Carson Bruener did not participate in punt and kickoff coverage during a prolific high-school career at Redmond High School.
For good reason.
Besides being an all-state linebacker and tight end, he was also the Mustangs’ punter and kicker.
Three years later, Bruener’s punting/kicking services are no longer needed … which has allowed the Husky legacy to lower the boom.
That’s something the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Bruener is doing less at linebacker, with Pittsburgh transfer Cam Bright and surging sophomore Alphonzo Tuputala assuming starting roles. But though the Woodinville native finished second on the team with 70 tackles (as well as 2.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, 1.5 sacks and an interception) in a breakout 2021 season, Bruener appears undaunted by the defensive demotion.
That, or he’s redirecting frustration on the kick returners for Stanford and Michigan State.
“It’s definitely an adjustment, going from 60 snaps last year to now 10 to 20,” said Bruener, the son of former Husky tight end and 1991 national champion Mark Bruener. “But at the same time, I’m still on this team and I’m still playing football. It’s a sport I love, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else. So whatever role they give me, I’m going to go out and do whatever I can to do the best at it.
“If that role is going to be special teams, I’m going to go and take over special teams and be the best player on special teams every time I’m out there.”
Just ask the ghost of Jarek Broussard.
During UW’s 39-28 win over then-No. 11 Michigan State on Sept. 17, Husky kicker Grady Gross sent a low liner to the Spartan 13-yard line with 11:02 left in the third quarter. Broussard — the former Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year at Colorado — caught the kick and darted upfield, making it as far as the 34-yard line.
Where Bruener rolled over him like a battering ram.
“Broussard got rocked!” bellowed ABC play-by-play announcer Mark Jones. “Big-time stick by No. 42, Carson Bruener. (UW quarterback) Michael Penix felt it on the sidelines. Look at this. I mean, the ancestors felt that one.”
Penix cringed, covered his mouth and evacuated the area. Bruener stood and shook his head as he skipped from the scene. A crowd of 68,161 inside Husky Stadium essentially echoed — cheering the hit live, then applauding the replay on the video board.
“Getting off (the field) and hearing the crowd, the reaction to it, I thought, ‘OK, maybe that was a big hit,’” Bruener said with a smile. “Because for me, you’re running down and making the tackle and it doesn’t feel like a huge, huge hit each time I’m going down there.”
Bruener made three more coverage tackles (and five total) in last weekend’s 40-22 win over Stanford, further solidifying himself as the Huskies’ special teams ace. He said this week that “with defense you’ve got to be able to look at the formation. You’ve got to be able to read the receivers, read the running back, read the quarterback and offensive line and the movements they’re doing and what play call we have. Because that dictates our run fits, our pass coverage, all that different stuff.
“So it’s a lot more complicated on defense than special teams. With special teams, for me, I’m given my key, I’m given my role and I just go and execute.”
That execution has been a welcome development for the Huskies, who allowed kickoff returns of 52 and 28 yards in the season opener against Kent State on Sept. 3.
They’ve laid waste to attempting returners since.
“That’s been really fun to see,” UW coach Kalen DeBoer said of Bruener’s emergence. “You know, the first week (we) struggled as a unit. All it takes is one guy not doing his job. With as many moving parts (as there are), where it’s hard to simulate those in practice, I just think more and more each week now we’re putting the right guys in the right spots. We see Carson as one of those key guys that we need to get in a spot where he can go be that impact player and go make the play.
“He understands his role. But he also understands what the other guys around him are doing, just like an offensive player or a defensive player. He’s going in, and you just don’t know if all of a sudden that returner’s going to be coming your way. And he’s been ready every time.”
Last weekend, Bruener and Co. collectively sapped Stanford’s courage. In No. 15 Washington’s 40-22 win, the Cardinal’s kickoff return strategy suddenly shifted. They chose to return each of Washington’s first five kickoffs … and never made it past the 25-yard line.
Then, waving a metaphorical white flag, they fair caught three of UW’s final four kickoffs to finish the game.
“Guys are running down the field hard. Our kicks are better,” DeBoer said. “I think you saw again this past Saturday where they just fair caught it and were good with being on the 25-yard line. It wasn’t like we were able to boot it through the end zone and that’s why the touchbacks happened. They were fair catching it.
“So, I think that’s a lot of pride that our kickoff team is instilling in what they’re doing and how they’re setting the tone. Whether it be at the beginning of the game or after any score, they have to go out there and continue the momentum. Carson’s been at the forefront of that.”
- A week after he made his UW debut on special teams, true freshman edge Lance Holtzclaw appeared on defense during the Huskies’ home win over Stanford. And while it’s unclear whether the 6-3, 217-pounder from Dorchester, Mass., will maintain his redshirt (by playing in four or fewer games), co-defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell said Holtzclaw has earned the trust of his coaching staff. “Obviously he’s coming along really quickly for us right now,” Morrell said. “We think he’s going to be a fantastic player. He’s got a big learning curve yet. He’s got a lot of things he’s got to learn. But he’s active. He’s bought in. He’s one of the most energetic freshmen we have on the squad, and he’s a sponge. He’s soaking the information up every day. I think it just depends on continued health. Obviously we’d love to have an opportunity to redshirt him. But I also think he’s developing at a pace right now where if we needed to play him on a more regular basis, we could.”