First a few words about the mustache craze that’s all the rave in the Pac-12.
Minshew Mania? That’s so last year.
We’re talking about Manu Madness or the hairy caterpillar that’s parked on the lip of Washington linebacker Kyler Manu.
“Oh man, that thing is ugly,” Huskies assistant head coach Bob Gregory said, smiling. “But for him, I approve.”
Ugly? Maybe. But it’s so fantastic.
“There you go, it’s fantastically ugly,” Gregory said. “That’s a good way to put it. It is fantastically ugly, yes.”
It remains to be seen if Manu’s facial foliage inspires UW fans to sport fake mustaches like Washington State fans did last year to celebrate former Cougars quarterback Gardner Minshew, who became a pop-culture icon far beyond Pullman.
But don’t put anything past Manu.
Through five games, the fifth-year senior linebacker is building a reputation as a hard-hitting enforcer who has seamlessly filled the gaping hole in the middle of UW’s defense created when 2018 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Ben Burr-Kirven graduated.
Many Washington fans expected the Huskies to replenish a secondary that lost four starters without missing a beat because recently UW has become the West Coast version of DBU that routinely develops high-profile defensive backs and sends them to the NFL.
But there were serious concerns about how Washington would fare without inside linebackers Burr-Kirven and graduated Tevis Bartlett, who finished No. 1 and 2 on the team in tackles with 176 and 73, respectively, last season.
However, Gregory didn’t despair.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, it’s just another year and you give those guys as (many) tools that you can so they can improve and get better,” said Gregory, who started coaching in 1987 and has spent six years at UW instructing inside linebackers. “And that’s what they’ve done. They’ve gotten better each week. The more they play, the more their confidence grows.”
Through five games, Manu is second on the team with 26 tackles, which is twice as many as he had during his previous three years when he was buried on the depth chart behind Keishawn Bierria and Azeem Victor early in his career as well as Burr-Kirven and Bartlett the past two seasons.
Meanwhile, fellow inside ‘backer Brandon Wellington has 18 tackles.
“Kyler has really been here for a long time,” Gregory said. “He’s the oldest guy on our team; I think he’s like 34 or something like that. He may not have had a ton of reps over the years, but he still has a lot of experience in our defense.
“And Brandon has been a starter to a certain degree. Last season he started the last (two) games of the season.”
Aesthetically, UW’s middle linebackers are a bit of an odd couple. At 6 feet 1 and 246 pounds, Manu has become a feared defender who doles out punishing hits.
“I mean this in a very complimentary way: Kyler is a thumper,” Gregory said. “He’s strong. He can knock guys back. It’s hard to run to his side.”
Meanwhile, the UW coach described the 6-foot, 226-pound Wellington as “a little bit more dynamic and fluid.” His athleticism was on display two weeks ago when he scooped up a fumble and returned it 69 yards for a touchdown against BYU.
No. 15 Washington (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) is allowing just 17.4 points per game, which is 1.0 more than last season.
The Huskies are still reeling after surrendering 193 yards on the ground last Saturday against a USC rushing attack that had been dormant in previous games.
On Saturday, Washington travels to Stanford (2-3, 1-2), which has struggled offensively due in large part to the absence of quarterback K.J. Costello, who has been hampered by injuries. Backup Davis Mills has started two games, including last Saturday’s 31-28 win at Oregon State.
“Both of those guys are very similar,” Gregory said. “Two pro-style quarterbacks. Two big guys. You can tell they’re very smart. They run their show very well. Good arms.”
There was a time when a game against Stanford forced opponents to prepare for a 60-minute fistfight in the middle of the field. However, the Cardinal ranks last in the Pac-12 in scoring (20.2 points per game) and yards (327.2) during a year in which it has uncharacteristically relied on the passing game more than it has in recent years.
Gregory anticipates a critical matchup between UW’s inside linebackers and Stanford tight end Colby Parkinson, who has 20 catches for 222 yards.
“We’ve got to be able to stop the run and keep their (quarterback) inside of (the pocket) and in front of us,” Gregory said. “And when it’s our time to play the tight ends, we’ve got to compete for the ball in the air.”