‘Backers finding their niche

With Scott White and Tahj Bomar anchoring the linebacking corps in 2006, it allowed Washington the benefit of being able to rotate some other, younger ‘backers into the mix to get used to life in the Pac-10. Now that White and Bomar are gone, it's up to a group of players with experience, but not a ton of starts under their belt, to anchor the middle of the defense.

"That's the upside of playing guys," Washington Linebackers Coach Chris Tormey said about the position his troops find themselves as spring ball winds down. "The more you can play earlier in your career, the better chance you have of being effective later in your career."

That certainly bodes well for the one returning starter, senior SAM Dan Howell, who had 35 tackles in 10 starts for the Huskies. With the work he's been able to put together in the off-season with Strength and Conditioning Coach Trent Greener, Howell is poised to do great things in leading this relatively untested group.

"Since the end of last season I've put on ten pounds," Howell told Dawgman.com this spring. "I have put on weight, but at the same time, I'm running just as fast at 240 as I was at 230 and in fact I've maintained pretty good considering I've put on so much weight than I was before. I haven't lost anything.

"Being a linebacker, we're more or less the leaders of the defense. We do have the most responsibilities on the defense because we have to drop in pass or rush the passer or taking on blockers. I definitely see myself, not necessarily running the show, but helping guys like Roy Lewis in the secondary and someone like Jordan Reffett with his guys on the line and help control everyone and make sure their in line and doing what they're supposed to be doing."

Howell's thinking falls right in line with Tormey's expectations. "I've always thought the linebackers are the ones that are supposed to set the tempo for the defense," he said. "If they don't show toughness and leadership, how can they expect anyone else to? They call the huddle, they make the strength calls…they should be the leaders of the defense."

What Howell's guys lack in experience, they make up for in athleticism and a drive to overachieve. "We had a lot of young guys who were coming in, I'm just speaking about the linebackers in general, that were like 220 or 225 and they're starting to put on some good weight," he said. "We've got a lot of depth at linebacker but we don't have a lot of big bodies, we might only have a couple of guys over 230, but a couple of the guys who came in here and were lighter last year, they're getting better and we're making progress. It's looking good. It's looking real good."

One of those ‘bigger' bodies just might try and give Howell a run for his money in the leadership department. MIK Donald Butler was thrown into the fire of Pac-10 competition as a true freshman and responded with 24 tackles in 10 games played, including a forced fumble against California.

"I think I'm the man to do it," Butler said, unabashedly. "I think, from last year, and what I'm showing now, I think I can do it. I mean, it's a lot, don't get me wrong, it's the Husky defense, but definitely with some work with the guys we have here like E.J., Chris (Stevens), Dan Howell - with their help I can get it done."

It's nice that the mantle of leadership is being taken up by the linebackers, and in watching practice it's even clearer who the vocal leaders of the defense are. Howell and Butler are constantly chatting, either communicating things to their teammates or trying to get under the skin of the offense.

"He (Howell) helps me so much," sophomore SAM Matt Houston said. "He helps me with the little things and I need this. Right now, it's all love. There's the competition sure, but it's all good stuff."

And the competition is what Tormey is looking at. Up until now, the younger guys have been able to learn at their own pace. Now it's time to ramp up that development. "It's easy to come off the bench," he said. "It's tougher when you're the starter. Your teammates are relying on you to be there every down."

One key element to ramping things up is a familiarity with system and expectations. With the current UW staff having been in place for three years now, that continuity should pay dividends down the road.

"A lot of the seniors have been in this system for three years so they know what it takes," Howell said. "There's no surprises anymore. Even the young guys, the ones that have been recruited by this coaching staff, they've been in the system for two years now and they're real comfortable. That's really important. They know what to expect and that's a big help."

It's clearly helped Savannah, who is now finally healthy after having battled through stinger issues, as well as a bum hand. He is battling every day with junior Chris Stevens, and right now the starting nod would go Savannah's way. Even though the junior from Bellevue played in nine games in 2006, he recognizes the opportunity he'll be given this fall to play a major role.

"After three years this is how I should be playing," he said with a smile on his face. "This is how I should be getting ready for the season and I feel good out there and no neck injuries this time so I'm ready to go."

While Tormey isn't 100-percent sold on how this younger group will perform in the fall, he does realize that they have the potential to be a very strong, cohesive working unit. "Part of being a good linebacker is understanding the bigger picture, understanding the concept of what we're trying to do defensively and understand how an offense, and that hasn't changed," he said.

"We've been OK, but there's a lot of room for improvement. I'm a little disappointed. I think we should be futher along than we are. And that's the curse of youth – immaturity. But the good news is that we're going to have good depth for the next 3-4 years. But we need to grow up right now.

We need to come every day with a sense of urgency."

Howell appears ready to lead the charge for the rest. "We definitely want to be the most physical defensive team in the Pac 10 and against whoever we play outside of that," he said. "Like coach (Kent) Baer always tells us, ‘If you're going to be the most physical, you're going to work the hardest to win ballgames'.

"If we work hard and know our assignments we're going to be successful."

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