Ariel Ngata’s Nike swoosh was attempting to secede from the rest of his headband.
A couple of minutes after Washington wrapped up its annual Spring Preview on Saturday, Ngata — a 6-foot-3, 216-pound sophomore linebacker — stood near the front of the Huskies’ team room and attempted to answer questions.
It was not easy.
That’s because the Reno, Nev., native’s Nike headband was in a sorry state of disarray, with half of the white swoosh logo dangling awkwardly off the purple sleeve and into its owner’s eyes. This was equal parts distracting and appropriate.
After all, the Huskies will officially split from Nike in favor of Adidas in July.
For now, both Ngata and his team are dangling in between.
In more ways than one.
A former Folsom High School standout, Ngata effectively dominated the Spring Preview at outside linebacker, piling up four tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and several more pad-cracking collisions. But there’s also concern the sophomore is too undersized to permanently stick on the outside.
Ngata practiced both at inside and outside linebacker this spring. So where does he belong? Where can he best contribute?
“I for sure feel more comfortable outside, just because inside (linebacker) is a new position,” Ngata said. “But as the summer goes on, from here on out, I’m going to work to know both positions. Just because I’m more comfortable outside doesn’t mean outside is a piece of cake. I need to get better.
“All I know is that I need to know both (positions) so I can play them fluidly, so when they need me at either I can do it in the most efficient, dominant way.”
That’s what he did Saturday. And in Ngata’s sophomore season, Jimmy Lake expects more of the same.
“He’s had a big-time spring,” Washington’s defensive coordinator said Saturday. “He’s one of the guys that really progressed from day 1 all the way to day 15. I’ve been extremely impressed with him. I’ve seen him up in the offices, watching way more film than he’s ever watched, and it’s all paying off now.
“I think he’s going to be an electric pass-rusher for us. (Outside-linebackers coach Pete Kwiatkowski) has done an unbelievable job of getting that next level out of him, which you guys saw today. But I also think he can move inside and be very productive for us. So I think Ngata sees what he can do and I’m excited to watch him in a real game here coming up.”
Lake and Ngata find themselves in a precarious position pickle. On one hand, the Huskies might need more help at inside linebacker, where Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett departed this offseason and D.J. Beavers was forced to medically retire. Kyler Manu, Jackson Sirmon, M.J. Tafisi, Edefuan Ulofoshio, Josh Calvert, Daniel Heimuli, Miki Ah You and Alphonzo Tuputala will all compete to start beside senior Brandon Wellington in August. But that’s a lot of names with precious little Pac-12 experience.
On the other hand, the defense desperately needs an improved pass rush — and Ngata just might provide it on the outside. Washington finished with 24 sacks in 14 games last season, its lowest total since 2008; returning players accounted for 10.5 of those sacks. The Huskies’ 1.7 sacks per game was also 10th in the Pac-12.
It’s true, Ngata said Saturday, “I need to take more initiative in gaining weight and being able to set the edge.”
Still, Lake is convinced someone with Ngata’s frame can survive — and thrive — on the outside.
“He’s almost similar to (6-3, 227-pound) Cory Littleton, who we had four years ago and is now with the L.A. Rams,” Lake said. “We were always bouncing him back and forth between inside and outside. (We were asking), ‘Is he going to get big enough?’ But you can’t teach the speed that (Ngata) has and the electricity that he has.
“I think he’s at 220, somewhere around there. Of course we’d like to get a little more weight on him. But if he plays that fast, that physical, like he did today, those O-linemen aren’t going to be asking what his weight is next year. They’re going to be watching him blow right by them. So I’m excited about him.”
For Ngata, at least, maybe “in between” isn’t so bad. In his redshirt freshman season in 2018, the lean linebacker contributed 11 tackles, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble in 12 games. He’ll be expected to take the next step as a sophomore.
That means sustaining strength and physicality without sacrificing speed.
“I’ve always had to be physical, because I’ve never been the biggest person,” Ngata said. “So physicality is a must, because if someone’s not that big and they’re playing slow and they’re not playing physical, then they’re going to get embarrassed and exposed.
“So I always have to keep being physical. I always have to be aggressive.”
That also extends to UW’s offseason workouts. Ngata, junior Ryan Bowman and sophomore Joe Tryon — who also contributed two sacks Saturday — could be the key cogs to the 2019 Huskies pass rush, which was inarguably the weak link of the defense last fall.
The goal, Ngata said, is to look completely different in August.
And that doesn’t just apply to the uniforms.
“We’ve definitely improved pass rush-wise,” Ngata said. “Something I think we all need to work on this summer is keeping each other accountable and just wanting to grind and get better, because we have the same amount of talent in our linebacker room — outside and inside — as we did last year.
“But it’s just bringing that talent out onto the field. Harnessing that true talent is what we’ve got to do this summer.”