Washington’s outside linebackers room is loaded with nasty eighth-graders.
Which is really quite a compliment.
Allow us to explain.
In UW’s altogether underwhelming 8-5 finish last fall, the Huskies managed a mediocre 5.46 tackles for loss (87th nationally/ninth Pac-12) and 2.23 sacks per game (58th nationally/seventh Pac-12) — a modest improvement on the program’s putrid pass rush (4.57 TFL and 1.71 sacks per game) the season before.
Redshirt junior Joe Tryon — who led the Huskies in tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (8) — opted this summer to declare for the NFL draft, denying UW’s defense its most destructive disruptor.
And yet, when addressing his outside linebackers, defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said Sunday that “this could be a special year.”
In part, because his Husky pass-rushers are eager to improve.
“An eighth-grader is always trying to absorb information and learn new things,” explained senior outside linebacker Ryan Bowman. “They’re going into high school and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I want to learn how to do this, how to do that.’ Coach K always talks about, when we come in, we need to have an eighth-grade mentality. No matter how much you think you might know, you always have to absorb more information.
“So with that eighth-grade mentality, all the dudes in the room are always ready to learn. Nobody’s acting offended when a coach tells them to fix something or they don’t do something right. So it helps when everyone’s like that because everyone is always striving to get better.”
For UW’s defense to deliver in an unprecedented Pac-12 sprint, its pass rush will have to aid an already established secondary. Here are the Husky outside linebackers looking to make the leap.
Ryan Bowman | 6-0, 280 | senior | Bellevue
In an undeniably young room, Bowman is the elder statesman (and a guaranteed starter). The former UW walk-on produced a quietly prolific 2019 season — stacking up 34 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception in 13 games. And he did it while also shifting inside on passing downs.
“I’m just a defensive lineman, honestly,” Bowman said, when asked to define his role. “I play any position on the line and always try to make things happen and always try to be explosive wherever I’m at. You can literally put me anywhere.”
In a shortened senior season, the Huskies might take him up on that offer. At 280 pounds, Bowman is quick enough to rush the passer and strong enough to stuff the run.
And nasty enough to portray the attitude Kwiatkowski wants from his outside linebackers.
“The legacy I want to leave is that we’re the most physical dudes on the team,” Bowman said. “We want to be real hard-nosed, bad, nasty dudes. That’s just how we’re all going to be in that room. Under Coach K, it’s easy to be like that, because that’s the mentality that he brings, and we manifest off that energy and all our dudes are like that.
“That’s the legacy I’d like to leave for the outside backers, and just as a leader, be nasty as hell.”
Laiatu Latu | 6-4, 265 | soph. | Sacramento, Calif.
As a true freshman in 2019, Latu — a former four-star recruit and rugby star out of Jesuit High School — showed phenomenal athletic flashes, contributing 16 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss and a safety in 12 games. But consistency was the question.
Kwiatkowski expects Latu to blossom in his sophomore season (and take Tryon’s starting spot).
“It’s night and day, in a good way,” Kwiatkowski said of Latu’s improvement. “With Joe Tryon’s progression and his improvement from being a freshman to a redshirt freshman, Laiatu’s further along. He’s practicing extremely well, making a lot of plays. I’m very impressed with him and I expect big things out of him this year. It’s been impressive so far.”
Unprompted, senior nickelback Elijah Molden added the following Sunday: “I’m not the only leader on the team, for sure. There’s young guys. Laiatu is someone who comes to mind as a leader, even though he’s a (sophomore).”
When it comes to sack numbers specifically, Latu might need to lead the way.
Zion Tupuola-Fetui | 6-3, 280 | redshirt soph. | Pearl City, HI
Similar to Latu, Tupuola-Fetui possesses a formidable physical frame but has yet to deliver consistent production. The native Hawaiian recorded nine tackles in back-up duty last fall. But as a regular in the rotation, it’s time for Tupuola-Fetui to make more tangible strides.
And thus far, at least, the early returns are promising.
“He looks great out there,” Kwiatkowski said. “I saw the weight the other day. It said something like 278, and my jaw dropped, because he’s not moving like 278. He looks good. When we’re dropping him in coverage, he’s fluid. He’s running well.
“He’s going to lose some of that weight. (Tupuola-Fetui gained 14 pounds this offseason.) I think that was a little bit of the pandemic buffet issues there. But he looks really good. He’s really athletic. We talked about Laiatu earlier. Zion’s another one that’s taking his playmaking ability to another level. He’s playing more physical. He’s playing more consistent. I really, really expect big things out of him this year too.”
Sav’ell Smalls | 6-2, 250 | freshman | Seattle
Perhaps you’ve heard of Sav’ell Smalls. A former five-star recruit out of Kennedy Catholic, the hometown talent made a splash by signing with Washington last December. And even early in his first college camp, “Sav’ell’s flashing out there, doing some good stuff,” according to Kwiatkowski.
“He looks great,” Bowman said. “He’s a dude that is trying to get better. He asks questions. He has a good mentality. Guys like that always elevate. And he’s got all the tools, so he’ll be a great player for sure.”
The question is when. On the collegiate level, it’s rare for a pass-rusher to make a significant impact as a true freshman. But, in the wake of Tryon’s departure, Smalls certainly appears set to receive the necessary reps to do so.
Make no mistake: barring injury or illness, Smalls will play this fall.
Then it’ll be time to translate all that talent into sacks and tackles for loss.
“Sav’ell’s showing up,” Kwiatkowski reiterated. “For a freshman, he’s physical. He’s not afraid of contact. He plays with pretty good intensity for a true freshman.”
Bralen Trice | 6-3, 240 | redshirt freshman | Phoenix
A former three-star recruit, Trice redshirted in his freshman season last fall — and he might face an uphill battle to carve out a consistent role.
“He plays with great effort,” Kwiatkowski said of Trice. “We just have to get him more dialed with his consistency. But the effort is awesome. He shows flashes out there. We’ve just got to keep grinding away with him.”
Cooper McDonald | 6-3, 235 | freshman | Haslet, Texas
A true freshman from just north of Fort Worth, McDonald played primarily outside linebacker at Northwest High School but signed with Washington as an inside linebacker. He has since shifted back outside, where he likely will learn behind Bowman, Latu and Co., this fall. In a more typical season, McDonald would seem destined for a redshirt.
But, considering the 2020 campaign does not count against eligibility, don’t be surprised to see him on special teams or in the back end of blow-outs.