The battle at quarterback will obviously get the lion’s (or should it be Dawg’s?) share of the attention this spring.
But UW has a few other holes to fill, as well, notably at linebacker, where weakside linebacker Mason Foster and strongside linebacker Victor Aiyewa each graduated after playing virtually every down at those two spots last season (other than when Aiyewa was banged up for a game).
Don’t expect all the answers to come during the spring, however, as Princeton Fuimaono and Cooper Pelluer, each legit contenders for those spots, will be limited after having shoulder surgery.
UW has one sure thing at linebacker, in middle backer Cort Dennison, who returns for his senior season. His backups for now appear to be Tim Tucker and Victor Burnett.
On Tuesday, Garret Gilliland ran with the starting unit at WLB, with JC transfer Thomas Tutogi with the twos, and Jamaal Kearse ran with the ones at SLB, with incoming freshman John Timu with the twos.
Those spots are obviously subject to all kinds of potential change at a moment’s notice.
Maybe the most interesting note there is the move of Gilliland, who last year backed up Dennison (starting the first Nebraska game when Dennison suffered a concussion, and pictured to the right making a tackle of Cornhusker QB Taylor Martinez).
UW defensive coordinator Nick Holt said the move was made in an attempt to get the best combination of linebackers on the field.
“He was at the middle backer and now we’re putting him over where Mason played and it’s just to get the guys we think have the best abilities and the best 11 out there,” Holt said. “We think he is one of those guys. He had a lot of reps last year, made some good plays for us and has showed up, and we’re just trying to get our best guys on the field.”
With Tutogi also in the running there, that spot seems like it has two viable candidates, either of which could easily man that spot come September.
The strongside position seems a little more unsettled due to the injuries to Fuimaono (who started one game there last year when Aiyewa was hurt) and Pelluer (listed as a backup at that spot when the season ended).
Kearse redshirted last season while Timu enrolled in January after sittinig out last fall to let a high school knee injury continue to heal.
UW coach Steve Sarkisian said to not necessarily read much into who lines up with which units at those spots right now, that the goal is to give a lot of players opportunities with different groupings, put them all in a lot of different situations.
Holt said that for any of the new players, it will take a few weeks — until they’ve been in a full-pads practice a few times — to really tell much.
But speaking of Timu and Tutogi he said “they are going to be fine. If they learn their stuff they are going to be fine. They have good instincts and I think they have good noses for the ball and they have some toughness about them and discipline and they will keep on getting better.”
Linebackers coach Mike Cox told reporters Tuesday that his initial impression of the overall group was positive.
“I thought we were a little further ahead mentally than I anticipated, which was good,” he said. “But we’re a very, very young group. I was encouraged by that. There were some young mistakes that we’re going to have to get through, and I’m going to have to be really patient and fight through it – but I was encouraged.”
He said that youth means many of the players also need to continue to mature physically.
“All of them have to get in the weight room and get a little bigger and stronger,” he said. “There’s no doubt we weren’t on the big side, and some of them made some strides. We’ll continue to make strides and we’ll continue to lift and get stronger through spring ball and into the summer.”
Asked about Timu, he said: “He’s got good size, he’s almost 230 pounds. He’s one of our bigger guys. He’s got strength too. He’s a good athlete. Now he just has to learn to play at this speed every day, every down – and it’s all brand-new to him.”
And of Tutogi he said: “He’s got some suddenness. He’s got good size, and hopefully he’ll be a good run defender. When we get the pads on, he has the physical-ness that we’re going to need out of this group.”
Cox reiterated that most will get looks at multiple spots throughout the spring to see who fits best where.
“We don’t really play with a true outside ‘backer, we really don’t,” he said. “Depending on the formation, they’re all playing inside. That’s one of the things in recruiting…we like to get guys that are somewhat similar in their body-type, if you’ve noticed. They have the ability to play all three positions, because depending on the formation we end up doing the same thing as everybody. We don’t have those true outside-‘backer types right now. We might have a couple, maybe, coming in that we’ll look at and see where we’re at. The closest guy we had was Mason, but Mason was truly an inside ‘backer the way we used him the whole time.”
Cox also said that brushing up on the fundamentals is a key in the spring.
“We want to leave spring practice being great tacklers,” he said. “We want to be known as being really good tacklers, and spring is a good chance to take a look at that. Being physical too, but the little mistakes – we’ll get through that. But I want to be tenacious, I want to be able to tackle, and I want to be able to play hard by the end of spring.”