It might not be possible to find one player to replace the 176 tackles that the departed Ben Burr-Kirven had last season for the Washington Huskies, but senior Brandon Wellington is relishing the challenge.
Wellington, the most experienced of Washington’s inside linebackers, says it’s a big opportunity for him, the kind he envisioned when he was a star at Eastside Catholic in Sammamish. It just took longer than he expected after being ranked as the state’s No. 2 recruit in 2016 by 247sports.
“Out of high school, you’re that guy and it’s humbling, but to go through it and experience it, it’s a learning experience for sure,” Wellington said Friday after the first day of fall camp. “You learn a lot from the older guys in front of you who have played a lot of ball, taking notes and letting it all sink in. It makes you a student of the game and a better person and a player.”
It might have been hard for Wellington to envision being in this position last August as he was still recovering from the ACL injury he suffered late in the 2017 season. But he returned in the fifth game and was peaking at the end of the season, starting in the Pac-12 Championship Game win over Utah and in the Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State.
Wellington had 28 tackles, including eight against Washington State and seven (one for a loss) against Ohio State.
“It was really big for me,” he said of finishing the season strong after the severe injury. “It was a testament for me to come back and push through something that a lot of people don’t follow through with after having that injury,” Wellington said.
He enters camp this year fully healthy and with a new mindset.
“This is a lot different, from a physical standpoint and from an attitude standpoint,” Wellington said. “It’s my senior year and it’s my last go-around. It’s special. It’s an opportunity not only for me to show what I have but the entire linebacker room.”
The Huskies didn’t just lose Burr-Kirven, who led the Pac-12 in tackles and was named league defensive player of the year and is now with the Seattle Seahawks. Tevis Bartlett, the other UW starting inside linebacker last year who was second on the team with 73 tackles, also completed his eligibility.
The Husky coaches are confident that Wellington, 6 feet and 226 pounds (Burr-Kirven was 6-0, 230), is ready to step in, especially after his strong finish last season.
“Brandon is a guy who has played a lot of football for us and he’s going to have a great year,” said Bob Gregory, the assistant head coach who is in charge of the inside linebackers. “Coming off that injury and being able to play in three or four really big games was a huge confidence boost for him. He really didn’t play a lot of linebacker in high school (he was an all-Metro League safety as a senior), but he has really owned the position and gotten better every year.”
Wellington said he has not made any number goals when it comes to tackles, although in the spring he said he had a wager with Burr-Kirven that he would not disclose.
As his senior season begins, he said the focus is to have fun each game and to be a leader.
“I have taken on that role,” he said. “When the younger guys in the room want to learn, we’ll talk ball and we’ll talk life.”