SEATTLE — December is a month for college football coaches to sharpen their sales pitches and Washington might have a good one for potential recruits.
For any prep linebackers considering UW, the Huskies’ coaching staff can point to the trio of Tevis Bartlett, Keishawn Bierria and Ben Burr-Kirven.
They’re all starters but took different paths to get there. Bartlett and Burr-Kirven worked their way up through the depth chart via specials teams while Bierria was playing regularly as a freshman, even starting four games.
Now they form the backbone of the No. 5 defense in the nation. And more importantly, they are examples of UW’s development model.
“We’ve had a really good group there with some good depth,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said about his linebackers. “I think (linebackers coach Bob) Gregory has done a nice job of playing them all and when they get their reps, they make them count.
“It’s a really competitive group. They have played a high level.”
The genesis for UW’s successful core started in 2015.
At the time, Bierria was coming off a productive freshman season in 2014, having played in all 14 games. Bartlett and Burr-Kirven were part of a group of five linebackers Petersen and his staff signed that year.
The next two years would be instrumental for UW when it came to Bartlett, Bierria and Burr-Kirven.
Bierria was a proven and trusted starter who became a calming presence. The outside linebacker guided the Huskies when they lost inside linebacker Azeem Victor to a season-ending knee injury in 2016.
As for Bartlett and Burr-Kirven, they gradually assimilated into the college game and the Huskies’ scheme. They initially logged reps on special teams and soon received more playing time on defense.
This all led to UW having some much-needed reliability going into the 2017 season.
UW lost one starter in Psalm Wooching to graduation. Victor, who fully recovered from his injury, was suspended to start the season and was indefinitely removed from the team later in the year after a DUI arrest.
DJ Beavers, who filled in for Victor at the end of the 2016 season, missed the start of the year after getting hurt in fall camp. That allowed Burr-Kirven a chance to show what he could do.
He recorded a game-high 11 tackles in the Huskies’ opening win over Rutgers. Heading into the Fiesta Bowl, Burr-Kirven leads the Huskies in tackles with 79.
“From my point of view, Ben came out that first game and said, ‘I don’t care what the moment is, whatever, I’m going to go get it,’” Bartlett said. “I think he had 10 tackles in the first game … For me, it was like, ‘I want to get in there and I want to get to work.’
“But it’s also like, ‘I’m new to this too.’”
Each one brought something to the landscape.
The group’s most experienced member is Bierria, a senior who knows UW’s scheme inside and out. Plus, it also helped he had a blend of size and speed too. He’s fifth on the team with 49 tackles and leads it with two fumble recoveries
Bartlett, who is 6-foot-2 and 234 pounds, is the biggest member of the group. He has the size to cover bigger targets underneath but maintained the quickness to stop the run.
And he’s got a knack for big plays. Bartlett has a team-high 12 tackles for loss, including four sacks and two interceptions.
Burr-Kirven, a former high school track champion, used his speed to be everywhere at once.
“I think it all starts with communication,” Burr-Kirven said. “We all do a really good job of talking to each other in the film room, on the field, all those sorts of things.
“I think its also just familiarity. We’ve been together for three years now, so, we know what the other guys are doing. We know each other well, we can play together well.”
With Bartlett and Burr-Kirven serving as proven players, it helps UW going into next season.
The Huskies lose three linebackers to graduation and currently have three committed for next season.
UW, in total, could have at least 15 or so scholarship or non-scholarship linebackers on its roster.
And at the heart of it all are the former novices, who’ve now become veterans.
“I think its just something that we always talked about,” Bartlett said. “Just working to get better every day and delivering at practice and focusing on the little things and fundamentals.
“It’s all the cliches everybody says but here, we take it to heart.”