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Sports >  UW football

UW notebook: Is it time to be concerned (again) about Huskies’ depth at inside linebacker?

Aug. 19, 2021 Updated Fri., Aug. 20, 2021 at 2:54 p.m.

Washington linebacker Jackson Sirmon leaps to make a catch during NCAA college football practice, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in Seattle.   (Ted S. Warren)
Washington linebacker Jackson Sirmon leaps to make a catch during NCAA college football practice, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in Seattle.  (Ted S. Warren)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

After inside linebackers Josh Calvert, Miki Ah You and Will Latu left the team this offseason, defensive coordinator Bob Gregory was asked how he felt about the University of Washington’s depth at that particular position.

“If we keep everybody healthy, I feel good,” he said on Aug. 8.

Ten days later, the Huskies have not kept everybody healthy.

Redshirt freshman Daniel Heimuli — who Gregory also said “has taken a major step” — suffered an injury during Monday’s practice, and watched his teammates work with a brace on his left knee on Tuesday. Another redshirt freshman, Alphonzo Tuputala, continues to be out with an apparent injury sustained in the spring, and won’t be back for the season opener, according to Gregory.

Without the services of Heimuli and Tuputala, the Huskies are left with a total of four healthy scholarship inside linebackers: starters Edefuan Ulofoshio and Jackson Sirmon, fellow sophomore M.J. Tafisi and second-year freshman Carson Bruener (who actually worked at outside linebacker in April). On Tuesday, sophomore walk-on Ben Hines took Heimuli’s spot next to Tafisi with the second team, while Bruener and redshirt freshman walk-on Ruperake Fuavai made up the third unit.

That leaves Washington with three eligible options who have taken a college snap: Ulofoshio, Sirmon and Tafisi.

That’s all, folks.

But on Tuesday, Husky head coach Jimmy Lake didn’t seem concerned.

“Thankfully we have really good depth at inside linebacker,” he said. “We’ve got some guys (like Bruener and outside linebacker Cooper McDonald) who can bounce back and forth.

“Of course we would like all of our bodies to be there at full strength. But again, this is football. Someone’s going to get hurt tomorrow. I’ll make the breaking news right now: someone’s going to get hurt tomorrow, and they’re probably not going to play on Friday or Saturday. Someone’s going to get hurt Saturday. Someone’s going to get hurt on Sept. 4. Someone’s going to get hurt on Sept. 11. This is football. This is why we have a big roster. We have a bunch of players, and we’ve got to keep developing our guys and have depth.”

Correction: the Huskies had a bunch of available inside linebackers.

Now? Not so much.

Battle of the behemoths

UW returns all five starters on the offensive line.

But that doesn’t mean each returning starter will start.

Seismic 6-foot-6, 355-pound sophomore Ulumoo “M.J.” Ale — who started all four games at left guard in the 2020 season — has worked with the second unit at right guard in three consecutive practices, while redshirt freshmen Julius Buelow and Nate Kalepo (to a lesser degree) have snatched up the starting reps at the left guard spot.

Of course, Lake cautioned on Tuesday that “the battle is not done anywhere across our whole football team. But those two guys that you mentioned (Buelow and Kalepo) are going to get a few opportunities, and M.J. is going to get an opportunity as well.”

The opportunity has been earned for the 6-8, 330-pound Buelow, a native Hawaiian who has appeared in one game in his first two seasons in Seattle.

“He obviously has tremendous size, but he’s played really physical in this training camp, which has propelled him to get some more reps,” Lake said. “I tell our whole team that physical play is always going to get rewarded. Offense, defense, special teams, if you show a tough, physical side, it is going to get rewarded. We will find a way to put you on the football field.”

Added left tackle Jaxson Kirkland: “The way he’s firing off the ball, it’s night and day from how it looked a couple months ago in spring ball. So it looks like he’s just putting it together, and the best is yet to come for that guy. The biggest thing is that quick twitch he’s getting off the ball. He’s made some big plays for us.”

Of course, coming from the 6-7, 310-pound Kirkland, the following statement carries extra weight:

“Julius is a monster,” he said. “He’s even bigger than me.”

One hand, two picks?

When a reporter said Jacobe Covington’s name, Will Harris smiled.

“Oh, yeah,” UW’s defensive backs coach said, without waiting to hear the question.

Despite wearing a club on his injured left hand, the 6-2, 195-pound corner continues to (literally) ascend — leaping to snag a one-handed interception of Sam Huard that ended Tuesday’s practice.

It appears a minor injury to fellow second-year freshman Elijah Jackson has presented an opportunity for Covington to claim increased reps. And while Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon are effectively entrenched as UW’s starting cornerbacks, expect Covington — a former four-star recruit who could also potentially slide back to safety — to find the field in the Huskies’ sub-packages.

“That kid’s a specimen,” Harris said. “At the Husky Combine (last spring) he ran a 4.51 (second 40-yard dash), which was awesome. He’s been one of the guys that’s been stepping up out of that group, and I’m excited to watch him finish this camp out.”

It’s safe to assume Lake also shares that excitement. And while the second-year head coach no longer directly mentors UW’s defensive backs, he does have an opinion when it comes to that practice-ending pick.

“I was telling the whole DB room it should count as two (interceptions),” Lake said, referring to the defensive backs’ annual competition to claim the most interceptions. “That’s not my area anymore, but I was stirring the pot a little bit. Jacobe definitely thinks it should be worth two interceptions, and I agree with him.”

Extra points

•Sophomore defensive lineman Tuli Letuligasenoa has been a consistently disruptive presence thus far in fall camp, something he couldn’t always sustain as a younger — and heavier — player. The 6-2, 300-pounder has shed 36 pounds since first arriving on campus in 2018. “It was basically trial and error,” he said. “Coming in way too heavy, you could tell when you go against those older guys and you watch the film of the older guys. I was weighing way too much, and I could definitely tell in my play. It was weighing me down, because I could only have one good play and then I’d get tired. Losing that weight, that gave me the confidence that I could play with these guys and I could play every down. I’m an every-down d-lineman.”

•While Laiatu Latu (who medically retired due to a neck injury this spring) and Zion Tupuola-Fetui (who continues to recover from a torn Achilles tendon) can’t currently contribute on the field, both have attended every practice and can often be found coaching UW’s younger outside linebackers. “It’s always nice when any injured guy on our team is able to stay in it mentally by speaking from a player’s point of view to what (co-defensive coordinator and outside linebacker coach Ikaika) Malloe’s trying to teach,” Lake said. “So that is a huge advantage, having Laiatu and Zion right there — being able to say, ‘Hey, this is what coach means. You do this.’ Just having that extra voice right there is a bonus.”

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