Inside linebackers at Washington are supposed to diagnose plays, fill gaps, rack up tackles. It's a big reason why senior seasons are often so important for the Huskies. Following Ben Burr-Kirven's All-American senior showing, seniors Kyler Manu and Brandon Wellington were next up last fall.
They had big shoes to fill. Besides Burr-Kirven's sensational finish, the others before him were really good. Cory Littleton became honorable mention All-Pac-12 in 2015, Keishawn Bierria received a second team all-conference pick in 2017 and Azeem Victor was a first-team all-conference choice in 2016 despite missing four games with a broken leg.
Wellington proved inconsistent with flashes of big plays, scoring twice on fumble returns, while disappearing in other games. Manu eventually lost his starting job.
There were hopeful signs in Jackson Sirmon's and Edefuan Ulofoshio's redshirt freshman performances.
Sirmon played like a coach's kid — because he is. Ulofoshio played like a scholarship was on the line — because it was. Together the two defensively helped salvage a season that appeared to be spiraling out of control.
For his efforts, Ulofoshio has been rated by Pro Football Focus as the Pac-12's top returning inside linebacker while Sirmon is fourth. Behind them are a bevvy of promising players.
Tale of the tape:
- Jackson Sirmon, sophomore, 6-foot-3, 237 pounds
- Edefuan Ulofoshio, sophomore, 6-0, 234
- MJ Tafisi, sophomore, 6-0, 241
- Danny Heimuli, RS freshman, 6-0, 225
- Josh Calvert, RS freshman, 6-2, 218
- Cooper McDonald, freshman, 6-2, 215
- Carson Brunner, freshman, 6-2, 201
While Ulofoshio and Heimuli lack the ideal height for an inside linebacker they bring unmeasurable intangibles: smarts and ferocity.
Here's a look at the inside linebacker recruiting under Gregory:
2015 DJ Beavers, 3-star, injuries ended his career a year early.
2015 Ben Burr-Kirven, 3-star, became All-American, now with Seattle Seahawks
2016 Milo Eifler, 4-star, transferred to Illinois
2016 Brandon Wellington, 4-star, injuries hampered career, with Indianapolis Colts
2017 Ariel Ngata, 4-star, transferred to Sacramento State
2018 Brandon Kaho, 5-star, never enrolled, transferred to Alabama
2018 Jackson Sirmon, 3-star, backup
2018 MJ Tafisi, 3-star, neck injury ended season
2018 Edefuan Ulofoshio, 2-star walk-on, earned starting job and scholarship
2019 Danny Heimuli, 4-star, redshirt freshman
2019 Josh Calvert, 4-star, redshirt freshman, missed first year with injury
2020 Cooper McDonald, 3-star, incoming player
2020 Carson Bruener, 3-star, incoming player
2021 Will Latu, 4-star, still in high school
It's clear that inside linebacker coach Bob Gregory can recruit and develop talent. However, one has to wonder what the 2019 season would have looked like if the Huskies weren't forced to choose between inconsistent seniors and unproven freshmen.
What if Eifler, Ngata and Kaho had been in the gap between seniors and freshmen? If a player slips up, or is unproductive, will Gregory hesitate to go with a younger player?
Projected Depth Chart:
- Starters: Ulofoshio, Sirmon
- Rotation: Heimuli, Calvert, Tafisi
2020/21 Breakout Candidates:
Any of the rotational guys should be ready to go. They've seen how Burr-Kirven took over and never let go from his junior year on. Both linebacking positions should be competitive as all candidates are young and looking to make their mark.
Calvert and Tafisi had their freshman seasons derailed by injuries but now have had extra months to get back to full-speed.
Daniel Heimuli, a highly regarded player who didn't play as a freshman, could be in line for a breakout season.
2021 Recruiting Targets
Bethel High School's Will Latu sits just outside of Sports Illustrated's All-American Top 99 players in the country. At 6-2, and 221 pounds, Latu looks ready to play on the college level now.
The Huskies are in the running for Josh Calvert's younger brother, Ethan. He has perhaps a higher ceiling than any of the three Calvert brothers, with yet another playing at UCLA. Ethan Calvert is an SIAA honorable mention pick.
With injuries and inconsistencies, Washington had to piece together its linebacking corps in 2019. The Huskies found two freshmen who became steady performers in Ulofoshio and Sirmon. Behind them are capable young linebackers.
Several publications list the duo among the top 3 unit in the conference. The depth at linebacker looks solid but young. Still, they are young and unproven over the course of an entire season.