Tired of hearing only happy things about how great Washington’s defense is going to be this season? Looking for something to be concerned about as the Huskies churn through their first week of fall camp?
Options for such hand-wringing are few and far between. The Huskies return two first-team all-conference defensive backs, a handful of NFL prospects and seven starters from last year’s group that led the league in scoring defense.
But if there is any reason to believe the Huskies’ defense might not pick up where it left off last season, it is what they lost in the pass-rushing department.
Namely: a lot of speed, and a lot of production.
Travis Feeney, who led the Huskies with eight sacks last season from the buck linebacker position, graduated and became a sixth-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cory Littleton, who played outside sam linebacker opposite Feeney, is also gone after totaling six sacks in 2015.
The difficulty of replacing such athletes is not lost on UW coach Chris Petersen, who cites the departures of Feeney and Littleton whenever he’s trying to downplay external expectations for his talented defense.
“I think we have some guys that can do some good things up front,” Petersen said. “But we are not where we were coming off the edge, certainly, than when we ended the season.”
The primary candidates to replace Feeney and Littleton, respectively, are senior buck linebacker Joe Mathis and fifth-year senior sam linebacker Psalm Wooching. Both have some experience; Mathis has 53 total tackles and four sacks in 34 career games (seven starts), and Wooching has 26 tackles and two sacks in 32 games.
But both will likely be relied upon to contribute more in their senior seasons than they have at any point in their career. Each worked with UW’s No. 1 defense throughout the spring, and the same has been true in each of the Huskies’ first three practices of fall camp.
“I feel great about them, but they haven’t played as many reps as those guys (Feeney and Littleton), and it’s yet to be seen if we’re going to be able to get the same production that we got out of those guys,” defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said. “Do I think they can do it? Yeah. But they’ve got to go do it.”
Wooching, who backed up Feeney at buck linebacker last season — and came to UW as a fullback before switching to defense in 2014 — says the sam linebacker position is “pretty much identical” to buck, aside from maybe playing in a little more space. Along with Mathis, Wooching spent the offseason “working on our hands, working on our get-offs. I think we’ll be able to surprise a lot of people.”
“Psalm has played a bunch,” Petersen said, “and he’s got to be a factor for us to be able to put pressure on the passer.”
Mathis has pass-rushing experience as a defensive end, and was initially given a look at buck linebacker last season before coaches thought it better to utilize Feeney’s length and speed at the hybrid position. But he’s looking forward to being a bigger part of UW’s edge-rushing game in 2016.
“Those are the positions that are like a real key of our defense,” Mathis said. “Guys that are versatile, can play outside ’backer, can play d-end, can play middle linebacker if you wanted to. That’s really important. But it’s not important unless we get some sacks. We need to get some sacks for production.”
Of course, there is more to a pass rush than the edge guys, and the Huskies have proven that against their own offense in practice. Defensive linemen Elijah Qualls and Greg Gaines have been particularly disruptive, and that initial penetration has allowed Wooching and other linebackers to tally a handful of touch sacks against UW’s quarterbacks.
Sophomore Tevis Bartlett, redshirt freshman Bryce Sterk and true freshman Amandre Williams are each getting looks at outside linebacker behind Wooching, and redshirt freshman Jusstis Warren has been effective as a pass rusher in practice, too.
“We’ve got a lot of bodies over there now,” Kwiatkowski said. “So we’ve got good competition, but whether it’s those two guys (Wooching and Mathis), Amandre — I don’t know. We’ll find that out, though.”