Linebackers (By Year)
Victor had two tackles in the Spring Preview, but more importantly - he played in the Spring Preview. In fact, he played in all of spring, without complication. That, in itself, was a huge boost for the defense, as Azeem has been the heart and thunder in the middle the last couple years. With 35 games played and 21 starts the past three seasons, getting Victor back to full health and rolling was a major imperative for Pete Kwiatkowski, Bob Gregory and the rest of the UW defensive staff. That happened.
Like Victor, Keishawn Bierria also had two tackles in the Spring Preview. Ever since 2014, it felt like the pairing of Bierria and Victor would be a fixture for years to come, and that's exactly what took place. Bierria has been able to stay a little healthier and has had arguably a bigger impact in the linebacker corps compared to Azeem. Bierria has played in 40 games and started 30. But the two run together and create arguably the best inside linebacker duo in the country. To see them back at it this spring was encouraging, and bodes well for another big season ahead.
O'Brien missed this spring due to injury, most likely the same leg injury that kept him out of the Pac-12 Championship game and the Peach Bowl. But O'Brien was a huge cog filling in for Joe Mathis at outside linebacker when Mathis was hurt mid-season. He finished the 2016 season with seven starts. O'Brien has played in 24 games during his UW career to date, so he has experience and should be a valuable piece for Kwiatkowski this fall, provided he's able to get back to 100 percent health.
Constantine suffered a freak ankle break during fall camp last year, an injury that cost him the season. It's the fourth major surgery for the former Bellevue star, who made it through spring ball unscathed. That was big news not just for Constantine, but for the Huskies, who could use more interior depth this fall. Going into his fifth season, Sean is going to want to finish his UW career out with a bang. He's played in 18 games so far, so it's not as if he hasn't played. His work this spring showed he's ready to take this upcoming season head on and make it his best.
Bartlett had two tackles in the Spring Preview, as well as a fumble recovery. No one make a bigger impression as far as outside linebackers looking to solidify a starting spot than the junior-to-be from Wyoming. He's fierce coming off the edge, but also has a great feel for playing in space and not getting caught out of position. Bartlett showed all those traits in spades this spring, and don't be surprised if he lands himself a starting nod this fall. He doesn't have a start yet, but has played in 25 games so far through his first two years, so getting those starts is the next stage in his development.
Burr-Kirven had three tackles, including a tackle for loss for minus-4 yards, during the Spring Preview. He may not be the biggest guy out there roaming the middle for the Huskies, but the junior-to-be from the Bay Area has a knack for being at the right place at the right time. He makes up for any physical deficiencies with a tremendous football IQ and a nose for the ball. He wasn't a 2016 Academic All-Pac-12 First Team pick for nothing. He continued to show that he can make a difference for UW, but because of his size breaking down is always going to be something of a concern for Burr-Kirven. It kept him out of the Heart of Dallas Bowl two years ago and should be watched as the 2017 season goes on.
Preston had three tackles in the Spring Preview, as he was one of the inside linebackers to get some face time during the Pac-12 Networks' coverage of the event. The walk-on junior-to-be has been a fixture the last few years, and has even played in 10 games the last two seasons. At 230 pounds (he put on 10 pounds in the offseason) Preston can more than handle his own physically inside, and appears to be a steady presence among the linebacking corps.
Wambaugh, another junior-to-be walk-on, led the defense with seven tackles in the Spring Preview, including four solo stops. He also had a pass breakup. Wambaugh and Preston have been running mates the last three years at Washington, playing in 13 games of his own. Both were solid in spring, getting their work in and getting plenty of turns with DJ Beavers limited.
Benning had one tackle in the Spring Preview. Unfortunately the sophomore-to-be missed some time during spring, but it wasn't long-lasting. That was the good news. The bad news is that he wasn't enough of a presence to really impose himself on one of the open outside linebacker spots the way Tevis Bartlett did, for instance. That's not to say Potoa'e isn't the odds-on favorite to win a job - which he very well could be. His athleticism and physicality at 270 pounds is not to be ignored. Just ask Washington State's run game at the goal line.
After a redshirt freshman season that saw the Crespi grad play in 12 games and start the final four due to Azeem Victor's injury, it was expected Beavers would take that next step up in his development this spring - but that was not to be. Instead the linebacker group had to play without him in April, which obviously stunted his growth as a player. And he had gained 11 pounds in the offseason in order to help him take that leap, so it's a bit of a double-bummer for Beavers and the Huskies.
Sterk, the redshirt sophomore-to-be from Lynden, made the biggest physical gains of any of the linebackers, adding 15 pounds to his 6-foot-4 frame. 6-foot-4 and 256 pounds? That's how you draw 'em up, and Sterk put that extra poundage to good use this spring. He had his moments where he flashed, but again - not enough to make a Bartlett-like push toward a starting nod. But there's no doubt Sterk showed enough during spring to be a factor to note for the fall. He's only played in two games so far in his youngish career, so now is the time he needs to step up and be counted.
Warren had three tackles in the Spring Preview. Could it be a sign of things to come for the redshirt sophomore outside linebacker? It could be. The Tacoma native slimmed down five pounds in the offseason, and looked the part of an athlete that can get sideline-to-sideline in a hurry and disrupt things. He played in five games last year, including the Pac-12 Championship game, so 2017 should be his time to find his niche as an athletic BUCK or SAM that can make things uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks.
This was the third spring for Manu, the redshirt sophomore from Idaho. Of all the redshirt soph linebackers, Manu seems to be trailing the pack a bit when it comes to imposing himself on the UW defensive depth chart. He saw action the first three games of last year, but then didn't play again. This spring didn't see him put a dent in the pecking order, so this fall may be the time he's able to finally make his move. Only time will tell.
Wellington had two tackles in the Spring Preview, including two tackles for loss and one sack for minus-6 yards. The way the true sophomore from Eastside Catholic played in spring, it feels like big things are in store. He was one of only four true freshmen to play against Rutgers last year, and ended up playing every single game last year. Wellington put on seven pounds during the offseason in an attempt to get even bigger and stronger. The way Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria have become a force in their own right is the way things seem to be panning out with the pairing of Wellington with redshirt frosh-to-be Camilo Eifler - at least it felt that way in spring. Could they be the next big inside linebacker duo for UW?
This was the second spring for Rice, who delayed his enrollment while rehabbing a knee injury back in 2015. Back in his home state of Texas, Rice was known as a pass-rushing specialist and he brings that know-how to the outside linebacker position. This spring Rice showed that he can definitely set the edge and hold his own out there, while making life hairy for tight ends and tackles. He's in that group right now with players like Bryce Sterk, Amandre Williams, Jusstis Warren and Ryan Bowman in terms of the younger guys ready to ramp up their learning curve. Rice did nothing to dissuade us from believing he could do some damage this fall, but he needs to stay with it.
Williams had one tackle in the Spring Preview. Known as a supreme athlete coming out of Tahoma High, it was going to take a minute for Williams to settle in on the defensive side of the ball, but Chris Petersen even talked about Williams as a player that could burn his redshirt right out of the gate. That was how good the coaches felt about his play. But they were able to keep the redshirt on, and Williams also put on seven pounds during the offseason, ready to be unleashed this spring. April was a great month of learning for Williams, and he could very well take another leap forward this fall, but he didn't race out of the gate quite as quickly as some may have hoped. Plenty of time for him, though.
Eifler had two tackles in the Spring Preview, one of them a tackle for loss for minus-4 yards - which is about what many UW fans would have hoped to see from the heralded redshirt frosh. Up to near 220 pounds, Eifler took his redshirt year on as one to learn and grow from, and it feels like he put it to good use as the understudy to Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria. Whether paired with sophomore Brandon Wellington or with another one of the many 'backers behind Victor and Bierria, Eifler certainly looked the part of a MIK-in-waiting. But when will his time come? I have a feeling he may get some games in this fall, but 2018 is when Eifler's stock will really start to soar.
Bowman, the walk-on younger brother of Shane Bowman, had two tackles in the Spring Preview, both of them sacks for a total of minus-13 yards. At 267 pounds, Bowman rivals only Benning Potoa'e in terms of outside linebackers that are just big dudes. Bryce Sterk is getting there. It's hard to know just how much Bowman might play, since he's just a redshirt frosh, but he did earn the defensive Scout of the Year award for 2016, so it's certainly possible we could see number 55 out there quite a bit - at least in some mop up duty to start.
Where does the Linebacker group stand heading into the summer?
With Victor's return, the linebackers are in pretty good shape as they ready themselves for the fall.
There were two major storylines for the linebacker group heading into spring. 1) Would Victor be able to do much? 2) Who would step up as the heirs apparent to Joe Mathis and Psalm Wooching at the outside linebacker spots?
There was a resounding positive response to the first question. He stepped in from day one of spring ball and pushed through all the practices without any noticeable setbacks. That was big. Getting him paired back up with Keishawn Bierria was key. They are not only the brains behind the front seven, but they are a big part of the spine of Washington's entire defense. They make it tick over and keep everyone on the same page.
We also saw the continued development of Brandon Wellington and Camilo Eifler as the next inside duo of the future. Their time may not be this fall, but 2017 will act as a springboard to bigger and better things down the road. They have all the physical gifts the Huskies need to pick up the torch once Victor and Bierria have moved on to the NFL, whenever that may be.
The second question wasn't answered with as resounding a response as the first, but that was kind of expected. There were at least three very legitimate options right off the bat before spring started, and after spring? You could reasonably double that number. Players like Myles Rice, Jusstis Warren, Amandre Williams and Bryce Sterk pushed themselves right into the mix. They can continue to put the pedal down, work hard in the weight room, stay in top physical shape and ready themselves mentally and emotionally for a battle royale this fall. Because Pete Kwiatkowski will want to have as many able bodies at the ready as he can possibly have. And he will be spoiled for choice, if what we saw during spring ball was any indication of what they are going to do in the fall.
Linebacker Depth Chart
8 Benning Potoa’e (6-3, 270, So.) OR
29 Connor O'Brien (6-3, 224, Sr.) (INJ)
41 Myles Rice (6-3, 243, RFr.)
10 Jusstis Warren (6-2, 243, So.)
7 Keishawn Bierria (6-1, 230, Sr.)
25 Ben Burr-Kirven (6-0, 221, Jr.) OR
13 Brandon Wellington (5-11, 223, So.)
54 Matt Preston (6-2, 230, Jr.)* OR
30 Kyler Manu (6-1, 233, So.)
36 Azeem Victor (6-3, 222, Sr.)
34 Sean Constantine (6-2, 231, Sr.) OR
15 D.J. Beavers (6-0, 227, So.) (INJ)
40 Camilo Eifler (6-1, 219, RFr.)
53 Jake Wambaugh (6-1, 221, Jr.)*
17 Tevis Bartlett (6-2, 229, Jr.)
16 Amandre Williams (6-2, 230, RFr.) OR
37 Bryce Sterk (6-4, 256, So.)
55 Ryan Bowman (6-0, 267, RFr.)*
* = walk-on