SEATTLE — Washington linebackers coach Bob Gregory had a pretty good idea he inherited a special group when the new coaching staff took over eight months ago.
Still, it became even more apparent Monday during the team’s closed intrasquad scrimmage, which was the first serious audition before the Huskies’ Aug. 30 opener at Hawaii.
The first play resulted in a defensive penalty, but the next snap resulted in an interception returned for a touchdown by linebacker Shaq Thompson. Soon after, linebacker Travis Feeney picked up a fumble and raced in for another score on a day in which the defense created four turnovers.
Gregory said he was pleased with the intensity of the scrimmage, while noting quarterbacks, who normally wear red no-contact jerseys, were live for more than 100 plays, which meant they could be sacked, tackled and hit like any other player. He also said middle linebacker John Timu and Hau’oli Kikaha, the former UW defensive end who is listed as a “Buck” outside linebacker, performed well.
“It’s always good when you create turnovers and start out a scrimmage like Shaq did with an interception return for a touchdown,” Gregory said. “I don’t think any of us likes seeing them move the ball up and down the field a little bit. We played pretty well in the red zone.
“The linebackers as a whole played pretty decent, but we’ve got a long way to improve, there’s no doubt about it.”
And yet through 10 days of football camp, UW’s linebackers quartet looks as if it’s ready to pick up where it left off last season.
Modesty may have prevented Thompson from saying it — at least publicly — but the linebackers are the rock stars on a star-studded defense that could potentially have as many as five players (Thompson, Kikaha, cornerback Marcus Peters, nose tackle Danny Shelton and possibly Timu) selected in the NFL draft next year.
“I’m not going to say we’re the rock stars, but we will bring energy if there’s no energy,” Thompson said. “Whether it’s mixing it up with the offensive linemen and getting them kind of mad and getting a little hostility going.
“We got guys who show up and we’re here to practice.”
Thompson, Timu and Kikaha finished second (78), third (77) and fourth (70) on Washington last season in tackles. Feeney was tied for eighth at 55.
Kikaha had 13 sacks, second most in the Pac-12, and his 45 combined quarterback hurries and knockdowns were tied for the most in the nation, according to STATS, LLC.
The Huskies were fourth in the Pac-12 in points allowed (22.8 points), fifth in turnovers (23) and sixth in total defense (388.5 yards).
“One area, I guess, where you can say we struggled in was getting interceptions,” said Timu while noting the linebackers accounted for just three of UW’s 16 picks last season. “And this year creating turnovers is such a big emphasis so we’re working on that. … We can get better tackling because at the end of the day, we have to make tackles as a group for the defense to be successful.”
Gregory, the former Boise State linebackers coach who was defensive coordinator at California (2002-09), said he didn’t have any preconceived ideas when he arrived. So far, he likes what he sees.
On Timu, a 6-1, 246-pound senior: “A ton of experience. Very smart player. Very instinctual.”
On Thompson, a 6-1, 228-pound junior: “Very athletic. Doesn’t have as much experience as John does, but he can make up for a lot of stuff just with his athletic ability.”
On Feeney, a 6-4, 218-pound junior: “Long-bodied type that we’re looking for on the outside. Has the ability to strike and separate from blockers and get to the football.”
On Kikaha, a 6-3, 246-pound junior: “I don’t work a lot with Hau’oli. He’s kind of like our Sam linebacker. But he’s obviously a tremendous player.”
Thompson is considered a first-round pick if he decides to leave Washington early and enter the 2015 draft. CBSSports.com projects Kikaha will be taken in the second round next year while Timu is believed to be a late-round choice if taken.
The depth at linebacker is somewhat of a concern given the disparity in talent between the starters and backups. However, Gregory said redshirt freshman Keishawn Bierria has been impressive lately while junior Scott Lawyer continues to progress.
However, the success of the UW defense likely hinges on the starting linebackers.
“I don’t want to hype us or anything like that, but we’ll be a pretty good defense once we get going,” he said. “Once we have consistency and trust, I don’t think anything will get by us.”