We’ll continue our reviews of Washington’s position groupings with an area that may be as unsettled as any on the team — linebacker.
UW loses just one starter here, but it’s a big one in middle linebacker and defensive team leader Cort Dennison, a three-year starter.
Washington also has a new defensive coordinator (Justin Wilcox) and a new linebackers coach (Peter Sirmon) and apparently a long-term goal of moving to a defense that would have a 3-4 as its base. How quickly UW can fully make that move, Wilcox said, depends on if the coaches think the personnel on hand will best fit. That uncertainty makes it a little bit hard to project exactly who will be where once spring ball begins — I’d imagine those are the kinds of conversations the coaches are having in their meetings right now as the new assistants review film of their new players.
Before going further, let’s take a look at the players listed at linebacker:
Princeton Fuimaono, 6-1, 215, Jr.
Garret Gilliland, 6-0, 226, Jr.
Cooper Pelluer, 6-3, 225, Jr.
Thomas Tutogi, 6-1, 244, Jr.
Jamaal Kearse, 6-2, 224, RSo.
John Timu, 6-1, 220, So.
Scott Lawyer, 6-2, 198, RFr.
Matthew Lyons, 6-2, 197, RFr.
Ryan McDaniel, 6-1, 220, Fr.
Blake Rodgers, 6-2, 220, Fr.
Cory Littleton, 6-4, 218, Fr.
(Also on the roster when 2011 ended was walk-on Alec Kimble, 6-3, 223, So.).
Of the linebackers listed above, two were essentially fulltime starters last season — Timu (primarily at the strongside spot, meaning over the tight end) and Fuimaono (weakside, and also pictured above in a Dean Rutz photo).
Kearse also started three games when Timu was injured, and Gilliland also got one starter (for Fuimaono against Cal).
Timu and Fuimaono would obviously enter the spring as leading candidates for starting jobs, but as noted, their exact roles could be different under the new coaching staff (Fuimaono is also recovering from surgery to repair a shoulder injury suffered in the Alamo Bowl). In the prior system, Tutogi was the backup to Dennison and appeared to be the heir apparent in the middle. Gilliland also has played some MLB and also loomed as a potential factor there. But again, it’s a little hard to project precisely right now where everyone might line up.
Pelluer (whose usually played the outside spots) also returns after playing almost solely on special teams last season. Lawyer and Lyons redshirted last season while Rodgers, McDaniel and Littleton are all incoming freshmen.
Also an unknown is whether players at other spots might be tried at linebacker, especially if the coaches decided to really go all-in with the 3-4 schemes immediately. Wilcox seemed to hint during his session with the media earlier this month that they might stick largely with a 4-3 for now and gradually move to a defense based more on the 3-4 in the future as they recruit more players at this spot.
In general, there’s no doubt that the linebacking position is one that needs to improve greatly for the Husky defense to really take a big jump up, whether it be via scheme, progress by individual players, or (most realistically) a combination of all of that.
The big question a year ago was whether the Huskies could adequately replace the playmaking of the departed Mason Foster and Victor Aiyewa and the answer turned out to be largely a no. Now UW also has to replace the dependable, if not necessarily flashy, Dennison.
So given the performance a year ago, new coaches and potentially a new scheme, this seems a position grouping where just about everything is up for grabs entering the spring and probably deep into the fall.