John Timu's Long Road To Defensive Captain
Aug. 28, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Three years ago, John Timu shredded his knee as a 185-pound quarterback in high school.
Two years ago, Timu was sitting out a second straight football season. He enrolled late to Washington, in January, 2011, after having reconstructive knee surgery delayed.
Last year, four games into his UW career, Timu left Husky Stadium in the back of an ambulance while strapped to board in after a scary helmet hit.
Last Friday, coach Steve Sarkisian gathered his Huskies at midfield following a morning walkthrough practice to announce the players' voting for 2012 team captains. When he told them Timu was the captain of the defense, the Huskies roared for their sophomore who has persevered through so much.
"Pretty exciting," Timu said Tuesday following UW's preparations for Saturday's 7:30 p.m. opener against San Diego State (Pac-12 Networks television, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with the only Huskies real-time play-by-play, pictures and analysis on the web).
When he was congratulated again on Tuesday for his captaincy, his eyes briefly lit up.
"Yeah, it was a bit of a surprise," he said. "But, you know, I've come a long way. And I think I deserve it.
"It's a big deal for me. It shows me that my teammates have trust in me and I just got to lead the system."
The high-school QB who arrived here as a safety before starting as a freshman outside linebacker is the 238-pound inside backer now, replacing departed 2011 senior and captain Cort Dennison as the quarterback of the Huskies' defense. Timu has gained 20 pounds for the role since last fall.
"Last year I was playing a little bit underweight and I was getting tossed around by the linemen," Timu said. "Since I have put on 20-plus pounds it's given me a little more muscle and a little more to take on blockers."
He is the Huskies' only linebacker currently healthy who played the position last season. And he's the one who will be calling out San Diego State's varying motions, formations and personnel groupings to a young, aggressive UW defense.
Justin Wilcox, Washington's new defensive coordinator, says he "absolutely" sees the quarterback in Timu when he plays middle linebacker.
"The game of football makes sense to him," Wilcox said. "For some guys it does and for some it doesn't. And that's a hard thing to judge when you recruit, how does football in that guy's mind work? For John, it's natural. You can see it. A lot of great quarterbacks are the same way.
"John does a lot for us. He is very important for us."
Wilcox doesn't believe he's ever had a sophomore captain of any defense he's been on. Not at Oregon, where he played defensive back. Not at Boise State or Tennessee, where he was defensive coordinator before coming to UW in January.
"Yeah, it is rare," Wilcox said.
"He played a lot last year. His presence on the defense has a calming effect for those guys. He knows what he is doing. He is confident in what he is doing. He can help a guy get lined up if he needs to. He moves in practices the right way.
"That's why they elected him captain."
The Huskies moved Timu inside during spring practice in April. Though he's not showing it, it all still feels different to him.
"It's new. It's all new," he said. "Last year we had Cort, and we relied on him heavily - which was our downfall.
"But I've learned to pick things up quickly. That's helped me out a lot."
So has his determination and refusal to be daunted by setbacks. Repeated, recently annual setbacks.
The youngest of four children by native Samoan parents accounted for 20 touchdowns as a junior quarterback and safety at Long Beach Jordan. That led to scholarship offers from Oregon, Hawaii and Washington entering his senior season of 2009. But in the second game that fall -- "seventh play," he said, remembering like it was last weekend -- he tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his knee cutting awkwardly in the open field, without getting hit.
His parents are both unemployed, and he was playing without insurance. It took him four months before he could secure his own insurance for reconstructive knee surgery, after he waded through bureaucratic paperwork and processing.
Goodbye scholarship offers. All but one, that is.
"Everyone pretty much backed off - except for the Huskies," Timu said.
UW recruiting coordinator and special-teams coach Jonny Nansen went to Long Beach Jordan, and has friends who have known Timu since he was a tyke. He wasn't about to abandon him.
"Oregon and Hawaii, after that they backed off. But Coach Nansen was always there, checking in, asking how I was doing, making sure I was rehabbing and getting the surgery as soon as possible," Timu said. "I kept positive, and he kept me going.
"He's the reason why I am here."
Then last September Timu dropped his head on a helmet-to-helmet stop of California running back Isi Sofele for no gain in the third quarter of UW's eventual, last-second victory. The game was delayed for several scary minutes while Timu was strapped to a board and loaded into an ambulance that drove him off the field. Cal coach Jeff Tedford joined Sarkisian, eight medical personnel and the Huskies defense on the field near the linebacker. An ambulance then drove him off the field to the trauma center at Harborview Medical Center.
Was he afraid he may never play again?
"Had a flash of it. But as soon as I was able to move everything was fine," he said. "I was a little weak. It kind of shocked me a little bit, but as soon as I got in the ambulance I was able to move. So that gave me hope."
A series of MRIs, CT-scans at Harborview that night confirmed there was nothing structurally wrong in the head or neck. He was moving at the hospital, called home to tell his worried family - some members were in tears that Saturday after learning of his injury - that he was OK. He walked out of Harborview that night with what he likened to "a whiplash."
Still, he says, "it was scary." Yet he said he never had a why-me moment. But it did take a week of practicing and then his return game against Colorado in mid-October for him to feel back to himself, playing with speed and without much caution or concern for injury.
"I had to stay positive and just keep grindin'," he says now. "Injuries happen. They are part of the game. I just had to keep grindin'."
Through the knee reconstruction, the scary injury and ambulance ride, Timu remained as the Huskies have come to know him. Poised. Assured. And reassuring.
We aren't likely to see Timu exploding in a spasm of celebration while hovering over a fallen Aztec if he makes a big play Saturday night. He's more old-school, more composed. He's more apt to get back to the huddle so he can get the next call from Wilcox and put more teammates in the right place for the next play.
"He's a really mature guy," Sarkisian said. "Sometimes he doesn't show all the emotion some of us would like. But that calming effect, I think, is how he's been able to persevere so much."
Sarkisian said Timu's poised demeanor has even helped Huskies coaches.
"There is some natural leadership that comes out of him that I think guys recognize," the coach said. "It speaks volumes to his maturity."
From a smallish quarterback and potential Duck to a safety, then outside linebacker, inside linebacker and now captain and key signal caller to Washington's remade defense. Yes, John Timu is proud of his accomplishments not even midway through his Huskies career, though he's far from satisfied.
"Like I said, I've come a long way," he said. "Started at 185 (pounds) in high school. I've put on 20, 30 pounds in a couple years."
And now, middle linebacker and team co-captain as a sophomore.
"Yeah," he said, "it's a big shock to my friends back home."
INSIDE THE DAWGS: WR Kevin Smith was full go in Tuesday's practice, almost eight months to the day after he tore the ACL in his knee practicing for the Alamo Bowl. ... Erik Kohler is back and playing right guard with the first-team offense. He is listed atop the depth chart there. Kohler missed more than two weeks of preseason camp after his knee cap dislocated on the first day of practice Aug. 6. ... UW has sold close to 41,000 season tickets so far for this season at CenturyLink Field. That's not counting thousands of students not yet back on campus from summer break. Season ticket sales will continue on a prorated basis through the USC game Oct. 13.