak side) :
Keishawn Bierria (6-1, 223, So.)
Scott Lawyer (6-2, 230, Sr.)
Matt Preston (6-2, 214, RFr.) OR
D.J. Beavers (6-0, 202)