There's also some versatility in the group, especially when talking about Stevens and Foster. Stevens made his name early as an undersized, but cat-quick rush end who caused all sorts of problems coming off the edge. His calling-card has also been special teams, where he's had two touchdowns off a fumbled snap and blocked punt. Foster should be Donatell's first man off the bench when it comes to filling gaps at any of the linebacking spots. As a true frosh he started three games at WIL (Weak outside linebacker) and one game at MIK (middle linebacker), so it's clear the Washington coaching staff have placed a lot of trust on Foster from an early age.
As I see it, the biggest question coming into spring for Donatell is the same question he will have for the defensive line; what philosophy should be utilized to maximize the Huskies' personnel and strengths? Much like Washington State changing up from the 3-4 for 4-3 mid-year, it wouldn't be all that surprising to see Donatell do the same considering the type of athleticism and play-making potential this linebacking corps has. And for a defense that finished 10th in rush defense and ninth in pass defense, it's clear they need to revamp every facet of what they do. I expect the most-experienced defensive group - the linebackers - to lead the renaissance, if one is to happen at all.
SAM Matt Houston* 6-1 230 So. Goleta, Calif. (Dos Pueblos) Cort Dennison* 6-1 215 Fr. Salt Lake City, Utah (Judge Memorial) Fred Wiggs+* 6-1 225 So. Seattle, Wash. (O'Dea) + Walk-on * Has utilized redshirt season
The irony is - of the three linebacking positions utlized by former UW Defensive Coordinator Kent Baer, it's the strong outside linebacker spot (SAM) that needs the most attention heading into this spring, as both the starter (Dan Howell) and backup (Kyle Trew) have graduated. So don't be surprised if Foster gets a chance to compete for playing time here.
As it stands, both Houston and Dennison have a chance to step in and compete for Howell's starting spot. Houston is the bigger, more experienced of the two, but Dennison has the majority of his linebacking experience playing along the line and causing problems not only as a contain 'back against the tight end, but also as a blitzing specialist. He had 37.5 sacks his final two seasons at Judge Memorial. And no, that's not a typo.
Wiggs is an intriguing notion here too, as he's started to really make a name for himself on special teams and could certainly make an impression on Tormey and Donatell if he plays linebacker with the same kind of fearlessness and aggression he's taken to special teams.
WIL Chris Stevens 6-0 215 Sr. Mojave, Calif. (Mojave) E.J. Savannah* 6-2 228 Jr. Bellevue, Wash. (Bellevue) Mason Foster 6-1 218 So. Seaside, Calif. (Seaside) Joshua Gage* 6-2 225 Jr. Huntington Beach, Calif. (Edison) Brandon Huppert+* 6-1 205 So. Edmonds, Wash. (Edmonds-Woodway) T.J. Poe+* 6-1 205 Jr. Enumclaw, Wash. (Enumclaw) + Walk-on * Has utilized redshirt season
Because this is arguably the most loaded position on the team, expect Tyrone Willingham, Donatell and Tormey to try and get all three of Stevens, Savannah and Foster extensive playing time. Savannah - barring any off-the-field issues like missed classwork or the like - will start here and it shouldn't be a debate. Outside of Foster, Savannah is the most athletic linebacker Washington has, and in 2007 showed the kind of nose for the ball that made him such a force for Bellevue High. Savannah racked up 111 stops and 14 tackles for loss, so he's also a player that Donatell can line up anywhere to cause problems for opposing offenses.
While Savannah is the anchor of the linebacking corps, Foster is its budding star. He adds size, speed and the kind of reckless abandon that you love to see impact linebackers have. By the end of spring I expect Foster to be a player Donatell will have a difficult time taking off the field.
Stevens is a little different case, simply because he's never really been in a position where he's had to start games and be a real significant factor as far as long stretches playing linebacker. He's mostly been a player Baer would put in as a surprise blitzer or to spell Savannah. I expect we'll see even more of Stevens competing for the starting WIL spot, and maybe even for the SAM position too. His experience cannot be undervalued with this defense, especially considering lack of significant playing time with both the front and back thirds.
Gage is a walk-on player that earned a scholarship and played in all 13 games in 2007, and he's another guy here that could move around and prove valuable to Donatell because of his versatility.
MIK Trenton Tuiasosopo* 6-2 240 Sr. Everett, Wash. (Mariner) Donald Butler 6-1 240 Jr. Sacramento, Calif. (Del Campo) Kurt Mangum 6-2 240 Fr. Chandler, Ariz. (Chandler) + Walk-on * Has utilized redshirt season
The MIK position affords Donatell some stability and experience, which is certrainly something you are looking for when talking about the middle of the defense.
Trenton Tuiasosopo has proven to be a gritty and tough competitor at the middle linebacker position the past two seasons, especially after coming back from a nasty bike crash in 2004 and missing all of the subsequent season because of it. His durability became even more important in 2007 when Donald Butler went down with a knee injury and missed four games.
Butler is the present and future for the Huskies at MIK if he can remain healthy. His 11 tackles versus Ohio State last year gave a big glimpse into Butler's ability as a big 'backer that can also go sideline-to-sideline and play in space.
While Tuiasosopo and Butler continue to solidify the middle and improve their games, the spring will be most important for Kurt Mangum, the incoming frosh from Arizona. Mangum is coming in early in the hopes he can pick up Donatell's playbook and prove to be a player the Huskies' staff can't keep off the field. I don't anticipate Mangum's presence to be huge this spring, but the 15 extra practices should come in very handy a year from now when the youngster will be expected to compete with Butler for the starting MIK position in 2009.