It's amazing how many things stay the same as they change. For Washington's linebacking group in the Huskies' base 3-4 front, they were looking for difference-makers last year on the outside. They found them in seniors Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton, who accounted for 121 tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss, and 14 sacks.
Push forward to this past spring, and what is Washington Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski confronted with? Finding an answer for the departed seniors. Guess what? It's now up to two more seniors - Joe Mathis and Psalm Wooching - to do their best imitations of Feeney and Littleton. Can they do it?
That might be the only real lingering question coming out of spring, as everything else has improved by leaps and bounds. And that's saying something for a group that had a huge hand in creating the best defense in the Pac-12 last season.
Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria are poised to be the best inside linebacking duo in the league this fall, and it may not be close. And players like Sean Constantine and Connor O'Brien appear poised for starring roles in the depth, while Tevis Bartlett, Ben Burr-Kirven, and DJ Beavers are a year old and certainly a year better from when they first stepped foot on campus over ten months ago.
That's nine linebackers who Washington fans should get accustomed to seeing on the field in 2016, and that's not even talking about some of the true freshmen that could surprise.
Linebackers (by year)
BUCK (weak side outside)
Joe Mathis (6-2, 256, Sr.) - Mathis transitioned from defensive end with very little fuss, and a big part of that is because this transition was going to take place last year before Kwiatkowski went with the OLB tandem of Feeney and Littleton. Joe looks very comfortable outside, and we all know what he can do as an edge rusher - which is going to be the majority of his role as an outside linebacker - much like Hauol’i Kikaha.
Tevis Bartlett (6-2, 229, So.) - Bartlett played a lot last year and looked poised to have a strong spring, and he’s done that. He’s a very good athlete, a tenacious player, and heady. Should be a very, very good player for UW in the years to come.
Myles Rice (6-4, 246, Fr.) - Rice looks the part for sure of a rangy pass rush specialist who can also play in space when required. I’d be surprised if he played this fall, but he’s shown enough to tell me he’s going to be in the mix in August. Can he crush it on special teams first?
Amandre Williams (6-3, 223, Fr.) - Same goes for Williams as Rice. They are physically ready to compete in the Pac-12 now, but the Huskies would be so much better off in the long-term if they could stick both Rice and Williams in the weight room for the next nine months.
WIL (weak side inside)
Keishawn Bierria (6-1, 226, Jr.) - He's a stalwart performer and you definitely know what you’re getting with Bierria. Spring tarnished a little bit due to the fact that he was held out the last practices of spring as a precaution.
Ben Burr-Kirven (6-0, 215, So.) - Much of the same can be said of Burr-Kirven, who is Bierria without the extra experience. Missed enough of spring for it to be a concern in terms of getting the reps he needed to push toward taking his game to the next level. But he’ll be fine this fall and should be a regular in the rotation.
Matt Preston (6-2, 219, So.)* - Seemed to be having a strong spring until sideline with injury the last couple practice before the Spring Event.
DJ Beavers (6-0, 224, RFr.) - Because Bierria and Burr-Kirven missed parts of spring, Beavers came on strong the last two weeks and participated a ton with the ones and twos. He’s athletic enough to go sideline-to-sideline, and has a good feel near the line of scrimmage.
Gerran Brown (6-2, 213, RFr.)* - Brown ended up with more reps than probably initially expected because of the lack of players available. Had a decent spring, but very tough to see him breaking through unless he becomes a special teams demon.
Azeem Victor (6-3, 227, Jr.) - The heart and soul of the defense, Victor has dropped 13 pounds since the end of last year, looks leaner and meaner as a result. Had his moments where he played through the whistle and flirted with penalty issues when Chris Petersen was wielding a yellow flag during team periods. If he can play with the poise required of a top middle linebacker, Victor has a chance to become a truly special player.
Sean Constantine (6-2, 232, Jr.) - A very solid, capable backup to Victor who got all his work in this spring. That’s all you could ask for from Constantine, who has closed the gap from Victor in terms of drop-off when he enters the game.
Jake Wambaugh (6-1, 230, So.)* - Solid, capable walk-on who has been with the program a few years now. Wasn’t spectacular in spring, just steady.
Kyler Manu (6-1, 237, RFr.) - Manu had not done much at all during spring until the very end, when injuries to the various linebacker spots gave the redshirt frosh a chance to play a number of reps with the twos. Still looks like he’s learning and growing, could be one of those later bloomers that turns it up a year from now.
SAM (strong side outside)
Psalm Wooching (6-4, 230, Sr.) - Wooching gets the nod here by default, but really didn’t jump out or make heads turn in spring. Just a steady player who needs to make sure his emotions are held in check. He’ll be asked to be a vital cog in the front seven, and he has the physical tools to make an impact as long as he masters his role. He went some way toward doing that in April, but the real test will come in September.
Connor O'Brien (6-3, 240, Jr.) - O’Brien was having a strong spring backing up the BUCK/SAM spots until he also got held out a few practices toward the end. Physically O’Brien can be a real thumper, but he has to show he has the head to play smart, disciplined football.
Bryce Sterk (6-4, 242, RFr.) - A physical specimen, Sterk is just learning and growing. He was able to participate for all of spring, which is exactly what he needed to do. His rangy frame gives him a chance to be a special player as long as he continues to learn. Certainly should be one to look out for this fall to see if he can push through into the rotation.
Jusstis Warren (6-2, 250, RFr.) - One thing that stood out about Warren: if he is 250 pounds, he holds it quite well. Another athletic freak of nature like Sterk, but more stout at the line of attack. Sterk looked to be a little bit deeper in the playbook, which will be the limiting factor for Jusstis if he's not in the depth this fall.
Where does the Linebacker group stand heading into the summer?
Obviously the key to spring is to make sure you stay healthy, and that's what Washington's linebackers tried to do. It's unfortunate that guys like Bierria and Burr-Kirven got dinged up and weren't able to finish spring the way they wanted to, but that shouldn't stop them from being 100 percent healthy come August.
The rest of it was Washington Linebackers Coach Bob Gregory getting a great feel for Mathis and Wooching and whether or not they can immediately slide into the roles left by Feeney and Littleton, as well as giving a ton of turns to the younger players to see how well they have progressed with their off-season work.
It was interesting when asked, Gregory said Victor was one of the linebackers who had really stepped up. Interesting only in the sense that we already know what Azeem's MO is: kill anyone in his way. But Gregory was impressed with how Azeem has stepped up with his leadership and decision-making on the field, which only bodes well for the Huskies this fall. If Victor is on his game 24/7, he has a chance to become a very rich man in the NFL when it's all said and done.
Last season it was the seniors leading by example and Feeney and Littleton keeping things together while Victor and Bierria grew into their roles. Now the roles have reversed slightly, which is a tad ironic considering the two replacement outside linebackers are seniors. But this group will perform at its best when Victor and Bierria are running the show inside and allowing Mathis and Wooching unfettered access to destroy anything they find in opposing backfields.
The depth at BUCK and SAM has to be questioned. O'Brien needs to show up this fall ready to make a difference, and Bartlett has to make that crucial jump from year one to year two as a sign of his maturation and development. If those things happen, watch out.
Generally-speaking, the linebackers did what they needed to do in order to set themselves up for a strong 2016 campaign. The younger players got their turns in, and the veterans got their work in. Again, it was a shame that some minor niggles got in the way, but we've seen the Washington coaches err on the side of caution in those situations, because Chris Petersen will remind us that no team has ever won a game in April.
That being said, health will obviously be the limiting factor this fall, because the linebackers are poised to wreak havoc on the Pac-12 if they can stay upright. I don't necessarily forecast Mathis and Wooching putting up the same numbers as Feeney and Littleton did in 2015, but they'll be in the ballpark.
Where the improvement will come is in the middle with Victor and Bierria, as well as with the depth being created. Constantine, Burr-Kirven and Beavers are quality players on the rise, and redshirt frosh Kyler Manu is right behind them after a decent finish to the spring campaign.
All in all, there's no reason the linebackers can't replicate 2015's overall production, at a minimum. Optimistically they can be much better, as to a man their best football still lies well ahead of them.
And that's a scary thought to contemplate for Pac-12 offensive coordinators not living in Seattle.