Sept. 11, 2012
|Washington vs. Portland State
Saturday, Sept. 15 | 1 pm PT | CenturyLink Field
TICKETS | TV: FX (Channel Finder) | Radio: KJR / Affiliates
SEATTLE - Thomas Tutogi picked a decent time to make a powerful first impression.
At third-ranked Louisiana State, on national television, in front of 92,800 people inside roaring Tiger Stadium last Saturday night, the junior transfer recovered an LSU fumble on the opening kickoff. His play led his Huskies to the early, though short-lived, lead.
Tutogi then came off the bench to make a game-high 12 tackles against the power-running Tigers. That's eight more than he made in any of the 13 games he played last season as a reserve and special-teams mainstay.
He was a silver lining in Washington's otherwise dark night. The performance suggested he may be the bigger middle linebacker the Huskies will need later this season against other power-rushing offenses - the first being Stanford in the Pac-12 opener on Sept. 27, following UW's bye next week.
"I really wanted to show my team what I can do, what I can bring," Tutogi said immediately following Tuesday's practice, pushing his long, dark hair out of his face and the wind. "Last year, I didn't get much (time), just on special teams. This year I really wanted to prove to my team and prove to the coaches I can make some things happen."
Linebacker on defense is the same as the front line on offense for the Huskies (1-1) right now: Beset by injuries heading into Saturday's game against Portland State (1-1) (1 p.m. on FX cable television, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with another exclusive, real-time game chat).
UW has converted four safeties into linebackers in an attempt to fill losses to injury and to graduation. Travis Feeney is playing the position for the first time this month, but he was limited Tuesday after spraining his shoulder at LSU. Nate Fellner broke his foot last month and is just now getting onto a treadmill to test the healing.
John Timu has started the first two games at middle linebacker. He was an outside backer last season, and a high-school safety and quarterback before that.
Even after losing 10 pounds to become faster getting off blocks this season, the 6-foot tall Tutogi is UW's heaviest linebacker by far. His listed 242 pounds is 19 pounds more than any other at the position. That is why the Huskies came into this season thinking he could be a middle-linebacker option against more power-based offenses such as Stanford.
Or, as he proved noticeably last weekend, against LSU.
"Against bigger teams, that is Thomas' type of role," new Huskies defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said.
The coach praised Tutogi for being around the ball for much of the LSU game. He tempered his praise, however, by saying Tutogi, like the rest of the defense that gave up 41 points, "wasn't perfect."
Still, it was a great step for a relative unknown on the Huskies defense, one that Wilcox said had been inconsistent in practices all preseason and into this month.
"It was amazing. It's always been a dream of mine to play in an SEC stadium, since being a little kid," Tutogi said of Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. "It was definitely something I admired.
"It was big time. Ninety-three thousand people. They are so big on football down there in Texas and Louisiana."
The native of Chula Vista, Calif., between San Diego and the border with Mexico, arrived at UW last year after one season as an all-league linebacker at Southwestern Junior College in his hometown. The Huskies' idea was that he could perhaps eventually replace middle linebacker Cort Dennison following the captain's senior season in 2011.
Prior to his boffo night on the Bayou, Tutogi's biggest contribution as a Husky had been the punt he blocked early in last season's Apple Cup. Jesse Callier picked up the ball and ran in for a touchdown that sent the Huskies on their way to another win over archrival Washington State.
"Last year, I kind of got the introduction to Division-I football," said Tutogi, whose brother Taimi is an H-back and defensive lineman as a senior two-way player at Arizona. "This year, I feel I'm good. I just have to keep working hard."
Now, he's trying to emerge as a versatile option inside and outside, depending on the opponent or even the down and distance.
"A lot of people look at me and they see run-stuffing linebacker. I mean, I like that," Tutogi said, smiling. "I'll take it.
"Personally, I feel I need to work on my pass coverage and my drops. The way our defense is, we go back and forth depending on the formations. Sometimes I can play outside and sometimes I'm inside. This defense asks you to be quicker on your feet, more of a speed type, against certain opponents. And then we have a lot of packages, our nickel and our base packages. It varies."
Tutogi said his big night at LSU gave himself "a little bit" of confidence. But like the rest of his defense, he is anything but satisfied with incremental progress.
"There's only one thing you can do: Keep working hard. Then good things will come," he said.
"What happened (at LSU), happened. Now it's, get over it. Like Coach Sark and all the coaches say, all we can do is move on. We learn from it. We come out here (Tuesday) and this week and move forward, one step at a time."