University of Washington

UW spring football preview: Linebackers

The artist formerly known as "Ben Burr-Kirven's hair and beard" are now gone. As for Burr-Kirven himself, he's back for his fourth and final season with the Washington Huskies.
The artist formerly known as "Ben Burr-Kirven's hair and beard" are now gone. As for Burr-Kirven himself, he's back for his fourth and final season with the Washington Huskies. joshua.bessex@gateline.com

Knowing how and when to make adjustments comes with college football. Look no further than how the Washington Huskies have handled their linebacker situation over the last 18 months.

Tevis Bartlett and Ben Burr-Kirven were special teams standouts. Benning Potoa'e was a big body with potential. They were role players but made the contributions necessary to help UW reach the College Football Playoff semifinal in 2016. A year later, the trio became full-time starters who helped the Huskies win 10 games, reach program's first-ever Fiesta Bowl and become one of the top defenses in the nation.

Bartlett and Burr-Kirven are seniors while Potoa'e is a junior. They're three figures who give UW an array of talent while making the Huskies one of the deepest and most experienced linebacker units in the Pac-12, if not the nation.

Here's a look at what to watch for with the linebackers with UW opening spring camp Wednesday.

THE BIGGEST QUESTION IS ... ?

Keishawn Bierria was a three-year starter and a two-time all-Pac-12 second team selection. He was also the emotional engine who drove the linebackers. Bierria is gone and the Huskies must find his successor.

There's plenty of options starting with DJ Beavers and Brandon Wellington. Beavers was a freshman when he played in all but one game when the Huskies made the CFP semifinal in 2016. He started the team's final four games and became a starter after UW lost star Azeem Victor to a leg injury against USC. Beavers, who is 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, showed promise by amassing 40 tackles over 12 games. A year later, however, he sustained a foot injury in fall camp going into the 2017 and was limited to 13 tackles over five games.

Wellington, who is 6-feet and 224 pounds, played 14 games as true freshman in 2016. The former Eastside Catholic star and Kent native featured in 11 games while also serving as Bierria's backup on the Huskies' depth chart. Altogether, he enters camp having played in 25 career games.

FAMILAR FACES

Any conversation about UW's linebackers is going to start with Bartlett, Burr-Kirven and Potoa'e. Bartlett (6-2 and 238-pounds) entered 2017 with 37 tackles in his first two seasons only to grab 48 as a starter. Burr-Kirven, who is listed at 6-feet and 221 pounds, was arguably the team's biggest surprise on either side of the ball. He replaced Victor, who was later removed from the team following a DUI arrest, and would lead the Huskies with 84 tackles. Potoa'e, who is 6-3 and 275 pounds, started 10 games and grabbed 27 tackles to go with three sacks.

Bartlett, Beavers, Burr-Kirven, Potoa'e and Wellington provide experience, depth and flexibility. Those assets will be key as UW seeks to develop the rest of its linebackers going forward. Bartlett and Burr-Kirven will graduate after the season while its possible one good season could see either Beavers, Potoa'e or Wellington depart after their respective junior seasons.

Don't worry too much. The Huskies have 14 linebackers going into fall camp and the group includes a few familiar names who've been waiting to make their mark. Two of those players — Camilo Eifler and Ariel Ngata — are former four-star prospects. Eifler is a sophomore who played in 13 games last season. Ngata was redshirted in 2017 but emerged as the team's Brian Stapp Special Teams Scout Squad MVP.

GOING FORWARD

Washington signed four linebackers for its 2018 recruiting class. None of them are going to be in spring camp but the need for them to be on campus early is softened by the depth the Huskies possess at linebacker.

Ale' Kaho was one of the biggest additions Huskies coach Chris Petersen and his staff received leading up to the early signing period last December. The BYU commit backed off his pledge and selected UW over Alabama. Kaho (6-1, 218 pounds) was a composite four-star prospect considered to be the No. 7 inside linebacker in the nation by 247 Sports. MJ Tafisi, a three-star prospect, is the second inside linebacker in the class. Tafisi (6-2, 224 pounds) racked up 418 tackles over his high school career.

Jackson Sirmon, the son of former Huskies assistant Peter Sirmon, was the second player to join the class. The younger Sirmon (6-2, 224 pounds) was a three-star prospect was the No. 26 outside linebacker in America, per 247. Zion Tupuola-Fetui is also a three-star prospect who was the No. 52 outside linebacker in the nation. Tupuola-Fetui (6-2, 250 pounds) was the No. 3 player in the state of Hawai'i.

Ryan S. Clark: @ryan_s_clark
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