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Originally published August 31, 2010 at 7:29 PM | Page modified September 1, 2010 at 2:28 PM

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Washington's Cort Dennison returns home as Huskies' middle linebacker

Washington middle linebacker Cort Dennison, a Utah native, said he'll have 30 to 40 friends and family in the stands on Saturday when the Huskies play at Brigham Young.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

UW @ BYU, 4 p.m., CBSCS

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You could say that Cort Dennison is returning to one home and settling into another all at once on Saturday.

The Washington junior is the only Utah native on the team's roster, a graduate of Judge Memorial Catholic High in Salt Lake City, and will be familiar with the surroundings Saturday when the Huskies play at Brigham Young.

Dennison estimates 30 to 40 friends and family will be in the stands, and UW coach Steve Sarkisian said he has already talked with Dennison about keeping his emotions in check.

"One of the natural things when guys go home and play, they try too hard," Sarkisian said. "Cort doesn't need to try too hard, he's a great player."

Dennison will finally make his debut at a new spot, middle linebacker, attempting to fill the rather large void left by the graduation of Donald Butler.

The Huskies moved Dennison from weakside linebacker to the middle, thinking that was the best way to replace Butler.

While Dennison isn't the prototypical middle linebacker in size — he's listed at 6 feet 1, 236 pounds — coaches rave about his ability to handle the mental responsibilities of a position often referred to as the "quarterback of the defense." Middle linebackers are entrusted with calling plays and aligning other defenders.

"He's very smart," Sarkisian said. "He understands our defense probably better than anybody."

Butler was a second-team all-conference pick last season, and a third-round selection of the San Diego Chargers.

As UW linebackers coach Mike Cox says: "Donald was arguably the best linebacker in the Pac-10 last year."

So it's inevitable that some will look at the transition from Butler to Dennison and wonder what the Huskies have until they see it on the field.

Dennison understands the concern but insists there's nothing to worry about.

"Donald was a fantastic football player so I know that those were big shoes to fill," he said. "But I feel like I can do just as good of a job. I do things differently than Donald. But I think I still am going to be able to make a lot of plays."

Dennison is used to some doubting.

He was a lightly-regarded recruit for the Class of 2007 who had his sights set on attending Army — what he figured was his best option — until the Huskies got interested in the late going.

Kent Baer, UW's defensive coordinator at the time, was a Utah native who was tipped to Dennison by people he knew in the state. Dennison, who attended one of the two Catholic schools in Salt Lake City, said he grew up a fan of Utah but wasn't really recruited by either the Utes or BYU (though he attended a few games at BYU as a spectator).

When UW called, he jumped at the chance to play in the Pac-10.

"I like being the underdog," he said. "I guess it just motivates me to succeed. It motivates me to know that there are kids who get more hype than me. But I think that anything they can do, I can do. Why not me? You have to have that attitude in order to be successful."

Dennison grew quickly on the coaches last season, emerging first as the backup to E.J. Savannah at weakside linebacker, eventually sharing time, then taking over when Savannah was sidelined with an injury.

Defensive coordinator Nick Holt said it was a "no-brainer" to have Dennison move to the middle.

"He's kind of the blood and guts of our defense," Holt said. "He's always there, smart, knows what to do, coachable and really is a good player and a lot better athlete than people give him credit for."

Despite Sarkisian's urging to ramp things down a bit emotionally, Dennison says he'll be fired up as ever for Saturday's game. But he says that's just par for the course.

"I don't feel any pressure or anything," he said. "I just feel like it's an opportunity for me to show what I'm all about and lead our defense in the right direction."

Notes

• Defensive end Everrette Thompson, recovering from an offseason Achilles injury, again took most of the snaps with the No. 1 defense and said he feels just about 100 percent and plans to start Saturday's game.

• DE Kalani Aldrich (knee) was in pads and got some action. Sarkisian said before practice that the team wanted to test Aldrich and see how he responds to determine his Saturday availability.

• WR James Johnson, recovering from a sprained ankle, took a lot of snaps Tuesday and looks on course to return.

Keith Price took most of the snaps as the No. 2 QB behind Jake Locker with Nick Montana working primarily with the scout team, wearing the number of BYU starter Riley Nelson.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

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