By accepting a move from safety to linebacker, Washington's Victor Aiyewa showed that what's best for the team comes first.
SAN DIEGO — When it first was suggested to Victor Aiyewa that he might make a better linebacker than a safety, he fought the idea. Fought it for an entire year. Fought it as if the coaches were asking him to switch to chess.
Aiyewa believed safety was the defense’s glamour position. It’s where the big hitters play. It is the position of Ronnie Lott and Kenny Easley, of Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu.
Aiyewa was a hitter, and safety was the power-hitter’s spot. Aiyewa wanted to hit cleanup.
A basketball player in high school in Houston, he didn’t start playing football until he was a high-school senior. A coach asked him if he wanted to play safety, and it was like asking Keith Richards if he wanted to play guitar.
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“It felt like I just made the transition like that,” said the 6-foot-1, 219-pound Aiyewa. “I remember my first practice, players wanted to see if a soft basketball player could hit. I think I showed them I could.
“Hitting has just come naturally to me. Some people have it. Some people don’t. It’s like I have this switch that I can flip on when I need it.”
Aiyewa liked running around in the secondary, liked targeting receivers, liked the personality and physicality of safety. So, before the 2009 season, when new defensive coordinator Nick Holt asked him to switch to linebacker, Aiyewa, who has fought groin and shoulder injuries, asked for one more year at safety.
“We thought we had something, but we didn’t know exactly what we had.” Sarkisian said of Aiyewa. “We knew he was a guy who was a very good special-team player, a guy who was physical at the point of attack.
“But I thought he would be much better-served closer to the ball, closer to the line of scrimmage. It took a year to get to that point, but it’s paid off for us.”
Like a dad lecturing his son, Holt knew what was best for Aiyewa long before Aiyewa knew it.
“I was opposed to the idea initially,” Aiyewa said. “Any guy that goes from safety to a linebacker kind of feels like it’s a shot to their athleticism.
“But Coach Holt talked to me about what kind of vision he had for me at linebacker. He kept trying to talk to me about what kind of player I could be at linebacker and I finally started to embrace it. I wanted to showcase my abilities any way I could.
“I want to get on the field,” Aiyewa told Holt after the 2009 season. “I want to play. I want to contribute. I want to help the team. Let’s go, Coach.”
Now, entering his final college game as a starting linebacker, Aiyewa is a symbol of the evolution of the Huskies football program under Sarkisian.
“Victor to me is a fascinating story,” Sarkisian said at a news conference Wednesday, a day before Washington’s Holiday Bowl meeting with Nebraska. “He’s such a competitive guy, he wanted to remain at safety. He made some nice plays at safety for us, but ultimately he was a backup.”
Aiyewa probably won’t be drafted, but he will get a shot at the NFL, a shot he might not have gotten if he hadn’t become a linebacker. His speed and his fondness for contact could land him a spot on somebody’s special team.
Sarkisian said Aiyewa’s decision to play linebacker showed how much the UW program was changing. “That this thing was more structured around the team and not necessarily the individuals,” the coach said.
“And in turn, he’s come out and played really nice football for us. He’s a great student. He’s a good kid. He’s graduating. I think he embodies a lot of the characteristics we’d like all of our kids to embody, and he’s become a great leader to a lot of our young guys.”
This season Aiyewa was an honorable-mention All-Pac-10 linebacker. He led the conference and was 11th in the nation, averaging 1.5 tackles for losses. He has been moved in the batting order, but Aiyewa still is hitting.
“It’s kind of funny,” he said, “but when you finally get to playing, the game slows down for you. Now the game is a little bit easier to read and a lot more fun to play.
“I’m really starting to enjoy the little things inside the game, like cracking jokes with Mason (Foster) between plays, or talking smack to the other team. It’s fun. Those little things are the experiences you remember when you get older.”
Oh, yeah, Aiyewa also will remember the hits.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org