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McDonald, Kam Fab Surprise Starters for Montana Opener

Others pulled a lot more reps with the No. 1 defense but couldn't fend off those two.

Coach Jimmy Lake unveiled six first-time University of Washington starters for Saturday's season opener against Montana, making somewhat surprising game-opening selections in redshirt freshman Kamren Fabiculanan at safety and freshman Cooper McDonald at outside linebacker. 

While those two had always been in the running for the top jobs, they didn't pull as many practice reps as their competitors with the No. 1 defense early on in fall camp. Others at their positions drew longer looks, maybe for the coaches to be absolutely sure in ruling them out as first-teamers.

Fabiculanan will open at safety alongside sophomore Julius Irvin, another first-time starter. They'll team in the newly reconfigured Husky secondary that features yet another new face in Oklahoma transfer Bookie Radley-Hiles, Elijah Molden's replacement starter at nickelback.

The promotions for Fabiculanan and Irvin effectively will force former safety starters Cameron Williams, Asa Turner and Alex Cook, who collectively have 20 career UW starts, to come off the bench in order to get on the field on game day. 

Other new Husky starters for the Montana game are 6-foot-8, 330-pound redshirt freshman Julius Buelow at left offensive guard, with the big Hawaiian beating out returning starter Ulumoo Ale and Nate Kalepo; and Texas Tech transfer Ja'Lynn Polk at wide receiver, replacing the injured Jalen McMillan and outplaying Taj Davis and Michigan transfer Giles Jackson.

One position remains up for grabs: Sophomore Richard Newton and redshirt freshman Cam Davis, neither of whom have been a starter, are listed as co-starters at running back, leaving that position uncertain to outsiders until the opening kickoff.  

The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Fabiculanan from Camarillo, California, has one previous Husky game appearance, picking up 4 tackles in the blowout win over Arizona in 2020. He previously spent most of his fall camp reps in the nickelback competition with Radley-Hiles, though it's always been known he clearly can play multiple positions. 

"We've been able to trust him with the calls, he's been in the right position, he's tackled well, been where he's supposed to be, made plays on the football," Lake said of the player known as "Kam Fab." "You know he's been here for a couple of years and it's been fun to watch his progression."

Irvin, son of legendary NFL cornerback Leroy Irvin, was with the No. 1 defense more than any other player in camp, often times alongside sophomore Dominique Hampton, who had a positive spring practice but remains a back-up.

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McDonald, a 6-foot-3, 245-pound Texan, won the intense Husky sweepstakes to replace the injured and highly-decorated Zion Tupuola-Fetui, an All-Pac-12 player who is recovering from an Achilles tendon injury and not expected back until midseason at the earliest. McDonald appeared as a reserve in three of the four games held in 2020 and did well in his brief outings.

"You know last year when I mentioned the game did not seem too big for him?" Lake said. "He was out there as a true freshman. He was out there in practice, running with the 1's. You could just see the look in his eye that he was ready to play some big-time football. And now he's a better player than he was last year."

Taking nothing away from McDonald, redshirt freshman Bralen Trice appeared to make a strong bid for the ZTF's spot, spending more time with the No. 1 defense than all of the others early on. Former 5-star recruit and freshman Sav'ell Smalls was heavily in the mix, too.

"All of those guys are going to play," Lake said. "We're going to give a bunch of guys opportunity, especially at outside linebacker."

Buelow made his move for a starting job in the past two weeks and broke up the continuity of all five UW starters returning by making the 6-foot-6, 355-pound Ale a reserve for now.

"We're extremely veteran, talented and deep, very deep," Lake said of his offensive line. "That's definitely a strengh of ours. We've added pieces to our line, as well."

Polk comes to the Huskies after starting 7 games as a true freshman at Texas Tech in 2020 and catching 28 passes for 264 yards and a pair of scores. Davis, who opted out last season, made a strong bid for the job after catching 13 passes in a recent scrimmage. Polk, however, impressed with his ability to catch balls in traffic and his overall work ethic.

"The thing I love about him is the mentality he brings every day to practice," Lake said. 

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