UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski: "Everything they are doing is about making themselves the best player."
The middle of the University of Washington linebacker corps is certainly settled with two fifth-year seniors in Azeem Victor, a preseason All-American, and Keishawn Bierria.
But who will be working on either side of them come Sept. 1, in the season opener at Rutgers, is still anybody’s guess.
Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said after practice Wednesday “six guys” are still in the mix for significant playing time at strong-side (SAM) and Buck linebacker.
“No one has risen above anybody else,” Kwiatkowski said. “It is still wide open for all of those guys.”
At this point, the top four challengers appear to be Tevis Bartlett and Connor O’Brien at Buck, and Benning Potoa’e and Jusstis Warren at SAM.
“Those guys have taken a jump,” Bierria said, “Definitely in the offseason, we were talking a lot about the impact they have to make this year. I was constantly reminding them (of that). I feel like they finally caught on.”
If previous starting experience happens to tip the scale in anybody’s favor for a starting spot, it would be O’Brien.
O’Brien, a 6-foot-3, 236-pound redshirt senior from Trabuco Canyon, California, moved to the Buck spot a year ago.
After Joe Mathis’ season-ending foot injury in October, O’Brien took over in the lineup, starting seven games.
He had 35 tackles, including 6 1/2 for loss, which tied for sixth-best on the team. He also had a 46-yard interception return for his only career touchdown in a victory against Idaho.
But O’Brien’s season came to an early end, too.
In the Apple Cup against Washington State University, O’Brien said he “cut wrong” and his knee gave out on a play.
“That is just how it goes,” O’Brien said. “Football injuries happen. You are cutting different ways and hitting people, and that’s how it went.”
He did not finish that game, or play in either of the Pac-12 championship game against Colorado, or the Peach Bowl against Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
It needed “recovery time,” O’Brien said, so he missed spring camp as well.
And while he has had a summer to strengthen the knee, and has been a full preseason participant, O’Brien has not locked up the starting spot.
In fact, he might be slightly behind junior Tevis Bartlett at Buck.
O’Brien is saying all the right things as a team-first veteran.
“(Starting again) hasn’t really crossed my mind,” O’Brien said. “I am just out here playing, doing what they need me to do — just like last season. Whatever spot they need me to stay at, that is what I am here for. I am here for the team.”
Bierria likes what he’s seen from his fellow California native.
“For a few years now, (O’Brien) always felt out of place,” Bierria said. “But in his position now, he is looking great. He is making plays. He is changing the game, for himself and for the team.”