April 10, 2010
SEATTLE - Once the schedule for the 2010 season came out, Cort Dennison took a pen and made a wide circle around the opening date - September 4 at BYU - on his calendar. This wasn't just excitement to see the Huskies begin the football year. For the Utahan, this game also offered a chance to return home.
Dennison grew up in Salt Lake City, a mere 45 minutes north of Provo, where Brigham Young's campus and LaVell Edwards Stadium is located. He spent this summer fielding ticket requests from friends and family members eager to see the former Utah Athlete of the Year (from the Salt Lake Tribune), back in the Beehive State.
"This is huge," Dennison said. "I've been looking forward to this ever since we got the schedule. I've got a lot of friends who play for BYU."
The Husky linebacker returns now as an integral part of the team's defense, compared to last season when he was simply a valuable contributor. His ascension to starting middle linebacker - where Dennison will fill in for the departed Donald Butler - is cushioned by the junior's knowledge of the playbook, and his spot next to one of the Pac-10's best in Mason Foster. Both spent the winters subjecting themselves to strength coach Ivan Lewis' punishing workouts and digesting extra hours of film. When the coaching staff took their first looks at Dennison this spring they saw a stronger, faster linebacker who was so adept in the schemes that he could play blindfolded.
One particular area where the coaches have been impressed was how Dennison reshaped his body, adding on muscle to acclimate himself to playing an inside position. As the football program likes to say: "If you're not getting better, then you're getting worse."
The extra work in the weight room, combined with Dennison's natural, sure-handed tackling technique and his proclivity to inflict punishment, leave the coaches with no doubt that he's an every-down player. This year, the Huskies could end up utilizing more of a 3-4 look (three down linemen and four linebackers), which might better utilize their personnel. Dennison and Foster are the certainties so far. The other spots are not as concrete. But in a spring defined by big hits from the defense, there will be some difficult decisions forthcoming.
In Saturday's scrimmage, the highlight of Spring Practice No. 6, Foster drew the reaction when he stood up freshman tailback Deontae Cooper one-on-one. Not to be outdone, another freshman in linebacker Victor Burnett added a pair of particularly bone-crushing hits. Burnett, a tackling machine from Los Angeles, is making quite an impact despite a limited amount of time on campus. Alvin Logan and Matt Houston are starting on the other side this spring. Victor Aiyewa, who played safety last season, has been shifted to linebacker but is currently wearing a non-contact jersey because he's recovering from shoulder surgery. He's expected to be in the mix come fall camp, which is why Saturday's scrimmage was important in terms of evaluating the contestants.
"Every practice is so valuable; every rep they take is meaningful," said linebackers coach Mike Cox.
Because of the youth at the position, Cox is looking at Foster and Dennison to take a serious leadership role within the defense. Particularly Foster, whom Cox feels is as complete a linebacker as there is in the Pac-10.
"We have individual goals for Mason as well as team goals for our defense," Cox said. "We really feel like he's the best linebacker in the conference, and that's the expectation."