Victor’s transition from preseason All-American middle linebacker to reserve outside linebacker has been one of the more puzzling developments for Washington this year.
Not until the fourth quarter Saturday night, with the Huskies well on their way to another rout of Oregon, did Azeem Victor get his first extended run with Washington’s defense.
Strange sight, it was, to see the biggest name on the Huskies’ defense playing a bit role in mop-up time.
That, it seems, is the new normal for Victor.
For the Huskies, there is much to celebrate on defense this season. They boast the No. 1 defense in college football, the best defense in the Pac-12 in a decade, and their defense is the main reason they’re in prime position over the next four weeks to make a run at their second consecutive Pac-12 championship.
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And yet Victor’s transition from preseason All-American middle linebacker to reserve outside linebacker has been one of the more puzzling developments for the team this year.
“I know he is frustrated,” UW coach Chris Petersen said Monday. “Respect that guy tremendously, how he’s gone about his business and he comes to practice and works hard, and I hope we can get him out there more.”
A fan favorite, Victor was a menacing force in the heart of the Pac-12’s defense the past two seasons. He was a first-team all-conference selection last year, when he finished third on team with 67 tackles despite missing the final four games of the year following a devastating broken leg in mid-November.
Things have changed dramatically this season. Victor has lost his starting job to junior Ben Burr-Kirven, who leads the team with 59 tackles and two forced fumbles. And because the Huskies have great depth at middle linebacker — with Burr-Kirven, Keishawn Bierria backed up by Brandon Wellington and DJ Beavers — coaches nudged Victor into a full-time role at outside linebacker, where the Huskies have limited depth.
Petersen has said Victor is healthy, and coaches have not offered explicit reasons for Victor’s move outside beyond praising Burr-Kirven’s strong play.
It hasn’t been an easy transition for Victor.
“Everything is so much more complicated than you think. You can’t just line a guy up,” Petersen said. “He’s been making some progress with that stuff. We do want to and our hope is to get him more reps out there, for sure.”
Victor played about 12 snaps on defense in the Huskies’ 38-3 victory over Oregon. Ten of those came in Oregon’s final two drives, with Victor lining up at the hybrid outside linebacker-defense end position. His only tackle came on the game’s final snap.
Victor had just two tackles a week earlier against UCLA, though he has remained a regular on special-teams coverage units.
He came into the season named by The Associated Press as the Huskies’ only first-team preseason All-American selection.
In the summer, Victor was confident and eager to get back into form after recovering from the broken tibia. In the 2016 offseason, Victor had dropped roughly 10 pounds in an attempt to gain quickness; he added most of that weight back to his 6-foot-3 this past offseason.
He was suspended for the first game this season, opening the door for Burr-Kirven.
Victor’s 28 tackles ranks eighth on the team. He did have a season-high 10 tackles at Colorado in September, and his size could offer UW an advantage against Stanford’s run-heavy attack on Friday night.
“At the end of the day, I just want to play,” Victor said last month, adding: “You just want to be on the field playing. That’s when you’re having the most fun.”