University of Washington

Inside linebackers Brandon Wellington, Kyler Manu took long roads to Huskies’ first-team defense

UW linebacker Brandon Wellington previews Eastern Washington

Washington senior linebacker Brandon Wellington previews the Huskies' season opener against Eastern Washington.
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Washington senior linebacker Brandon Wellington previews the Huskies' season opener against Eastern Washington.

Brandon Wellington lines up alongside Kyler Manu with the first-team defense now.

Sometimes, Wellington will take a moment during Washington’s practices just to appreciate that fact. There’s excitement for himself, sure. For the first time in his career, Wellington, a senior, will be opening the season as a full-time starter at inside linebacker.

But for as long as Wellington waited for this moment, he knows Manu waited even longer. A redshirt senior, Manu worked three years before finally playing in every game last season. Now, months later, he’s a starter.

That’s given Wellington plenty to smile about.

“I’m excited that (Manu’s) finally out there and he’s finally playing,” Wellington said after practice on Tuesday. “He’s embracing that role and handling his business. He’s always had that. He knows the playbook inside-and-out. He’s been here longer than anybody on defense. He’s really like that veteran that we can all look up to.”

There are plenty of players looking up to Wellington, too, especially in a position room otherwise brimming with freshmen and redshirt freshmen. Wellington has been playing consistently since his first year, even starting in the Pac-12 championship and the Rose Bowl last season. He finished 2018 with 28 tackles in 10 games.

But Wellington’s career was temporarily derailed in 2017 when he suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in the Apple Cup. Time passed differently after that. Every day, Wellington would show up to rehab his injury. He would sit in meetings, listen to the Huskies’ veterans, pore over the playbook until he knew the tiniest details of UW’s offense.

None of it was easy, but Wellington said the experience shaped him.

“That injury really humbled me in a way,” Wellington said, “and it turned me into the man I am today. That was something I needed to just really embrace this role and trust in the process.”

Meanwhile, Manu was clawing his way up UW’s depth chart and onto the field. He played in three games in 2016, seven in 2017. But even when his snaps were limited, Manu never considered transferring. He recognized the caliber of players he was behind — linebackers like Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria, Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett — and he also recognized the opportunities UW offered, even beyond football.

He was there to stay.

“I told myself that I was committed here,” Manu said, “and I never wanted to go anywhere else. I felt like if I were to leave it would be like I was quitting on myself. I just wanted to stick through it.”

He did. Wellington did, too. The months went by, and the two grew closer. When Wellington first arrived on campus — a year after Manu — Manu was still spending most of his time with his classmates. And Wellington was quiet, reserved. As a freshman, he was often away from the facilities preparing for his first year of classes.

But as older players departed the program, Manu and Wellington began spending more time together. Sitting in the same room for hours on end will eventually do that. Now Wellington calls Manu his brother, and all it takes is a single glance at each other on the field to get them laughing.

“He’s kind of like the older brother,” Wellington said. “I get on his nerves more than he gets on mine. That’s just how I am. I embrace him and I love him.”

Most of their offseason was spent transferring that dynamic successfully to the field. There were extra sessions in the weight room, hours spent watching film. With the season opener days away, Manu said they’ve hit their stride.

“Being seniors, we know the defense like the back of our hand,” Manu said. “It’s more just getting a feel for each other now but I think over spring and summer we’ve gotten our flow together.”

They’ve also focused on guiding a young group of inside linebackers. The underclassmen tend to gravitate toward Manu. He has a lot to offer, and he’s an eager teacher. But Wellington has been passing along his hard-earned wisdom, too.

“I just want to leave the work ethic behind,” Wellington said. “Just coming in here and attacking everyday like it’s your last. Like no matter what. Something hard is going to happen to you, no matter what it is. Adversity is going to hit you in some way or some form. But just attack that. Just stay in it and trust it. On the other side of that is a beautiful scene.”

For two veteran inside linebackers, that scene will snap into focus when they run out of the tunnel together on Saturday.

“We had to wait our time,” Wellington said. “We trusted the process and we stuck through it when times were hard. Now is our time to run out there as starters. We’re going to embrace our roles and we’re going to play like we’ve always been playing.”

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Lauren Kirschman is the UW Huskies beat writer for The News Tribune. She previously covered the Pittsburgh Steelers for A Pennsylvania native and a University of Pittsburgh graduate, she also covered college athletics for the Beaver County Times from 2012-2016.
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