SEATTLE — There are times when it feels like Cort Dennison has been the University of Washington’s starting middle linebacker all his life. The way the junior struts around the practice field and commands a huddle reminds even a casual observer who is in charge of the UW defense.
There are also times when strong-side linebacker Victor Aiyewa looks like such a natural at the position that it seems like it’s what he was born to do. The most recent one came earlier this week, when the 219-pound Aiyewa met 214-pound running back Chris Polk head-on in a practice drill and drove him to the ground before glaring at the UW sideline with one of those don’t-come-here shakes of the head.
The truth of the matter is that Dennison has yet to play a single game at middle linebacker, as hard as that is to believe. And as for Aiyewa, well, he hasn’t even taken an official snap as a linebacker yet.
UW’s linebacking corps, which was considered the strength of the defense last season, has a lot of uncertainty as the Huskies begin the 10-day countdown toward the 2010 season opener at BYU.
But after the way Dennison has taken command of the defense, and Aiyewa has seamlessly made the transition from his natural position of safety, the Huskies feel just as confident about their linebackers as they did this time last year — when they had three starters coming back.
Not even senior Mason Foster, who is the one returning full-time starter on the unit, has concerns about the linebacking corps this year.
“Not at all,” Foster said Tuesday morning. “Cort has played a lot of games. He came in last year and played a lot of games for (injured starter) E.J. Savannah, like he wasn’t missing. Victor Aiyewa has played a lot at safety, and made a lot of plays at strong safety, so you know he can play.”
Dennison started five games as a sophomore last season, but all of them were at Savannah’s spot on the outside. Aiyewa started two games, both at safety.
Even Foster, who has started 27 consecutive games for the Huskies, is making a position change. He played strong-side linebacker last season but will move back to the weak side, where he started 12 games as a sophomore in 2008.
“Being a senior, I feel like moving back to Will (weak side) will give me a chance to run around and have an effect on the game,” said Foster, who lined up across from opposing tight ends last year but will now have more freedom on the weak side.
Dennison has taken on his position change with open arms, tackling the new role like an oncoming running back. The 6-foot-1, 236-pound junior has already helped fill some of the leadership void left by the graduation of star senior Donald Butler, and the Huskies believe that he’ll be able to play at a similar level.
“Donald was arguably the best linebacker in the Pac-10 last year, but Cort is a great leader and (has) off-the-charts Football Intelligence; his FBI is really good,” linebackers coach Mike Cox said. “He can tell you what most guys do on the field and that’s a real positive for him. And that’s what allows him to play fast, because he knows what he’s doing.”
Despite Dennison’s inexperience at the middle linebacker position, the only big question regarding him this week seems to involve a sore left knee. It kept Dennison off the practice field Monday and Tuesday but doesn’t appear to put him in jeopardy of missing any of the regular season.
“He’s fine,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said Tuesday. “He wants to practice. We’re the ones being preventative to get that thing healthy. He wants to (practice), and he can go. If we were playing (Tuesday), we’d be fine.”
The biggest unknown among UW’s starting linebackers appears to be at the strong-side position, mainly because of the transition Aiyewa had to make coming from safety. The 6-foot-1, 219-pound senior is still undersized for a linebacker, but Aiyewa was one of the first players mentioned as a possible fill-in for Savannah’s starting job in the spring.
“He was a physical-type player as a safety, and he just fit the profile,” Cox said, “and with his position, there are some similarities to what he did at strong safety. So it was kind of a natural fit for him.”
Entering training camp, Sarkisian admitted that Aiyewa’s transition was one of the bigger questions regarding the UW defense. Less than three weeks later, Sarkisian doesn’t seem nearly as concerned.
“Victor Aiyewa’s really shown up,” he said this week. “I’ve been impressed with him. That move from safety to ‘backer for some guys isn’t easy, but he’s done a nice job.”
UW’s linebacking corps has had such a strong camp that the coaches find themselves forgetting how much change the unit has been through.
“I think Cort, Mason and Victor have taken a couple of strides in the right direction the past (week) and they’re doing a solid job,” Cox said. “Now it’s just about developing the depth behind them and getting the younger guys up to speed and playing with the same intensity and speed of the first guys.”
Backup quarterback Keith Price took all the snaps with the No. 1 offense during Tuesday night’s practice. Sarkisian said he was just giving starter Jake Locker a day off. … Left tackle Senio Kelemete returned to practice on Tuesday after missing most of the previous week with an ankle sprain. Safety Taz Stevenson (shoulder) was also practicing Tuesday. … Wide receiver James Johnson continues to rest a sprained ankle, but Sarkisian is hoping he’ll be back at practice later this week. “For a receiver, in the passing game with the timing with the quarterback, that’s a little bit concerning,” Sarkisian said. “So hopefully we get him back here in the next couple of days.” … Foster limped off the field twice Tuesday night with an apparent knee injury, but he returned to action both times and finished the session without obvious limitation. … With Dennison watching from the sideline Tuesday night, true freshman Garret Gilliland took all the snaps with the No. 1 defense. Sarkisian said earlier in the day that the coaches would continue to look at several players there. … Freshman running back Deontae Cooper (torn ACL) was off crutches Tuesday.