SEATTLE — Very few people knew about Ben Burr-Kirven until he led the Washington Huskies in tackles. And his own teammates didn’t even recognize him at the team’s first offseason meeting.
The linebacker, who led UW with 84 tackles last season, is known for his long-flowing golden hair and dark blonde beard. Or at least he was until he decided to get a haircut and a shave.
“We came back after the bowl game. We had a team meeting to go over grades,” said Burr-Kirven, a two-time Academic All-Pac-12 first team member. “People didn’t recognize me. They thought I was a team manager or something. They were walking by me and not realizing it was me.
“So, they made me stand up in front of the whole team in the meeting just so everyone could get a good look at me and get used to the new appearance.”
Don’t worry. The clean-shaven Burr-Kirven still looks like the player who came out of nowhere to unseat then-star senior linebacker Azeem Victor and finish with more tackles last season than he had in his first two campaigns combined.
Burr-Kirven’s final spring camp is much like his first in that it’s about gradual progression. He’s a guaranteed starter yet still treats practices as if he’s a recruit trying to grab the coaching staff’s attention. Look at what he did Wednesday: Burr-Kirven had six tackles and a sack during 11-on-11 sequences.
The tackles are how the outside world measures Burr-Kirven’s worth. Those within the Huskies’ setup, however, know his contributions go well beyond statistics.
“He’s hit the ground running since he got here as a true freshman,” Huskies outside linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said. “You could just tell with his effort. He plays with unbelievable effort. Practices with unbelievable effort. Then, the guy is a sharp kid. He was able to pick up stuff fast and if he made a mistake, he learned from it and moved on.”
He was a two-way star at Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton, California. As a junior, he amassed 204 tackles while running for 461 yards and 11 touchdowns. Burr-Kirven hurt his leg while playing running track and missed the first four games of his senior season. Limited, he still rushed for 862 yards and 18 TDs while making 116 tackles and two interceptions.
UW’s recruitment of Burr-Kirven added to a 2014 class that was highlighted by four-star tackle Trey Adams, four-star quarterback Jake Browning and three-star running back Myles Gaskin. Of the 28 players the Huskies added that year, 21 of them are still on a roster that’s expected to challenge for the Pac-12 title and the College Football Playoff.
Burr-Kirven was forced to play immediately. He had 31 tackles and a sack. He saw time in 12 games with most of his time coming on special teams, and he finished the campaign as the winner of the team’s MVP in that area.
“I didn’t expect to play as a true freshman. I thought I’d spend the year in the weight room,” Burr-Kirven said. “The way it worked out, I had to play. Coming off that, I had some good confidence knowing they believed I had the ability to play that early.”
Burr-Kirven said he used his first spring camp to show Huskies coach Chris Petersen and his assistants that he’s not just “the freshman anymore” and wanted to take the next step.
He bulked up from being 201 pounds to 214 to start the next season. But Burr-Kirven also felt the need to learn the team’s playbook.
Not as in where he needed to be. But as in he wanted to know where everyone else needed to be so he had a greater understanding for how all the moving pieces worked.
“Coming out of high school, that first year, you kinda know the playbook but you really don’t know the playbook until a full year here,” he said. “I knew my position. But I really just knew my position. As you grow, you learn here’s what the D-Line is doing and how does that affect me. What are the DB’s doing? It’s that kind of stuff.”
Burr-Kirven played in every game during UW’s run to the CFP semifinal in 2016. He increased his tackle total to 44, but entered the following spring camp with the mentality of becoming a starter.
He did that by notching eight starts while playing in every game. It also led to him being named an All-Pac-12 second team selection.
Burr-Kirven now enters his final year as one of the most notable presences on a defense that returns nine starters and could come away with a third straight season of more than 10 wins.
“Spring ball is important for everyone,” he said. “Whether it’s your first spring … or someone who has been here for five years. Everyone has something they can work on.”