- John Timu, 6-1, 231, sophomore
- Travis Feeney, 6-4, 209, freshman
- Thomas Tutogi, 6-0, 242, junior
- Princeton Fuimaono, 6-1, 210, junior
- Taz Stevenson, 6-1, 215, junior
- Scott Lawyer, 6-2, 223, redshirt freshman
- Evan Zeger, 6-1, 223, redshirt freshman
- Blake Rodgers, 6-1, 220, freshman
- Cory Littleton, 6-3, 212, freshman
- Stetson Shearer, 6-2, 219, junior (walk-on)
- Nate Fellner, 6-1, 218, senior (out 4 to 6 weeks)
- Jamaal Kearse, 6-1, 226, sophomore (out 4 to 6 weeks)
Strengths: Even with the injuries to Nate Fellner and Jamaal Kearse, there are plenty of bodies that are strong and can run. With Travis Feeney, Fellner, Taz Stevenson and Evan Zeger all sliding down from safety to play the outside linebacker spot, the unit is significantly faster to the ball. In a Pac-12 that features so many spread option and wide open teams where the goal is to get defenders out in space in one on one situations, improved speed at that position is a key. It’s very noticeable in practice. Running backs are finding it difficult to get to the edge on toss sweeps and stretch plays because the linebackers are able to close in time to make plays. Feeney, Fellner and Stevenson aren’t traditional sized linebackers, but it hasn’t really stopped them from making plays.
Speed is so important in this league and new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has seemed to maximize speed at the position.
Weaknesses: Sure there is speed and talent and able bodies. There is some depth. But experience? At linebacker? Not so much. Really only John Timu, Princeton Fuiamaono, Kearse and Thomas Tutogi saw quality game snaps at the position last season. Predictably, they all had their ups and downs being in the first-year of playing. The hope is that a year’s worth of games will have them prepared for this season.
While they’ve looked good in practice and scrimmages, how Feeney, Stevenson and Fellner react to true game situations at their new position is an unknown. Timu, Fuimaono and Kearse’s ups and downs last season are an example of how hard the position can be even for good athletes. Mistakes at the linebacker are amplified and can turn a 3-yard play into a 13-yard play.
It’s fair to expect a few of those moments from the safety converts. Whichever player can minimize them the most while still making plays will see the field.
While the safety converts are perfect against teams like Oregon, Cal and WSU, it will be interesting to see how they fair against more traditional power football teams like LSU, Stanford and USC.
The hope is that the new defense installed by Wilcox will help the linebackers be more efficient and reliable playmakers. There won’t be Cort Dennison – the Pac-12 leader in tackles – to lean on if they aren’t sure about assignments or calls, or if things go wrong.
Fall camp thoughts: Most observers thought that Timu had breakout camp. After playing outside last season, he has moved inside seamlessly. He was named a team captain, he will call the defense on the field and really has taken command of the team. He added about 20 pounds of muscle to withstand the rigors of playing the position, but he’s still maintained his speed and athleticism. He’s able to make plays from the middle spot that Dennison simply couldn’t make. And from what the coaches say, his understanding of the position and intelligence about the defense is off the chart.
The Huskies will likely play this 4-2-5 hybrid defense with Shaq Thompson as the extra defensive back playing all over the field. That leaves just Timu and most likely Feeney as the two starting linebackers.
Feeney looked good in his reps with the first team. He’s long and rangy, but hits harder than you expect. His instincts are better than Fellner or Stevenson. It’s why he vaulted ahead of them so quickly. It hurt having him miss a few days with a concussion. But he should be fine. And there’s a line of players waiting to take his place if faulters.
Tutogi will be the extra linebacker in run heave situations. He was in there in the Huskies 5-2 personnel package. He’s easily their best run stopper because of his size. The sprained knee he suffered a few weeks, slowed him but he seems to moving well. He’s also a key player on special teams.
Fuimaono was working with the first team early in the camp, but a hamstring injury slowed him. He seems to have been passed by Feeney and even Stevenson. But his game experience from last season can’t be overlooked.
Fellner is a physical presence. He hits like a truck, but he also can be undisciplined. The injury will keep him out at least the first two games, and he will probably need a week or so to work back into it. He really won’t be a factor till the Stanford game, which is when the team could really use him.
Stevenson is intriguing. He has size and speed. There were times he looked outstanding this fall. He has a strong acceleration to the ball. Shedding the blocks of linemen was an issues at times, and he also made other mistakes relating the transition to the position. But he’s older, he’s played in games as a safety and he could be a valuable as the season progresses.
As a whole, the unit is sort of untested. There’s a lot of inexperience at the position and learning to be done. But it’s clear that the talent at the position is better than it was last season.