SEATTLE — Back when Washington signed its 2015 recruiting class, Huskies coach Chris Petersen and his staff knew they had some cornerstone pieces.
It’s a class which featured left guard Trey Adams, linebacker Tevis Bartlett, quarterback Jake Browning, tailback Myles Gaskin and defensive back Austin Joyner to name a few.
Add inside linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven to the list of standouts who’ve come from that group. In three years, he’s gradually increased his standing from being a special teams player to becoming the Huskies’ leading tackler this season.
“It’s been pretty surreal,” Burr-Kirven said of the past three years. “I played as a true freshman. Mostly did special teams, a little bit of defense. Last year, the same kind of thing.
“I think this year just a credit to the coaching, I’ve been able to take the next step.”
UW (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) has one of the nation’s best defenses. The Huskies are second in total defense, second against the run and eighth against the pass.
And the person at the heart of it all? It’s been the undersized Californian who has added nearly 30 pounds of muscle while arguably sporting the most luscious beard-hair combo on the entire roster.
Burr-Kirven — flowing blonde locks and all —has a team-high 30 unassisted tackles and 49 in all.
Exactly how did he arrive at this point?
He says the coaching he’s received has led to the game slowing down. It’s a bit of a funny statement given the comments made about his speed.
Joyner, a Marysville Pilchuck alum, was one of a few players who said Tuesday that Burr-Kirven is the team’s fastest linebacker.
Upon hearing Joyner’s statement, Bartlett smiled before sharing his opinion.
“Ben, if he’s not the fastest (linebacker), he’s in the top two or three,” Bartlett said. “I think he probably is the fastest linebacker we have. I think when you get pulling guards coming up and Ben just runs by them.
“That changes things in where you’re trying to block.”
Burr-Kirven does fit the model of the prototypical Petersen recruit.
Recruiting services considered him a three-star prospect with his size being a concern. He was listed at 6-feet and 196 pounds during his senior year of high school.
“Some people think (his size) but it hasn’t bothered me,” said Burr-Kirven, who is now 222 pounds. “I think you get used to hearing that and it’s like ‘Alright. I’ll prove you wrong.’
“I think it’s been a mentality I’ve had since I started doing the recruiting stuff.”
UW’s staff noticed his other attributes. Burr-Kirven was something of a phenom at Atherton (Calif.) Sacred Heart Prep. He recorded 136 solo tackles and 204 total tackles as a junior and led Sacred Heart to its first Northern California Division III title.
As a senior, he finished 116 total tackles and was named the Division III State Player of the Year. He was also a finalist for California’s Mr. Football.
He did all that while missing the first half of the football season with an Achilles tendon injury he picked up during track.
“He’s got great football instincts. He’s very natural in the box,” Huskies linebackers and special teams coach Bob Gregory said. “He knows when he has to go fast. He knows when he has to go slow and is a really, really smart football player.”
To Gregory’s point about Burr-Kirven’s intelligence, he was also offered by Harvard, Northwestern and Princeton.
Burr-Kirven played 12 games as freshman and finished with 34 tackles. Most of those stops came on special teams.
A year later, he played in 16 games and amassed 44 tackles.
“He played last year a lot and made a lot of plays last year,” Gregory said. “Played as a true freshman. Any time we play guys as a true freshmen, we think they can handle it and he could certainly handle it.
“We all knew this year was going to be a breakout year for Ben.”
Burr-Kirven said every college football player enters their freshman year wanting to play immediately. He was expecting to take a redshirt and use his first season at UW to develop.
He said the team’s depth in 2015 resulted in him having to play which he considered to be a beneficial part of his development.
“I think it starts in the film room with Coach Gregory,” he said. “We spend a lot of time in there, grinding away at the tape, knowing what’s going to come at us.”
Burr-Kirven also gives the Huskies flexibility.
His performances have allowed the coaching staff to move star senior linebacker Azeem Victor into different roles which has only fortified the defense.
Sophomore cornerback Myles Bryant said Burr-Kirven is the “unsung hero” of the defense.
“He’s always around the ball,” Bryant said. “He’s always going for the ball, whether it’s stripping it or trying to tip it or pick the ball and he’s just a big part of this defense.”