Washington was already precariously thin at the inside linebacker position.
Now the Huskies better hope they can compete with limited personnel.
Sixth-year UW head coach Chris Petersen announced on Sunday that freshman early enrollee Josh Calvert — a 6-foot-2, 223-pound former four-star prospect from Oak Park, Calif. — will miss the 2019 season with a knee injury, as will fifth-year senior defensive lineman John Clark.
During the five August practices open to the media, Calvert had been practicing primarily alongside redshirt freshman Edefuan Ulofoshio with the third team at inside linebacker — behind senior starters Brandon Wellington and Kyler Manu and second-team redshirt freshmen Jackson Sirmon and M.J. Tafisi.
Of the remaining available linebackers, Wellington — a 6-0, 226-pound senior — brings the most experience, and even he touts just two starts and 50 total tackles in his three-year college career. The 6-1, 246-pound Manu has produced just 12 tackles in 24 games across four seasons.
Of course, it will be a tall task for anyone to replace departed linebackers Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett, who combined to compile 249 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and seven forced fumbles last season. Senior linebacker D.J. Beavers, an expected starter, was also forced to medically retire last spring.
Unfortunately, Clark — a 6-4, 289-pound senior — is no stranger to season-ending knee injuries. The former walk-on — who was awarded a scholarship last spring — tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus in April 2017, during the Huskies’ first padded practice of spring ball. He had an initial surgery and then another in September 2017 when the swelling in his knee persisted.
Considering that he has sat out two entire seasons, Clark would likely be granted a waiver for a sixth season of eligibility should he apply for one from the NCAA. He registered five tackles in nine games last season and was set to contribute in the Huskies’ defensive-line rotation this fall.
“He’s kind of like the heart of our group,” UW defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe said of Clark earlier in August.
Could UW play multiple quarterbacks?
Petersen didn’t wait for the quarterback question on Sunday.
Before fielding a single question from the media, UW’s coach provided an update — to some extent — on the ongoing competition between junior Jacob Eason and sophomore Jake Haener.
“I don’t know who the quarterback is,” Petersen prefaced. “We’re making progress. We really have. I think the thing that’s been really pleasing is, all four of those guys (with redshirt freshman Jacob Sirmon and true freshman Dylan Morris also included) have done a nice job. I said that earlier.
“It’s just nice to see everybody there playing at a higher level. In some ways, that doesn’t make our job any easier — figuring this out. But it’s probably a good problem to have.”
Still, the problem persists. Petersen said that at most positions the starters and rotational players will begin receiving more reps than the backups during this week’s practices.
But that may not be the case under center.
“Quarterback-wise, I don’t know,” he said. “We’re going to play this thing through this week and see where we are and figure it out from there.”
In that case, another question was raised: would Petersen ever be willing to enter a season with the intention of playing multiple quarterbacks?
“If that was our best chance to win, absolutely,” he responded.
“Are you considering that?” a reporter asked.
“If that gives us our best chance to win, absolutely,” Petersen repeated, before adding sarcastically: “We’ll consider four quarterbacks if that gives us our best chance to win. Write that one down.”
It remains highly unlikely that Eason and Haener would regularly split snaps throughout the 2019 season.
But while Petersen isn’t ready to name a starter, he’s also not ready to rule anything out.
A trio of impressive freshmen
It goes without saying that freshman safety Cameron Williams — who enrolled early and is the favorite to start beside senior Myles Bryant on the back end — has impressed in his first several months on Montlake.
But, besides Williams, which freshmen have piqued Petersen’s interest?
“We’ve got a handful of ‘em that are doing some things,” Petersen said. “(Outside linebacker) Laiatu (Latu) is doing a really nice job. (Cornerback) Trent McDuffie’s doing a nice job. He’s going to be right there for some playing time. Puka (Nacua) is doing a good job at the receiver position. I’m trying to think who else. Maybe a linebacker in there as well.
“So there’s a lot of guys who are making some progress there. We’re going to play some freshmen this year for sure. We’re going to play a lot four games (while still maintaining redshirt status). But I think we’re planning on not thinking four games for a handful of these guys.”
Latu — a mammoth 6-4, 275-pound outside linebacker from Sacramento — stood out during the August practices open to the media, and not just for his size. The former rugby player and wide receiver could immediately contribute to a Husky pass rush that stalled to the tune of just 24 sacks in 14 games last fall.
The 5-11, 185-pound McDuffie entered August as a second-team cornerback, behind only redshirt freshman Kyler Gordon. Though somewhat undersized, the former St. John Bosco (Calif.) standout has previously earned praise from defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake for his Pac-12-ready technique.
Nacua was a prolific pass-catcher at Provo (Utah) Orem High School, setting state records for career receptions (260), yards (5,226) and receiving touchdowns (58). Though typically working with the third team, he repeatedly made plays early in August camp.
Now it looks like he just might make good on his high school coach’s prediction.
“If he’s starting game one, it wouldn’t surprise me. If he’s just in the rotation and starting three or four games in, it wouldn’t surprise me,” Orem High School coach Jeremy Hill told The Times last spring. “But he should be a big contributor this year right away.”
The grind continues
Washington’s experience may be an issue.
Its effort shouldn’t be.
“It just seems like we’ve got a lot of practicing left to do to be where we want to be for that first game,” said Petersen, a day after his team went through a scrimmage that featured 90-plus live plays. “But I will say this: this crew has worked really, really hard. It hasn’t always been as clean as we’d like it, but there hasn’t been an issue at all with any sort of effort – where we’ve got to go harder and we’ve got to pick it up.
“We’ve been at it for a while, and that’s been good. We’ve just got to get better, and if they stay with the same effort and attitude and all those things, we will.”