Fall Preview: Linebackers

Just as is the case with the defensive line, the linebackers are going to have to pick up the slack left by the departure of two productive players. They have no choice. The good news is that Mason Foster and Cort Dennison combined for the same number of tackles Donald Butler and E.J. Savannah had in 2009 - 137. The bad news? Well, if you just go by the numbers, there's plenty to go around.

The rest of the returning linebacking corps had ONE tackle between them. That was the one registered by walk-on Brandon Huppert against USC - his last game of the season. He missed the rest of the season with a knee injury.

Victor Aiyewa, who has moved closer to the line of scrimmage for his final season at UW, had 18 tackles in 12 games - at safety. And that's it. Of the 14 players Washington Linebackers Coach Mike Cox has to work with, only two had more than 18 tackles in 2009.

That is a truckload of productivity to account for. Add to it the fact that Butler and defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim teamed up to record 29.5 tackles for loss last season, while the rest of the returning defensive players - 14 in all - had 36.5 TFL. The returning linebacking corps had 15: 7.5 from Foster, 6.5 from Dennison and 1 from Aiyewa.

That's a staggering head start last year's group had on this year's, and it means that a combination of young, but talented players, are going to have to find a way to pick up the slack.

Linebacker: Mason Foster (Sr.); Matt Houston (Sr.); Victor Aiyewa (Sr.); Brandon Huppert (Sr.)#; Cort Dennison (Jr.); Jonathan Amosa (So.)#; Jordan Wallace (So.); Victor Burnett (Fr.); Princeton Fuimaono (Fr.); Garret Gilliland (Fr.); Jamaal Kearse (Fr.); Cooper Pelluer (Fr.); Josh Shirley (Fr.); Tim Tucker (Fr.)

# = walk-on

To start, the linebackers have to stay healthy, especially the returning starters. Maybe more than any other group on the team, they are having to rely on upperclassmen for a lion's share of their work - which means keeping them upright and available. Foster, a 2009 honorable mention all-Pac-10 pick, and Dennison - who filled in capably for an injured Savannah - are the keys. If they can start the entire season, like Butler was able to do last year, it would go a long ways toward solidifying a Washington defense that frankly needs stability in the middle.

The hidden beauty behind the return of Foster and Dennison is the fact that they understand the roles at every position in the linebacking corps, and that can cover up a multitude of sins on its own. Washington Defensive Coordinator Nick Holt can get exotic and roll Foster and Dennison around a lot, putting them in the proper stress points so that they can be used to their full potential. Holt has to get the linebackers in the right looks to attack offenses using Foster and Dennison as his fulcrum, because after those two, the group gets frighteningly thin and inexperienced.

The further plus of having Foster and Dennison active and healthy means Holt can use any front he wants to. If he wants to go big, he can go with three linebackers - probably Foster, Dennison and Jordan Wallace, the next most-experienced 'backer they have. If Holt wants to use an odd front or stack, it'll be harder but as long as those two are running things they can manage. If either or both are out, that scales back the playbook considerably, as well it should. Ideally you'd love to be able to just plug and play with any combination you have out there, but realistically that's hardly ever the case.

Losing a potential starter in Alvin Logan, who was starting to show promise after switching from offense in the spring of 2009, is just another blow to a group sorely lacking in veteran talent. Having Aiyewa move up from his safety spot should help, but he's never been more than a spot player at best in his career. When it comes to the strongside outside linebacker spot, Aiyewa and Matt Houston - another player that has been on the team a while but sorely lacks playing experience - will be tested right from the get-go to see who handles their job while the bullets fly, so to speak.

It will definitely be one of the position battles to watch this fall, as both have seen enough game time to warrant some excitement. Between the two of them, they have played in 52 games at UW; yet they only have four starts. Making sure they have the right stuff to not only start games, but to see them out, is the obvious key. And that's the question Holt has to answer; both have experience, but which one has the ability to fit right in at BYU and make the position his own?

And again - as with the defensive ends - this is where a young player like Josh Shirley can be a real 'X' factor. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Shirley, who just transferred from UCLA, had a reputation in high school as being a pass-rush specialist - and even though he will start out his Husky career under the tutelage of Cox, he just might be at his best in college with his hand down. Certainly it stands to reason that having one responsibility as a rush specialist - as opposed to understanding and reading keys and breaking down offenses on the fly - is going to be substantially easier for a true freshman to not mess up. And Shirley is physically too talented to sit on the bench, so my guess is that he will have certain packages that have been called up to take advantage of his athleticism as a way of getting to the quarterback quickly.

When thinking of a scenario where Holt lets Foster, Dennison and Shirley loose to wreak havoc on opposing backfields, it has to bring a smile to even the most skeptical and hardened Husky fan that wonders if this group can be as effective breaking down pockets as Te'o-Nesheim, Butler and Savannah were. It may take a little time, but the potential is clearly there for them to do something special.

Kearse and Pelluer are two true freshmen that will simply add to the depth this fall, but one of them shows a real taste for the position and a hunger for it, they may not be denied a chance to play. Meritocracy rules with Steve Sarkisian, and both showed at the high school level an ability to impose their will on a game. Can they do it this quickly at the college level? Odds are no, but the odds were also against Desmond Trufant last year and he came through with a huge freshman campaign from one of the cornerback positions.

In the middle, it's going to be up to Tim Tucker and Victor Burnett to grow up in a hurry, because they will absolutely be counted on to spell Dennison and Foster. Again, plenty of talent here between the two - it's just a matter of how quickly they can assimilate the calls, the checkoffs - the nuances of being the quarterback of the linebacking corps - that will be the difference. For the MIK's, it's all mental. It helps that Huppert is coming back, because he can help with terminology and the mental side, but expect Tucker and Burnett to compete their brains out for the right to play in the middle when the others are on the sideline.

The weak-side (WIL) spot is probably the deepest at this point, as Foster and Wallace have played in 46 games combined. Wallace should be the first linebacker off the bench for Holt, as he could conceivably play any of the LB positions. After that, though, is that broken record - youth, youth and more youth. Freshmen Garret Gilliland and Princeton Fuimaono are waiting in the wings, but don't expect them to play in 2009 unless the Huskies have a rash of injuries.

So while the defensive line is also in the unenviable position of having to replace a lot of production, they have players that have started at each position that should be able to help soften the blow somewhat. That's not the case with the linebackers. How the coaches are able to coach the available players up in the fall and how quickly they are able to blend in to form a capable and competent corps is the biggest question. But if Foster and Dennison start every game in 2010, they should be able to lead by example and shepherd the rest of the group through their 'out of the frying pan and into the fire' experience they are sure to experience this coming fall.

A stab at the three-deeps:
SAM/LEO - Houston or Aiyewa; Shirley; Kearse or Pelluer
MIK - Dennison; Tucker or Burnett; Huppert
WIL - Foster; Wallace; Gilliland or Fuimaono; Amosa


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