Brandon Wellington has a bet with Ben Burr-Kirven. That’s all he’s willing to say.
After the conclusion of Washington’s second of 15 spring practices, the senior linebacker stood there, wearing a tattered white jersey and a wry smile, protecting his precious secret.
“I mean, me and BBK got a little bet. I’m not going to say what it is,” Wellington said Friday. “But he knows what it is and hopefully I’m going to live up to it.”
He has an awful lot to live up to. In his senior season in 2018, Burr-Kirven was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and led the UW defense with 176 total tackles — more than 100 more than the next-best Husky.
Wellington, meanwhile, missed the first four games of the 2018 season with a torn ACL and has contributed 50 total tackles in his first three seasons at UW.
Now, it’s his turn to take the reins in the middle of Washington’s defense. But is it really fair to hold Wellington — or anybody, for that matter — to Burr-Kirven’s lofty statistical standard?
“Yeah, I think it’s fair,” Wellington said. “Because if you’re setting the bar too low, you’re not trying to reach for the stars and get everything that’s out there. So yeah, I’m going to set my bar that high, if not a little bit higher, so I can push myself to be that caliber of a player.”
OK, so back to the bet. What are we talking about here? One-hundred tackles? One-fifty? Two-hundred?
“It’s something with tackles,” Wellington conceded. “(Burr-Kirven) did something that I haven’t seen, personally, ever. That was just him hustling and being a hard-worker and not trying to be outworked by anybody. That’s just something I’m trying to instill in myself.”
But matching Burr-Kirven’s work ethic, by itself, won’t guarantee similar success on Saturdays. After all, the Kent native has started just two games in his UW career and has yet to produce more than 28 tackles in a season.
Still, Wellington’s coaches are convinced the former Eastside Catholic standout can bridge the gap.
“I think they’re similar,” said co-defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski. “I think Ben, obviously, was able to process and play faster with his reactions. Brandon has gotten a lot better at that.
“Last year, with all the reps he got there, he improved the whole year. We’ll see. I think he’s going to step right in. I’m looking forward to it.”
He isn’t the only one. A torn ACL suffered late in the 2017 season made Wellington appreciate what he was missing. The Washington defense missed him, too. The 6-foot, 223-pound linebacker produced the best results of his career upon his return, finishing with eight tackles in the Apple Cup and seven more tackles and a tackle for loss in the Rose Bowl.
At this time last spring, Wellington could barely walk. Now, it seems he’s ready to run.
“It means a lot, coming from six to eight weeks on crutches and not being able to walk,” Wellington said. “Just doing everything on crutches, it impacted me a lot mentally, physically. I was just down and out. But now coming back, I’m healthier now and just continuing to get healthier as we go along.
“That’s something I’m looking forward to, because I haven’t been in this shape in my life — ever. To continue to grow coming off of that, I just feel like that’s going to (yield) a bigger impact come fall.”
The UW defense — which will roll out at least eight new starters against Eastern Washington on Aug. 31 — is counting on it, especially if senior linebacker D.J. Beavers can’t make it back from a leg injury suffered in the Rose Bowl. A unit filled with first-year starters will undoubtedly benefit from Wellington’s experience.
His leadership, too.
“I’m not really a vocal leader,” Wellington said. “I like to lead by example and just show people that whatever you’re going through, it’s going to be hard. I’m not saying your trials and tribulations are not hard. But there’s somebody out there that’s always going through something that’s worse, and you can’t let that hold you back. So when you come out here on the field or in the weight room or in the film room, you’ve just got to lock in and be here now and really tune into that and outwork everything and use that anger to drive you.
“Really, that’s part of what drove me in my rehab — the feeling of not being able to run. I wanted to get that back and I was just anxious and it just made me go harder.”
Now, here he is — faster, stronger, better. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’ll be another Ben Burr-Kirven. But can he be something close?
“His arrow was pointing up at the end of last year,” said defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake. “He really started playing some big-time football for us. Now, with him being the senior, replacing a guy like Ben Burr-Kirven who played a ton of football for us, it’s nice to have a big-time athlete like that that knows our defense, has great leadership skills and is so athletic.
“As much as I love Ben Burr-Kirven, I think we have a player where we don’t feel like there’s going to be a ton of drop-off.”
Wellington is betting on it.