Back in early August, any conversation about Washington’s defense involved senior linebacker Azeem Victor.
Victor was coming off a leg injury but was still good enough to be a first-team All-Pac 12 selection. The expectation was a healthy Victor was only going to make Washington’s defense much more fierce.
Move ahead to November. The Huskies (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) have the No. 1 defense in college football due in some part to its linebackers. It’s led to another discussion about Victor and how UW is trying to find ways to get him on the field.
“We do for sure,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said about trying to get Azeem more involved. “We’re working hard to try to see if we can get him some reps out there and use his athleticism and football skills.”
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Victor’s struggles are less of an indictment on him but more of a statement about how deep the Huskies are at linebacker.
Take how well the group played in UW’s 38-3 win over Oregon last Saturday at Husky Stadium.
Ben Burr-Kirven, who has replaced Victor at middle linebacker, once again showed why he’s gained trust from the coaching staff. The observant junior led the Huskies with 10 tackles and recorded the defense’s only pass breakup.
Tevis Bartlett and Keishawn Bierria reinforced why playing Victor on the outside won’t work either. Bartlett, who had seven tackles, had one of the team’s two turnovers when he grabbed an interception in the fourth quarter.
Bierria was second on the team with eight tackles.
“From watching it up there, it’s how hard we played,” Huskies defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said of the linebackers Saturday. “We want to play real physical football and it looked like those guys were banging down there.”
Oregon opened the game with a 15-play, 62-yard drive which ended with a field goal.
At first glance, it appeared the Ducks found something to keep the Huskies’ defense guessing. Turns out, it was just an illusion.
The Huskies defense shutout the Ducks for the rest of the game. Oregon only amassed 247 yards and could never get the explosive play to kickstart the offense.
Oregon’s biggest play was a 19-yard run by Royce Freeman.
“Our coaching staff does a great job. They do a great job, week-to-week, making sure we understand what this offense wants to do,” Bierria said Saturday. “We all watch film consistently. We all write down what we watch. We share things, we communicate and this team is just special.
“We got a lot of guys who are just trying to push themselves to always be better. That makes us a great unit.”
Burr-Kirven leads UW with 59 tackles while Bartlett is sixth with 33 but leads the team with 10 tackles for loss of 45 yards, which is also a team-high. Bierria’s 32 tackles are seventh on the team.
Victor, who has 28 tackles, recorded one against the Ducks. Ten of those tackles came in a win against Colorado.
Rated by Rivals as a three-star prospect, Victor sat in 2013 but showed promise when he was named the special teams scout squad’s most valuable player.
In 2014, he had five tackles in 12 games before exploding for 95 tackles in 13 games in 2015. The 2016 campaign was looking strong for Victor.
His best performance came when he picked up 16 tackles in a win over Utah. Victor was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week. He was also named the Walter Camp Foundation National Player of the Week.
Victor suffered a season-ending injury against Southern California but entered 2017 with the expectation of having another stellar year.
There’s still time he could have a good season but it might have to come in an unconventional manner. UW has experimented with Victor at different positions in an attempt to utilize one of its most gifted players.
“It’s amazing. Everything is so much more complicated than you think,” Petersen said of moving Victor around. “You can’t just line a guy up out there and we talked about this with some special teams things. ... Certainly on offense or defense at a different position, so much more there.
“He’s been making some progress at that stuff and we do want to and our hope is to get him more reps out there for sure.”
Ryan S. Clark: @ryan_s_clark