Huskies sorting out strong side of their defense
Senior Victor Aiyewa is playing a new position for the Huskies, but he has a knack for hard hits and is proving to be a quick learner.
Seattle Times staff reporter
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One of the most competitive position battles on Washington's defense — strongside linebacker — will begin to be decided Friday when the team puts on full pads for the first time.
Linebackers coach Mike Cox explained Thursday that what can't be known until full pads go on is how well players play the run "and be physical. That's one of the biggest things we are looking at at that spot, so until we see that, we're not going to make a concrete decision."
Being physical has never been a problem for the player who is the leading contender at the moment, senior Victor Aiyewa.
"Every chance I get, I try to play hard," he said. "Sometimes I may play a little too hard."
In fact, he's earned a reputation as one of the hardest hitters on the team since coming to UW in 2007, but a bit too often he has borne the brunt of that physicality. He played in just four games in 2008 while battling a sports hernia, and tore a labrum last year in the Apple Cup after a hard hit on a kick return, an injury that required offseason surgery.
"His thing is to stay healthy," said defensive coordinator Nick Holt.
But after sitting out the spring following the labrum surgery, he said he's now 100 percent. "This is the healthiest I've been in a while," he said.
And through four days of fall camp, he's running No. 1 at the strongside spot, ahead of fellow senior Matt Houston and true freshman Cooper Pelluer of Skyline High, an early surprise.
The strongside linebacker typically lines up on the side of the tight end, usually closer to the line of scrimmage. It's the same spot Mason Foster played a year ago, but he was moved to weakside linebacker — where E.J. Savannah played a season ago and where he had played in 2008 — as coaches looked for the best combination after losing Savannah and middle linebacker Donald Butler to graduation.
Cort Dennison appears set as the replacement for Butler at middle linebacker.
Aiyewa has long shown an ability to defend the run while playing strong safety his first three years at UW. But he says he's still getting acclimated to his new position.
"When you get closer to the ball, things happen a lot faster, so I've got to be able to make that adjustment and process things a lot different, a lot faster than from safety," he said.
Holt says what helps is that Aiyewa tends to grasp defenses quickly. He's a two-time member of the All-Pac-10 Academic Team with a reported 3.67 GPA in pre-sciences. His long-term goals, he said, could involve pharmacy.
"Vic is very intelligent, so that's why it was so easy to move him," Holt said.
Experience, however, is another factor. He played only one year of football at Hightower High in Fresno, Texas (a suburb of Houston), concentrating on basketball in his early years. Then UW secondary coach J.D. Williams saw his film and he was a late commit to Washington's Class of 2007.
"I was kind of under the radar," he said, adding that Baylor and UAB were the other schools he seriously considered.
He's hoping to be above it this year if he can hold on. Cox says Houston — who also has had some injury issues and has played sparingly in his career — is "doing a nice job," and coaches left open the possibility that they could move Foster back there and go with a different combination, or even move up another safety, if needed.
Holt, though, says he likes what he's seen so far.
"I think between the two of them (Aiyewa and Houston) hopefully we have a pretty good (strongside) linebacker," he said. "So far, so good."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org