Washington Huskies

‘Who’s up next?’ Huskies turn to youngsters after season-ending injury to Azeem Victor

DJ Beavers (clockwise from lower left), Shane Bowman, Benning Potoa’e, and Ben Burr-Kirven of University of Washington stop running back Josh Hicks of Rutgers in the season opening football game at Husky Stadium in Seattle, September 3, 2016. UW beat Rutgers, 48-13.
DJ Beavers (clockwise from lower left), Shane Bowman, Benning Potoa’e, and Ben Burr-Kirven of University of Washington stop running back Josh Hicks of Rutgers in the season opening football game at Husky Stadium in Seattle, September 3, 2016. UW beat Rutgers, 48-13. phaley@thenewstribune.com

There was little time for Keishawn Bierria to wallow.

He had just seen his teammate and close friend, Azeem Victor, carted off the field with what turned out to be a fractured right leg. This upset him. But Bierria, the Washington Huskies fourth-year junior linebacker, quickly turned his thoughts to a more pressing matter: “Who’s up next?”

That would be redshirt freshman DJ Beavers, who replaced Victor during Saturday’s 26-13 loss to USC and finished with a career-high six tackles.

Bierria’s advice to the youngster?

“I just said, ‘Let’s (expletive) go,” Bierria said.

They have no choice. Victor almost certainly will not return this season, though he was fortunate to only damage the bone in his right leg and not the soft tissue, meaning recovery shouldn’t be a long-term process.

But the Huskies have two more regular-season games to play — Saturday against Arizona State and the Apple Cup next Friday at Washington State — and they will play them with a defense now thinned by injuries at two critical positions.

First, it was outside linebacker Joe Mathis, who still leads the team with five sacks. He’s out with a foot injury. And Victor’s absence means the Huskies no longer have their ultra-productive, 6-foot-3, 230-pound intimidator in the middle of their front seven.

“Next man up” works fine as a cliché used to prevent players from dwelling upon non-ideal circumstances, but it doesn’t change the fact that Victor is, in many ways, irreplaceable. He doesn’t just lead UW in tackles. The speed and violence with which he plays the game has come to define the Huskies’ defense during their new era of respectability. Onlookers who marvel at how hard the Huskies hit are often doing so because of something they saw Victor do.

“You can never really replace a guy like that in terms of everything he’s capable of doing,” senior defensive back Kevin King said. “But I think DJ’s going to get in there and do his job, so I’m excited to see him.”

It helps that the Huskies have won several blowouts this season, which allowed them to put backups and third-stringers into the game to earn valuable repetitions. Beavers, though, plays regularly even in close games. UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski always rotates personnel and lets the team’s second-stringers play a handful of series each week.

So Beavers has already appeared in eight games this season and totaled 21 tackles. A 6-foot, 216-pound native of Culver City, California, Beavers starred at linebacker during a decorated prep career at Crespi Carmelite High School, where he made 95 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and six sacks during his senior season.

Beavers chose the Huskies over reported offers from California, Nebraska, Miami, Wisconsin and others, according to his Scout.com profile. He redshirted last season but played his way into the depth chart this year during spring and fall practices.

“Very smart. Intelligent. He plays pretty fast,” Bierria said of Beavers, who, despite being a second-year player, remains unavailable for interviews. “As far as that, he just does his job. He does it well. He’s stepping up to a big role.”

Against USC, Kwiatkowski said, “DJ did well. Any time you lose a guy it’s always a downer and a bummer, but going out there, it was an opportunity he made the most out of. (We) expect him to go out there and perform at a high level.”

True freshman Brandon Wellington, the former Eastside Catholic star, is listed behind Beavers on the depth chart, and sophomore Ben Burr-Kirven will likely see more playing time, too.

“No one ever wants to get a position this way,” Kwiatkowski said, “but it is what it is, and now it’s their opportunity to go out there and show what (they) can do.”

Christian Caple: 253-597-8437, @ChristianCaple

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