Keishawn Bierria wants to be clear: He is not trying to replace Shaq Thompson.
It’s unlikely that any single player could, anyway. Thompson was a first-team All-American and one of the unique college football players of his generation — part linebacker, part tailback, full-time headache for opponents — and his departure to the NFL obviously leaves a void in the Washington Huskies defense. There’s no way around that.
It is with this understanding, then, that Bierria, a third-year sophomore linebacker, changed his jersey number this offseason from the No. 25 he wore the past two seasons to Thompson’s old familiar No. 7.
Not to proclaim himself on the same level as Thompson, a first-round draft pick by the Carolina Panthers. But to remind himself of the standard his close friend set for him and the rest of his Huskies teammates during a junior season in which Thompson recorded 81 tackles and scored four defensive touchdowns (and rushed for 456 yards on 61 carries).
“I always wanted something in my face that reminded me to always work hard,” Bierria said after he finished lunch inside the Conibear Shellhouse on Sunday afternoon, a couple of hours before practice. “Just always capitalize on what I’ve been given. That’s basically it. Me and Shaq were real close. I’m not trying to replace Shaq. But I am trying to do what he has done — like, be a playmaker for the team.”
Bierria, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound native of Carson, California, was Thompson’s backup at weakside linebacker as a redshirt freshman in 2014. And with Thompson switching sides of the ball occasionally to play tailback, Bierria started four games — he appeared in all 14 — and finished the season with 35 tackles, three of them for loss.
In addition to being a first-year college football player, though, he was also adjusting to a new defense under coach Chris Petersen and his staff in their first season.
So when he filled in for Thompson, Bierria said, “I was trying not to be that hole in the field, (not) be that guy that everybody picked on. I tried to make it seem like he wasn’t off the field when I was on it, like they weren’t missing somebody.”
Bierria seems likely to step into the starting weakside linebacker position this season. He’ll receive competition for the job from fifth-year senior Scott Lawyer, who figures to be a part of the linebacker rotation.
But Bierria has taken the majority of the repetitions at weakside linebacker with the No. 1 defense, and should be considered the favorite at this point to start there when the Huskies open the season Sept. 4 at Boise State.
This season, he said, he wants to do more than “just be there.”
“When I finished last year, I felt like I could have made a lot more plays than I did make,” Bierria said. “I just feel like I’m a lot more comfortable with my team, how guys are, how we’re connecting, how we’re working.”
Bierria didn’t seek permission from Thompson to take on his old number. Thompson hinted to him that “you know, 7’s open if you want it,” Bierria said, and since he was already looking to change numbers, that was all the urging Bierria needed.
Now he’s focused on advancing the legacy.
“I think it’s more of a mindset than a number, because it’s just a number,” Bierria said. “It’s honestly how we think and how we work toward things. The number, it can be passed down, but it’s more of, I’m trying to get guys in the same mindset as the other guys got me in.
“… Just spending so much time with that dude (Thompson), he gets up early. He’s the first one there and the last one out. And he never skips reps and he’s always working hard, and that’s where he influenced me more.”
The Huskies held a closed scrimmage Saturday afternoon, though Bierria said the first-team offensive and defensive units didn’t receive as many reps as the second and third strings. … UW’s Sunday practice was open to the public, with Picture Day held on the field afterward. The highlight was Jeff Lindquist’s 56-yard touchdown pass to receiver Marvin Hall. Linebacker Travis Feeney and defensive back Brian Clay each intercepted passes thrown by freshman quarterback Jake Browning. It was a fairly light session that lasted about 90 minutes, and players didn’t wear pads after Saturday’s scrimmage.