John F. Silver
The first NFL draft pick in the FBS era was a linebacker, Alfred Fincher, and the Huskies haven’t stopped churning out linebackers. Danny Lansanah worked his way onto an NFL roster and the trio of Scott Lutrus, Lawrence Wilson and Greg Lloyd all found themselves on NFL roster for a time.
This past week, Sio Moore was a third round pick of the Raiders. Linebacker Jory Johnson also is gone after he had nearly 200 tackles in his last two years.
The Huskies came into spring practice with one known at linebacker — All-Big East first team member Yawin Smallwood who had 120 tackles last year. Smallwood (6-3, 244 pounds) missed time as he recovered from shoulder surgery leaving the entire linebacker corps brand new this spring.
The Huskies have to replace 167 tackles combined without Moore and Johnson.
Luckily, the unit may be inexperienced but they don’t lack talent.
Inside, the Huskies have senior Ryan Donahue (6-0, 237 pounds)there to step in for Smallwood, or perhaps move to one of the outside linebacker slots if need. Donahue impressed this spring with his ability to make the calls on defense and as a senior has seen a lot of action over the years since starting his career at Maryland.
On the outside is where inexperience starts to show.
Marquise Vann (4 tackles last year) has been in the meeting rooms for two years waiting for the opportunity he got this spring. Replacing Johnson on the weakside, Vann (6-0, 227 pounds) looked up to the task this spring game as he was perhaps the most impressive player on the field showing his range as a linebacker and ability to always be around the ball. I like his quickness and he is a powerfully built and compact linebacker. Vann looked fast to me an aggressive. Combined with Smallwood — who I thought was UConn’s best defensive player last year — makes a good tandem when they get up to speed.
How about replacing Moore at the strong side? Jefferson Ashiru (6-1, 233-pounds), also like Vann, has for two years been a part of the two-deep in the meeting rooms and studying. The pair were being groomed for the linebacker spot (nice to have depth doesn’t it?) for two years. Luckily, the pair got a redshirt year in and still have a year on special teams to hone their skills. Ashiru is a fast playmaking outside backer who is going to be asked to make some plays. The pedigree of Vann and Ashiru are excellent with both having major BCS (or Power 5 now) conference teams offering scholarships out of high school. The pair were late editions in the recruiting class two years ago. To me, these are the first real recruits of Pasqualoni’s that will see significant time, not counting transfers, and it appears the staff was able to get quality here.
The Huskies aren’t done at linebacker however with Florida transfer Graham Stewart (6-1, 237 pounds) a sophomore with three years of eligibility left . Stewart is playing outside linebacker right now and is very near breaking into the starting lineup. He is coming of a pectoral injury that knocked him out of 2012, but he has shown quickness to the ball and is a big-hitter at the position. Quickness and explosion are what you hear most often mentioned with Stewart. He has the physical profile to play ll three positions and going from what little I’ve seen of practice and the spring game, will be tough to keep off the field.
There is depth at this position too with Brandon Steg having an excellent spring according to coaches. Steg (6-2, 232) has been on the scout team for the last two years, but has played himself into the two-deep mix for the Huskies. The position has talent even after the top six with Jonathan Hicks (6-2, 237) and Omaine Stephens also highly-regarded though missing a lot of the spring with injuries.
The Huskies have linebackers. Moore was a special player that I think is going to be a terrific NFL player and there isn’t a player on the roster that is as versatile as him. Johnson was also a very underrated player who always had to win his job outright and was productive whenever he played, with nearly 200 tackles his last two years.
The position is a question, but linebackers coach John Wholley has some options and depth at the position. The Huskies rank linebackers 1-6 with the top three playing. Smallwood’s No. 1 and going nowhere, and I can see any of the other five linebackers stepping into a role. There is young talent in Ashiru and Vann as well as veteran players who have played in Donahue and Steg.
Considering what the Huskies lose this year, that’s not a bad place to be in. If only the other positions were able to develop like this the Huskies would be much better off.