Washington linebacker Brandon Wellington in action against Hawaii on Sept. 14, 2019, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Washington linebacker Brandon Wellington in action against Hawaii on Sept. 14, 2019, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Washingtoton football has hole in middle of defense

The Huskies have a problem at inside linebacker due to attrition, transfers and inconsistent play.

SEATTLE — The Washington Huskies have a depth problem in the middle of their defense.

That’s what happens when Ben Burr-Kirven — the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year — runs out of eligibility. It’s what happens when senior D.J. Beavers medically retires. It’s what happens when would-be starter Milo Eifler transfers to Illinois. It’s what happens when five-star prospect Ale Kaho signs with UW, then bolts to Alabama. It’s what happens when you don’t sign any inside linebackers in the 2017 class. It’s what happens when early enrollee Josh Calvert suffers a season-ending injury in fall camp.

And when all of those things happen, you get an unfortunate hole in the middle of the Husky defense.

“It’s interesting, because we’ve got two old guys and a bunch of young guys,” UW coach Chris Petersen said Monday of the depth at inside linebacker. “That kind of happens through attrition, and guys don’t make it here, D.J. Beavers medically retiring and all those things. That’s part of the game. A lot of times you look at positions, and you’re always a year or two in advance when you’re trying to build your group. Each coach is responsible for their group and what it looks like.

“Every now and again you get thrown a curveball where it’s like, ‘This guy didn’t make it. This guy got medically retired. This guy isn’t quite as good as we thought.’ Whatever it is, you can get yourself in a (difficult) position depth-wise.”

Indeed, the 5-4 Huskies find themselves in a difficult position. Seniors Brandon Wellington and Kyler Manu have not dazzled in their first seasons as full-time starters. Redshirt freshmen contributors Jackson Sirmon and M.J. Tafisi (who is still recovering from a significant stinger against Arizona) have produced inconsistent results in relief. Four scholarship freshmen — Calvert, Daniel Heimuli, Miki Ah You and Alphonzo Tuputala — are redshirting the season.

UW linebackers coach Bob Gregory said last week that redshirt sophomore Ariel Ngata, who slid from the outside to an inside spot in the middle of the season, is “doing OK. He needs to take another step. He’s not completely comfortable in there, but he’s getting better.”

The next in line — at least, last week — was 6-foot, 231-pound walk-on Edefuan Ulofoshio. The redshirt freshman played significant snaps on the second level in Washington’s 33-28 loss to Utah — most notably forcing a third-quarter fumble, and failing to slow running back Zack Moss on a 9-yard touchdown catch. He finished with two tackles and the forced fumble in defeat, and has a total of 11 tackles this season.

But might there be something to build on? Unfortunately for Husky fans, there aren’t too many other options.

“He seems to make plays, is why he’s earned (more playing time),” Petersen said of Ulofoshio. “He’s still a young player. He’s still learning that position, inside (linebacker). In high school, he was kind of on the outside. When you put him in there, he seems to kind of do some things — make plays. He was one of the guys that caused a fumble. He’s caused a fumble on a kickoff (last season).

“We’re just trying to force the issue a little bit and see if he can do more.”

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