They lost the game, but with a promising defensive performance against No. 23 Boise State in their wake, it was difficult for Washington Huskies nose tackle Elijah Qualls to suppress his excitement about what the rest of this season might hold.
Especially when he was asked about third-year sophomore middle linebacker Azeem Victor, who led the team with 14 tackles, 11 of them solo, many of them punishing.
“I’m telling you,” Qualls said in Boise on Friday night, “dude’s a beast, man. He’s going to be one of the best linebackers in the country, if not the best.”
Hyperbole aside, it was impossible to watch the Huskies’ defense Friday night and not notice Victor, who made his first collegiate start after spending his redshirt freshman season as a special-teams contributor.
But the graduation of senior middle linebacker John Timu presented an opportunity, and Victor, a model of intimidation at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, seized it with a strong spring and fall camp.
Through one game — sample sizes don’t get much smaller, of course — he appears to be the kind of imposing, physical middle linebacker the Huskies hoped for, always around the ball, thirsting for contact.
And it’s what they expected, if quietly so.
“We really felt strongly like he was going to be a very good player right out of the gate,” coach Chris Petersen said. “He’s done too many good things. His game has just really jumped. You talk about one of those young guys that you go, ‘Wow, OK, this guy, he’s going to do something, but we don’t need to talk a whole lot about it until he at least puts something on tape,’ and so he did.”
A native of Compton, California, Victor first played for Lynnwood High School in California before transferring to Pomona High as a senior, where he made the transition from edge rusher to linebacker.
He originally committed to San Diego State but chose UW after coach Steve Sarkisian and staff offered in October 2012. His visit to Seattle, he said, sealed the decision.
“I just love Seattle, period,” Victor said after Tuesday’s practice. “The city is pretty awesome. And this isn’t a bad place to live. That’s what really got my attention.”
UW coaches are as quick with their praise of Victor as they are to note that he isn’t anywhere near his full potential as a football player. He is, after all, just a third-year sophomore, and Friday’s season opener represents the whole of his experience as a college linebacker.
In a way, that’s the most encouraging part about it.
“I think the guy’s got a huge upside,” linebackers coach Bob Gregory said. “If you really watch the tape, he had some real explosives and some really good plays, but he’s just got so much more to go.”
Football IQ, Victor said, is his biggest priority. Keishawn Bierria, UW’s starting weakside linebacker, is his roommate, and the two study film together frequently.
“(I need to) know where I’m supposed to be at,” Victor said. “After that, knowing where everybody else is supposed to be at. Be able to line up D-linemen. Make calls.”
Gregory said Bierria’s experience — he started a few games last season when Shaq Thompson was playing tailback — allows him to take some of the play-calling responsibilities off Victor’s plate as he continues to learn the intricacies of the position.
“But Azeem’s right there,” Gregory said.
Bierria said he looks at Victor like “a little, big brother,” and insists he’s not nearly as shy or quiet as he might appear.
“He’ll hit you,” Bierria said, “then he’ll be in your ear telling you, ‘I’m gonna hit you again.’”
Said fifth-year senior linebacker Travis Feeney: “He’s a goofball. He’s a jokester. He’s a funny kid. He’s young, and dude’s ceiling is too high right now. He can go anywhere from here. Guy’s still growing into his body and everything. He’s going to be a monster by this time next year, and he’s going to be a monster this year. (But) next year’s going to be something else.”
His reputation as a big hitter dates at least to last season’s Apple Cup, in which Victor played on the Huskies’ kickoff coverage team.
On the game’s opening kick, Victor barreled into Washington State returner Jamal Morrow after he had caught the ball and taken a knee in the end zone. Flag. Personal foul. Fifteen-yard penalty. Oops.
Victor and Morrow, though, would meet twice more in violent (and legal) fashion. After UW scored to go ahead 14-0 late in the first half, Victor raced down the field and leveled Morrow at WSU’s 19-yard line on the subsequent kickoff. And he hammered him again on the kickoff following UW’s touchdown in the third quarter. Both collisions were celebrated wildly by the Huskies sideline and rated as “wow” moments among the Twitter crowd.
Victor finished the 2014 season with just five tackles, four of them unassisted. But those two in the Apple Cup had a to-be-continued tone about them.
“You noticed when he came in as a freshman, he’s flying around — he doesn’t know what to do, but he’s hitting people,” Feeney said. “Guys like that, you just know they’re going to be a talent.”
SATURDAY: Sacramento State (1-0) at UW (0-1), 11 a.m., Pac-12 Network, 1000-AM, 97.7-FM