Post-Spring Review: Inside Linebacker

Cort Dennison (Kim Grinolds/Dawgman.com)

While Mason Foster and Victor Aiyewa were racking up the tackles, making the Sports Center plays, and generally getting the recognition they so richly deserved for their play as senior outside linebackers, it was the man in the middle - Cort Dennison - that kept it all under control and simmering.

It seemed like Cort was in the eye of the storm, seamlessly finding his niche between Foster and Aguilar. The senior from Salt Lake City quietly had his most productive season as a Husky, coming up with 92 tackles, 8.5 of them for loss, and two sacks. It took a little time, but he took on the challenge of moving from outside linebacker to the MIK with gusto. Dennison knew he needed to get bigger, faster, and stronger to anchor the middle of Washington's linebacking corps, and he did that - earning the 2010 defensive weightlifting award at the team's post-season banquet as proof of his dedication.

Much like Hau'oli Jamora, Dennison just knows how to play the game of football, and maxes out his athleticism because of his headiness and his grit. He may not have been the biggest player coming in from the prep ranks, but Cort quickly assimilated to whatever the coaches asked him to do. That versatility, combined with his smarts, led to more and more responsibility. In 2009, when E.J. Savannah went down, Dennison earned his first start - at Notre Dame. He woke up the echoes to the tune of eight tackles, two TFL's, and one sack. He had arrived.

When Donald Butler graduated, there was a need at MIK. Dennison stepped up. He had earned the trust of the coaches to make the defensive calls, and he kept their trust by staying healthy and averaging eight tackles a game during the Pac-10 season. He was consistent in his play, and a durable good when it came to player they could count on in the crunch.

The players below Dennison on Washington's post-spring depth aren't just talented - they are supremely talented. But what they have in athleticism and desire they can't match right now with experience. Simply put, they aren't seasoned. This is no more true than with the player listed directly below Dennison on the depth - Thomas Tutogi.

Tutogi, a sophomore junior college transfer from southern California, enrolled at Washington mid-year, meaning he was able to benefit from some off-season conditioning, as well as the full 15 practices in April. At 6-feet tall and 251 pounds, physically he fits the mold of a classic middle linebacker - stout and tough as nails. Add production to the list of Tutogi's traits, as he accounted for 140 total tackles as a senior at Chula Vista (Calif.) High School, as well as 120 stops his first year at Southwestern College in San Diego.

Tutogi also racked up 17.5 tackles for loss last year at Southwestern, so the UW coaches initially tried him out at a couple of the outside linebacker spots, but it became clear by the end of spring that Tutogi needed to be in the middle of the action. He'll provide some cover for Dennison when Cort needs a blow, but his sideline-to-sideline speed will be tested. He'll need to make sure he stays clear of the trash on the field, getting washed out of plays because he's on the wrong side of the pile. It's a hard lesson to learn at that speed in the Pac-10, but Tutogi has shown at the prep and JC levels to be a competent, solid linebacker who can tackle in bunches. The Washington coaches would not have brought him in to ride pine, so expect to see No. 3 out there quite a bit patrolling the middle of the UW defense.

While Tutogi was checking out other spots along Washington's linebacking corps, it sure looked like Tim Tucker was going to be the heir apparent to Dennison, spelling him when the senior needed to catch his breath. That still may be the case, because Tucker is the one other MIK besides Cort to have any game time at all. He notched one tackle against BYU, and played in eight of Washington's 13 games in 2010, mostly on special teams. But that's how you're supposed to work your way through the ranks - earn your stripes, and the coaches' trust, by being a special teams fiend, and then push toward positional playing time. Tucker appears to be on that track, and I suspect he's not going to take being third on the MIK depth lying down. In fact, I expect the 6-foot-1, 221-pound sophomore to work even harder to move up through the ranks. As a true freshman, Tucker won the Mark Drennan Defensive Scout Squad MVP, so he's well on his way toward earning playing time as long as he continues to progress and mature on and off the field.

That goes double for Victor Burnett, the 5-foot-11, 232-pound redshirt frosh from Culver City, Calif., ranked the No. 16 MLB in the county by Scout.com coming out of high school. Big things were expected from Burnett, who chose the Huskies over scholarship offers from schools like Arizona, Arizona State, California, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon State, and West Virginia. He even enrolled mid-year, which gave him the extra benefit of spring football his true freshman season. That means Burnett already has 30 spring practices under his belt. That's pretty impressive for a player at the bottom of the depth. This upcoming summer is huge for Burnett; he needs to show the coaches (even though they can't work with him) that he's committed to doing whatever it takes to move up the charts.

With 17 starts under his belt, defensive co-Captain Dennison is the only UW middle linebacker returning in 2011 with any starting experience. To say his health holds the key to this position group thriving would be a massive understatement. Players like Tutogi, Tucker, and Burnett need some time to develop, but the Huskies probably don't have that luxury. The reality is that the MIK depth will have to play meaningful minutes, and they'll have to grow up in a hurry. Are they capable? They certainly are, but they'll have to do it with the bullets flying, so to speak, and that's never an easy thing - especially when they'll be asked to quarterback the defense the same way Dennison does.

It may be a little dramatic to say, but when looking at the MIK situation right now at Washington, it's do or die with Dennison.

Inside Linebacker
Cort Dennison (Sr.)
Thomas Tutogi (So.) OR
Tim Tucker (So.) OR
Victor Burnett (RFr.)

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