This is a weekly series in which we go position by position, blathering on about the early favorites to win starting spots and the other warm bodies on the Huskies’ roster.
This week: The outside line backer traffic jam looks to the middle for stability after losing Mason Foster. We’ve already covered the offensive line, defensive line, receivers, defensive backs and running backs.
Check out our position preview for the linebacker position after the jump.
There were approximately 10,200 FBS players in the 2010 season. Only one of them had more tackles than Mason Foster. Foster racked up 163 stops in 13 starts, becoming the Huskies’ first All-American since receiver Reggie Williams in 2002. Foster parlayed that success into a third-round NFL draft selection last month by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—he graduates UW with the third-most career solo stops of any Husky since we began counting the stat in 1967.
As an unheralded yet precocious sophomore in 2008, Foster slid into the void left by E.J. Savannah’s temporary departure and promptly led the Pac-10 in tackles. He failed to top the conference in stops in 2009 (there was this guy named Donald Butler, I don’t know if you remember…), instead opting to force a school-record six fumbles and rack up 109 interception return yards. Memory recalls the 39 yards below as moderately important. Foster was the Huskies’ leader on defense last year and replacing him will be one of their biggest challenges for 2011.
Converted safety Victor Aiyewa will also graduate this spring after a fine senior year that even drew the attention of some NFL scouts. Though Aiyewa didn’t hear his name called at Radio City Music Hall last month, he can be proud of his 2010 accomplishments—he finished with 22.5 tackles for loss, good for fourth in the country and just half a tackle short of the single-season school record. The eloquent, intense and absolutely jacked Texan provided an otherwise hapless run defense with huge plays and huge hits from his strongside position.
If Aiyewa got a clean shot at you, you felt it in the morning. Unless he did significant damage to your nerve centers, in which case you probably didn’t feel much. Seriously, watch the first 35 seconds of this video a few times until you’re totally clear on what happened to this poor, poor Notre Dame kick coverer.
Brandon Huppert and Matt Houston are also gone. Houston was beaten out by Aiyewa for a starting spot last year and played sparingly. Huppert appeared mostly on special teams after earning a scholarship in 2009.
Senior captain Cort Dennison is the lone returning starter in the linebacking corps. Dennison inherited Butler’s Mike spot last year and performed very well, finishing fourth in the Pac-10 with 8.0 tackles per game. Though not particularly blessed with physical gifts, the 2006 Utah Athlete of the Year is an absolute maniac in the weight room and on the practice field—his year-round effort and football intelligence have keyed his rapid improvement and put him in position to do something great this year. He will need to be a rock in the middle as the inexperienced outside linebackers get up to game speed.
The post-spring depth chart definitively lists, in no uncertain terms, the two men flanking Dennison at the OLB spots this year. The starters are just as readily apparent as the psychotic girlfriend who lies about birth control in the name of her pregnancy pact (Readily a parent? …No?). If you didn’t open the depth chart link, I’m being facetious. Garret Gilliland, Princeton Fuimaono, Jamaal Kearse, Cooper Pelluer, Jordan Wallace and John Timu are all listed as “/OR” starters, setting the table for some heated position battles come fall practice.
True sophomores Gilliland and Fuimaono are the only non-Dennison linebacking denizens to have started a game last year. Gilliland performed adequately when Dennison missed the first Nebraska game with a concussion (we’ll ignore the unofficial 29,582,910 rushing yards the Huskies allowed in that game); his superior instincts allow him to play at game speed and his versatility makes him a valuable asset to this defense. One has to think he has an advantage over the hordes of outside linebackers listed if he can stay healthy.
Fuimaono was a key special-teamer last season and saw a decent amount of action on defense, starting the Oregon game at strongside linebacker. He’s fairly undersized at 6’0 and 201 pounds but has wideout speed and excellent ball skills. Like Gilliland, Fuimaono can—and likely will—play all three linebacker spots. He spent this spring recovering from shoulder surgery and so begins the year a bit behind the other linebackers.
Jermaine Kearse’s little brother Jamaal was first-team all-state at both defensive back and wide receiver for Lakes in 2009. He made the transition to linebacker while redshirting last season and showed up at spring practice looking much bigger and more confident.
Pelluer has athletic blood coursing all through his 6’3, 221-pound tangle of veins. His father, linebacker Scott Pelluer, played five years for the Saints after starring at WSU. His uncle Steve Pelluer’s 65.0 completion percentage in 1983 is the all-time Husky record. Brother Tyler was a second-string middle linebacker at Montana.
Cooper himself won three state titles at Skyline as a tight end and defensive end, named first-team All-KingCo at both positions as a senior. He has excellent instincts and compensates for his less-than-awe-inspiring physical makeup with hard work and determination. He saw special teams action in five games as a true freshman last season but, like Fuimaono (and Greg Ducre and Taz Stevenson), missed the spring recovering from shoulder surgery.
Wallace, younger brother of former All-Pac-10 safety C.J., began his junior season with a strong spring. He provided solid pursuit and sure tackling from the strong side and will likely see time on defense this year after two years on special teams. He racked up 135 tackles in leading Grant (Sacramento, Calif.) to a 14-0 season and the California Open Division state championship as a senior in 2008.
For a guy who hasn’t seen a college snap yet, John Timu sure has a lot of folks wearing his jersey. Timu takes over Jake Locker’s number 10 this season after greyshirting 2010—he stands to play right away based on his speed and versatility on the weak side. A catastrophic knee injury suffered during his senior season at Long Beach Jordan kept him out last year but the Huskies honored his commitment all the same, allowing him to recover while on scholarship. He could be called on to punt or kick in a pinch, though emergency punting duties would likely fall to incoming quarterback Derrick Brown.
Junior-college transfer Thomas Tutogi looks to be Dennison’s primary backup at middle linebacker. An outstanding tackler, Tutogi was heavily recruited by USC out of Southwestern Junior College (Chula Vista, Calif.) but chose Washington and has four years to play three for the Dawgs. He has outstanding size and instincts and appeared comfortable at Mike this spring.
Victor Burnett was a top recruit in 2009 after racking up a school-record 425 tackles in just two and a half years at Culver City (Los Angeles), including an eye-popping 182 stops as a junior. He plays like a magnet, taking outstanding angles to the ball and accelerating east-west quickly. He has good size except for his height (generously 6-feet-nothin’), which may force him to the weak side. He redshirted last season and is listed alongside Tutogi as second-string middle linebacker.
Sophomore middle linebacker Tim Tucker played in front of UW safety Sean Parker at Narbonne (Harbor City, Calif.), where he led the Marine League with 96 tackles as a senior. He was named the Huskies’ defensive scout squad MVP while redshirting 2009. He appeared mostly on special teams for eight games last year.
Redshirt freshman Alec Kimble brings all of three years’ football experience to the table after starring in soccer for Eastside Catholic. He decided to try football as a junior and was named a first-team All-Metro Mountain Division wide receiver the following season. Some kinda coach, that Jason Gesser.
Rush linebacker Corey Waller turned down offers from USC and Boise State to play for Nick Holt and the Dawgs. A very athletic and savvy defender, Waller was Rivals’ 19th-ranked outside linebacker recruit even after missing much of his senior year with several nagging injuries. Husky coaches can only hope their commitment to the oft-injured Waller pays off, but his highlight tape is really quite impressive.
YouTube loves phrases like these: “Matthew Lyons relishes using his body like a missile.” Husky fans hope to see some highlight reel hits out of Lyons, an agile and heady 6’2 linebacker with very good recognition skills. His 190-pound frame points toward a possible shift to safety in his future, but he projects decently well there too. The Huskies lost a commitment from Lyons’ teammate, Dorsey (Calif.) stat machine quarterback Joseph Gray, but signed Dorsey wideout Marvin Hall.
Stupid-fast pass-rusher Scott Lawyer committed to Washington soon after receiving the offer last June. Oak Grove (Calif.) coaches say Lawyer is up to 215 pounds this spring which, paired with his best reported 40-yard dash of 4.55 seconds, could spell a lot of hurt for opposing offenses.
Ones: WLB Fuimaono MLB Dennison SLB Gilliland
Twos: WLB Kearse MLB Tutogi SLB Wallace