When Chris Petersen was announced was the head coach of the Washington Huskies in December 2013, the news was greeted by near-universal acclaim from Dawg fans who had grown tired of the blowout losses and seven-win plateaus that marked the era of Steve Sarkisian. But for all the positive talk about Petersen’s 82-12 record coaching the Boise State Broncos, including a Fiesta Bowl win over the Oklahoma Sooners that is widely regarded as one of the best college football games of all time, one question kept coming up among the more skeptical corners of Washington’s fanbase:
“But can he recruit?”
At the time, it was a valid question. After all, Boise State was as accomplished as any program in America during Petersen’s eight year tenure, accumulating six top-25 finishes and four rankings inside the top-10. But his best recruiting class was ranked 53rd, and all but two ranked 61st or worse, according to 247Sports.
Five seasons into his tenure at Washington, it seems clear that the question is answered. On the field, Petersen has led the team to two Pac-12 championships and three consecutive New Year’s Six bowl games, including a berth in the 2016 College Football Playoff; on the recruiting trail, his classes have consistently improved, from his first group in 2014 that ranked No. 38, to the majority of the class that signed yesterday that ranks the Huskies as the No. 15 group in the country. With that in mind, what follows is a small handful of things we learned about Washington’s football program from yesterday’s start to the early signing period.
Per 247Sports, three of the four best prospects to sign yesterday with Washington — defensive tackles Faatui Tuitele and Jacob Bandes, and defensive end Laiatu Latu — are players who will line up in the defensive trenches and/or specialize in rushing the passer. With Greg Gaines finishing his career at Washington on Jan. 1 at the Rose Bowl, the Dawgs badly need to find someone who can replace his production, if not his senior leadership qualities. In 2017, Gaines and Vita Vea combined to absolutely terrorize offensive linemen and stonewall opposing rushing attacks; in the years to come, there’s good reason to believe that some combination of Tuitele, Bandes and Tuli Letuligasenoa will lead Washington in continuing to dominate the Pac-12’s defensive units.
While five-star wide receiver prospect Kyle Ford remains undecided (he’s set to announce his commitment on Jan. 5, at the US Army All-American Bowl), the Huskies have announced just one wide receiver in the 2019 class so far. While three-star Taj Davis is no slouch — anyone who has seen the ground he covers with his long strides can tell you that — it remains concerning that neither of the two blue-chip wide receivers that Washington signed in the 2018 class (Marquis Spiker and Austin Osborne) saw any game action as true freshmen, despite the NCAA’s relaxed rules surrounding redshirt eligibility. John Ross and Dante Pettis covered up a lot of the Washington passing offense’s warts in 2016 and 2017, and the fact that no one stepped up to replicate their production in 2018 is painfully evident in Washington’s 18 receiving touchdowns on the year, which ranks 77th in the country. Offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan will badly need someone to step up into the roles those two played in 2019, and right now, it’s not clear who that player might be.
After plucking just one player from the Aloha State during his first five recruiting classes at Washington, Chris Petersen cleaned up in the Islands for the 2019 class, picking up three of the state’s top five prospects (defensive linemen Faatui Tuitele and Sama Paama, and offensive lineman Julius Buelow) and four of the top eight (linebacker Miki Ah You). In addition, Petersen also landed Punahou High School’s Timothy Horn, whom kicking guru Chris Sailer ranks as the nation’s No. 2 place kicking prospect in the 2019 class. With a talented crop of players coming out of Hawaii in 2020, including linebacker Jordan Botelho and wide receiver Matt Sykes, Petersen’s staff did an excellent job of laying the groundwork for future recruiting success in the state.
Speaking of the state of Hawaii paying dividends, you might recall that a missed 37-yard field goal kept the Huskies from winning a third consecutive game over the hated Oregon Ducks earlier this year. While I make it a point to never bad-mouth a player, least of all a walk-on kicker like Peyton Henry, suffice it to say that the Huskies would be well served by an upgrade at the position going forward. Chris Petersen obviously feels the same way, as he spent a valuable scholarship bringing in a heralded kicker like Horn, whose highlight reel (above) shows a consistent ability to split the uprights and (perhaps more importantly) put the ball into the end zone on kickoffs. It seems safe to assume that he’ll be favored to win the starting job on kickoffs and place kicks before the end of fall camp.
If you’re interested enough in UW football recruiting to read this far, I assume that you’re familiar with the story of Asa Turner, the 6-4, 215 lb. four-star safety who committed to the Dawgs last July but who declined yesterday to submit a letter of intent to enroll at Washington. Petersen was presumably referring to Turner’s suitors at Notre Dame when he decried yesterday the “vultures” who circle Washington’s committed players looking for any potential signs of an opening, and it’s clear that this one particular player’s recruitment is Coach Pete’s biggest headache of the cycle so far.
Even if Turner does spurn the Huskies for the Irish, though, the Dawgs are far from bereft of talent for Jimmy Lake to coach. Cornerbacks Trent McDuffie and Kamren Fabiculanan are both rated as four-star prospects under 247’s composite rankings, while safety Cameron Williams is judged as a four-star under 247’s proprietary rating system. This means that in the last two classes, Jimmy Lake has brought in five blue-chip defensive back prospects after helping players like Sidney Jones, Budda Baker, Kevin King and Byron Murphy become household names. As long as Lake continues to coach and recruit the UW secondary, it seems hard to imagine those results changing for the worse.