On April 29, shortly after Washington outside linebacker and former Hazen High School standout Joe Tryon was taken by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round of the NFL draft, Zion Tupuola-Fetui tweeted the following:
“@UW_Football really about to become OLBU. If you don’t believe me now, you will.”
That assurance is even more interesting through the lens of its author. Tupuola-Fetui — a 6-foot-4, 280-pound junior freight train who led the nation with 1.75 sacks per game in 2020 — tore his left Achilles tendon on April 16 and will miss most, if not all, of the upcoming season. His injury also arrived nine days after head coach Jimmy Lake announced that ascending junior Laiatu Latu would medically retire with a neck injury of his own.
And yet, despite that devastating decimation of UW’s outside linebacker depth, optimism (somewhat surprisingly) abounds.
And it isn’t only coming from “ZTF.”
“(Co-defensive coordinator and first-year outside linebackers coach Ikaika) Malloe is doing a great job over there teaching them great pass rush moves,” UW inside linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio said after the Purple vs. Gold game on May 1. “I think you guys are going to be really surprised about our other outside backers, like Cooper (McDonald), Jordan (Lolohea), Jeremiah (Martin). Those guys can rush the passer.
“I’m learning new things from Malloe every day when it comes to pass-rushing. There’s a whole lot of work still to do, but you’re definitely going to be surprised about what they’re going to do this year.”
Given that Tupuola-Fetui was a backup before his sudden eruption last season, it’s certainly possible that other Washington outside linebackers could emerge in his wake.
But who will they be?
Let’s dive into the post-spring depth chart at outside linebacker.
Ryan Bowman, senior, 6-1, 280, Bellevue
Jeremiah Martin, senior, 6-3, 265, San Bernardino, Calif.
Jordan Lolohea, redshirt freshman, 6-2, 270, Salt Lake City, Utah
Bralen Trice, sophomore, 6-4, 255, Phoenix
Cooper McDonald, redshirt freshman, 6-3, 245, Haslet, Texas
Sav’ell Smalls, redshirt freshman, 6-3, 255, Seattle
Carson Bruener, redshirt freshman, 6-2, 220, Woodinville
Let’s begin with Ryan Bowman.
Who else? Bowman, after all, is the most accomplished available outside linebacker, a sixth-year senior who led the Huskies in sacks in 2017 and was named a second-team All-Pac-12 performer in 2019. The 6-1, 280-pound former walk-on has proven an effective pass-rusher and a reliable run-stopper. According to defensive coordinator Bob Gregory, he’s “a critical piece of our defense.”
So yes, Bowman is a guaranteed starter.
And, like “ZTF” and Ulofoshio, he’s bullish on the rest of the outside linebacker room.
“Every dude that we have in there has the ability to play college football,” Bowman said last month. “We don’t have dudes in there where you’re like, ‘OK, why is this guy here?’ Every dude in there can ball. It’s just a part of dudes coming along mentally. But we’ve got a lot of dudes.
“Cooper McDonald is an extremely hard worker and a really talented kid. Bralen (Trice) is really talented. Jeremiah (Martin) is really talented. Jordan (Lolohea), Sav’ell (Smalls), all those dudes can play. So the outside linebacker room might seem kind of slim right now because of injuries and whatnot, but there’s a lot of dudes in there that can play. So I wouldn’t worry about what the outside backers are doing.”
Opposite of Bowman, Bralen Trice has been perhaps the biggest surprise of the spring. After redshirting in 2019 and opting out of the 2020 season, the Phoenix product exploded onto the scene in April — earning rave reviews from coaches and teammates alike.
“I’m so proud of Bralen,” Lake said after the Purple vs. Gold game, when Trice recorded four tackles and a sack. “For him opting out for personal reasons, and then to come back here with a completely different mindset, he took a huge step in the weight room. That was the first thing. He had to get some weight on, some strength on his frame. He did that, and now you can see him playing with way more confidence, way more ferocity. It’s awesome to watch.
“He’s one guy I went up to right after this spring game was over and gave him a big hug. I’m very proud of him. He’s come a long way. This could be one of the players that maybe you guys know about but Husky Nation doesn’t know about, that all of a sudden the first couple games during the fall you’re going to start hearing his name called out a lot.”
Added Gregory on April 26: “One guy that keeps jumping out, and I feel really good for him, is Bralen Trice. He made a couple big plays today, and every practice he seems to make a big play and get better.”
On April 24, Trice — a 6-4, 255-pound pass-rusher — tweeted: “My guys on the edge about to go crazy this season, look out.”
If you look, Jeremiah Martin is not hard to find. The 6-3, 265-pound senior possesses a formidable frame, yet he failed to record a sack in three seasons at Texas A&M.
Still, Lake is confident Malloe and Co. — who recruited Martin out of Cajon (Calif.) High School in 2018 — can maximize the talents of the former four-star recruit.
“We know that he was a big-time football player coming out of high school,” Lake said. “We knew the person. We knew he was a fit here at the University of Washington. We didn’t dive into what happened when he was in college (at Texas A&M) and watch what they were doing, because people teach different things and techniques and schemes. But we saw a player that we could bring in here, and as long as he bought in — which he has — we could develop him into a possible all-league player for the University of Washington. And he’s right on track.”
Beyond Bowman, Trice and Martin, expect a pair of redshirt freshmen in Sav’ell Smalls and Cooper McDonald — both of whom appeared in all four games last fall — to push for playing time as well. A former five-star recruit, the 6-3, 255-pound Smalls flashed at times this spring but was largely limited with an unspecified injury. With an appetizing blend of size and speed, a healthy Smalls could surge in his second season in Seattle. McDonald (6-3, 245) was one of the UW’s steadier contributors across 15 April practices as well.
Barring further injuries, redshirt freshmen Jordan Lolohea and Carson Bruener and incoming freshman Maurice Heims will likely struggle to see the field this fall.
But at “Outside Linebacker U,” opportunities sometimes arise when you least expect it.
Coming next: cornerback and nickelback