SEATTLE — Young football players at the University of Washington who are looking for inspiration this time of year could do worse than watching sophomore linebacker Cort Dennison.
This time last spring, Dennison was one of those UW players who appeared to be a year or two away from making any major contributions to the program. Now he’s a symbol of how quickly things can change.
The junior-to-be has all but wrapped up the starting middle linebacker job that senior Donald Butler held last fall. He’s emerged as one of the leaders of an up-and-coming defense and could be one of the biggest keys to the Huskies’ success come the fall.
As Dennison has proven over the past 12 months, it’s OK to dream the impossible dream.
“I don’t really think anything’s unrealistic,” Dennison said last week, as the Huskies continued spring practices. “You’ve got to out and do the best you can. Just work hard, and hopefully good things will happen to you. That’s what happened to me last year.”
As a redshirt freshman in 2008, Dennison saw some time on special teams but was buried on the Huskies’ defensive depth chart. Things didn’t look much more promising for his sophomore season when Dennison was likely to be behind veterans with starting experience like Donald Butler, E.J. Savannah, Mason Foster, Joshua Gage and Trenton Tuiasosopo — not to mention a slew of more-heralded recruits like Matt Houston and Kurt Mangum.
But when new coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff took over in January 2009, promising to give everyone a clean slate, Dennison took them for their word. And then he went out and made them live up to it.
Dennison steadily moved up the depth chart through spring and fall practices, earning playing time as a reserve when the 2009 season opened. By the fifth game of the season, after Savannah hurt his hand, Dennison was in the starting lineup for the first time when the Huskies traveled to Notre Dame.
Dennison ended up starting five games at weakside linebacker last season, displaying an ability to take on blockers and a knack for picking up the defense along the way. After Butler played his final game, Dennison was handed the all-important job of starting middle linebacker heading into the spring.
“He’s really, really smart,” Sarkisian said of why Dennison has emerged as the likely starter along with Foster and a still-to-be-determined player at the other outside linebacker spot. “He gets guys lined up. And then at the point of attack, he’s a physical guy. He’s a tough-minded, hard-nosed, blue-collar guy.”
There was a time when few people believed Dennison, a native of Salt Lake City, might not be good enough to play Division I football. UW, Washington State, Stanford and Army were the only out-of-state schools to show much interest, while Utah and Brigham Young University wanted him only as an invited walk-on.
Dennison opted to join Tyrone Willingham’s UW program, only to go through a coaching change after his second season. The hiring of Sarkisian provided a new opportunity for Dennison, who didn’t look at the projected depth charts or believe those who thought he was still a ways from being a major contributor.
“I try not to look at any situation negatively,” he said of his status heading into last spring. “If you look at a situation negatively, your results are going to follow. I try to come out and put everything in a positive mindset.
“Last year, it might’ve been harder for me than it was for some other people, but I just looked at it as a challenge. I’m a competitor, and I love challenges.”
Dennison’s latest challenge will be leading a defense that has a long way to go to catch up to the Huskies’ high-octane offense. And his first official chance to show what he can do as a middle linebacker is just five months away — in his home state of Utah.
When BYU hosts the Huskies on Sept. 4, he promises to be ready.
“I’ve had this game circled on my calendar since we got here,” the 2006 graduate of Salt Lake City’s Judge Memorial High School said. “(BYU is) a great team, great tradition, and I’ve got some friends on that team. It should be fun. I’m really looking forward to it.”
And as for the Cougars’ decision not to offer Dennison a scholarship? He hasn’t forgotten that, either.
“They made their choices, and you’ve got to live with them,” he said last week. “I’m happy I ended up here, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Things happen for a reason. I’m surely blessed and fortunate to be where I am.”