All anyone wanted to talk about during a month of University of Washington spring football practices were the outside linebackers. They made big plays and big news, both glad and sad.
Laiatu Latu had to give up the game. Coach Jimmy Lake opened camp by detailing how a neck injury from the previous fall camp had put Latu's general health in jeopardy and he was done.
Zion Tupuola-Fetui, the breakout UW player during the pandemic season, Latu's replacement and a possible All-American candidate, ruptured his Achilles early in spring practice and underwent surgery. He rode around on a scooter for the rest of the workouts.
Back for a sixth season, Ryan Bowman was hailed as a team mainstay — and humorously described by defensive coordinator Bob Gregory as looking 40 years old.
Lake used Cooper McDonald as a foil to get a rise out of ZTF early on, suggesting the young Texan would get the first spring turnover, not the Hawaiian with the orange hair.
Texas A&M transfer Jeremiah Martin impressed everyone with his significant size and athleticism, accentuated by an overly acrobatic interception he made on a Sam Huard pass.
Bralen Trice, returning from a fall season opt-out and changing his physique to something much thicker and stronger, might have been the most improved player of the spring — at any position.
Somewhat hidden in all of the revelry, injury and camaraderie was Sav'ell Smalls.
He had a noticeably quiet spring, missing at least a week's time with a nagging minor injury. When healthy, he pretty much avoided the spotlight.
Smalls just might be the Huskies' most talented outside linebacker of all in this group. As a 5-star recruit, he came in with the biggest reputation of anyone. He got on the field immediately, too. He is expected to be an honors candidate and an NFL player.
Still just a redshirt freshman, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Smalls simply went about his business in April and into May, putting in the work and changing his game approach.
"From high school to college, and I'm sure Sam Huard is experiencing that, the speed of the game is so fast," Husky OLB coach Ikaika Malloe. "Sav'ell not only had to get used to that, but 350-pound guys who are moving just as fast as him and they're really good at technique. So he went from being a powerhouse rusher to now having to use technique."
Going down the roster in numerical order, this is another of our post-spring assessments of all of the Husky talent at hand, gleaned from a month of observations, as a way to keep everyone engaged during the offseason.
Smalls seemingly has been overanxious to be a dominant player, but he's learning the adjustment that must be made to get there.
Last fall, the then true freshman appeared in each of the four UW games and on his first college play shoved an Oregon State blocker 5 or so yards off the line of scrimmage. He started against Stanford, forced to open the game because COVID-19 sidelined some of his teammates. He finished the short season with 7 tackles.
Smalls no doubt wasn't satisfied after being such a dominant player throughout his schoolboy football career. However, the early career game reps and the opening assignment were validation of his budding talent level.
To keep going, Smalls will need to be as smart about his approach as he is physical. That's what great players do.
"I think he's a student of the game now so that's encouraging," Malloe said. "He's only going to get better. Your expectations of him will come to fruition."
Smalls will be a much bigger part of the OLB story.
Smalls' 2021 Outlook: Outside linebacker starting candidate
UW Service Time: Played in 4 games, started 1
Stats: 7 tackles
Individual Honors: None
Pro prospects: 2024 NFL first-round draft pick
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