But it’s 2016 now, and the Huskies are trying to figure out a new way to slice bread. Gone are three-fifths of their leading tackler group, and the loss of Cory Littleton and Travis Feeney to graduation has left donut-sized holes in UW’s defensive production.
Gone is 13 percent of UW’s total tackles (121), 31 percent of their tackles for loss (28.5), and 41 percent of their sack total (14).
That’s production not easily re-captured year after year after year.
But Pete Kwiatkowski and Bob Gregory are feeling confident about 2016 - and with good reason.
“Do I think they can do it? Yeah, but they’ve got to go do it,” Kwiatkowski said this week. “That’s why we practice and next guy up. We’ve got a lot of bodies over there now, so good competition.”
“The biggest thing is that these guys have been around a long time, so it’s not like they are brand-new and they haven’t played,” added Gregory. “These guys have played football here before for us, so they’ve got a lot of experience. They just haven’t played behind a couple of really good players. But it’s their turn and they are going to turn it up.”
To Gregory’s point about experience, while only one of the current UW two-deep at SAM and BUCK has starts - Joe Mathis with seven - combined they’ve played in 91 total games. Mathis has played in 34, Psalm Wooching in 32, Tevis Barlett 13 (as a true freshman), and Connor O’Brien 12.
“Connor is one of those guys that’s been around here a long, long time - waiting patiently,” Gregory said of the junior from southern California. “I think this is his fourth year in the program. Tevis is just a true sophomore so he hasn’t been around as long but a really gifted athlete. So we’re looking forward to him as well.”
Right now Mathis is backed up by O’Brien at the BUCK position, while Bartlett is behind Wooching at SAM. Redshirt freshman Benning Potoa’e is third at BUCK right now, while true freshman Amandre Williams is backing up Wooching and Bartlett at SAM.
“Always helps to have those guys come in the spring," Gregory said of Williams. "Almost like a different guy. When those guys come in the spring that really, really helps. Athletic, can rush the passer. I think he’s got that body type you’re looking for as an outside linebacker.”
Freshmen Myles Rice (true), Jusstis Warren and Bryce Sterk are also getting plenty of turns this fall.
“I think we always want to have different bodies,” Gregory said, hitting on a refrain sung by receivers coach Bush Hamdan when he spoke of his group earlier during camp. “You don’t want to always have the exact same body type. But generally Cory Littleton is what you’re looking for: 6-2, 6-3 range, 225 pounds that can run. Rangy, I think that’s a good way to describe those guys.”
Since Littleton was picked up as a free agent by the Los Angeles Rams, Gregory also wants guys he can develop into future pros.
There is one guy that doesn’t quite fit the mold of the others - Potoa’e. At 270 pounds, he’s the Elijah Qualls of the OLBs - much bigger than the prototype, but his athleticism puts him squarely in the mix.
“He does have good size, but Benning is very gifted athletically,” Gregory said. “He can run like an outside linebacker but he’s big enough to be able to pound on a tackle. But he’s athletic. We can do some things with him in space.”
Potoa’e started his UW career stretched between the defensive line group and linebacking corps, as both Kwiatkowski and then-Defensive Line Coach Jeff Choate pushed to use him in different ways. He played some along the defensive line during his 2015 redshirt season, but with Choate gone to coach at Montana State it’s Kwiatkowski who pulled Benning back in with the BUCKs.
“I’m trying to get Benning (Potoa’e) ready to go, but they keep pushing on me and I keep pushing on them,” Mathis said. “There’s a lot of NFL guys that play BUCK linebacker – Terrell Suggs and Lamar Woodley – playing that position at 270 and 280. It just depends on how fast you are and how you do things.”
And when that light goes on, it could get scary for opposing offenses.
On the other side, Wooching is paying it forward.
“Cory Littleton and Travis Feeney were a big part of teaching me last year that whole thing,” Wooching said. “I took as much knowledge as I could from them and I’ve slid into that role of where these little guys are coming up and I’m teaching them and at the same time, me teaching them, that’s a good way for me to learn things. You know you’ve mastered a position when you can teach someone else how to play the position, that’s what the coaches always say.”
It’s going to be up to Wooching and Mathis to take those teachings and lead the way in 2016, much like Littleton and Feeney took over when Hau’oli Kikaha and Shaq Thompson left for the NFL in 2014. Obviously Hau’oli and Shaq did a good job of mentoring the guys that came behind them.
Fans wondered how the Huskies would cope losing two top-45 draft picks, but it turned out okay. With experience paving the way, Washington shouldn’t experience a ton of drop-off when it comes to the numbers. They keep losing top talent, but the overall production continues to tick over at a steady rate.
That’s one hallmark of a healthy program.