With the graduation of this year's seniors, the final remnants of the Tyrone Willingham era at Washington are finally gone. Guys like Drew Schaefer, Cody Bruns and Justin Glenn may not have been superstars, but each should have a special place in Husky fans' hearts for being the last guys to have endure the 0-12 season and still stick with it and finish up their careers as Huskies.
There really isn't anything negative left to say about Willingham and his tenure at Washington that hasn't already been said, so we thought we would try to focus on the players that were signed by Willingham and the impact they made once he was fired from the program and Steve Sarkisian was ushered in. As much as Willingham's coaching and recruiting has been scrutinized, the program wouldn't be where it is today without these guys that he signed and it will continue to stagnant until Sarkisian can sign some more guys like the ones that I am about to write about emerge.
As much as everyone says that Locker would have come to Washington no matter who was coaching, Locker said publicly that Willingham's moral background was a big factor in the deeply religious Locker signing with Washington. This could also be backed up by the fact that Locker refused to take part in any of the rumored mutinies that were brewing among players.
Willingham should also be commended for redshirting Locker in 2006 when he easily could have played him after Isaiah Stanback went down and the Huskies went into a tailspin. Because he didn't though, Locker was able to stick around for 2010 and lead the Huskies to their first bowl game since 2002. Had Willingham not held onto Locker's redshirt the Huskies would have had to start a not ready Keith Price a year early and assuredly would not have made it to a bowl game.
Polk may have ended up being even more valuable to the Huskies than Locker and Willingham was able to get him to flip from a commitment to USC back when USC was at full strength and players decommitted from programs far less frequently than they do now. Whether or not Willingham actually pried Polk away from the Trojans, or they just cooled on him, getting his signature was Willingham's biggest recruiting victory during his time at Washington and it paid major dividends for Sarkisian.
Fans weren't very excited when the Huskies signed Donald Butler and Mason Foster. Both were two-star level linebackers with limited offers that barely had pictures of themselves online. Willingham and his staff deserve serious kudos for picking the two linebackers out of the rough though as they both developed into the best linebackers that the program has had since the 90s. As an added bonus, both are two of the better young linebackers in the NFL right now and are two of the very few players standing out in the league right now who played for the Huskies.
You also have to throw Cort Dennison in there as another guy who was just a two-star level recruit who ended up being a standout under Sarkisian. Dennison was limited athletically, but a great leader and worker and Willingham and his staff recognized and brought him in. Dennison did nothing but rack up tackles and make plays during his career at Washington.
Another under-the-radar guy that Willingham and his staff pulled in that greatly helped the start of the Sarkisian era. For as much as Sarkisian and his staff have been praised for their recruiting prowess, they have yet to bring in a defensive lineman who has made as much of an impact as Te'o-Nesheim did during his time at Washington. Willingham and his staff should also be commended for getting Te'o-Nesheim to play with an unmatched motor that made him an outstanding player even though he wasn't the most skilled guy on the field.
I don't think anyone realized how good these two were during their time in Seattle as at least one was almost always open on every passing play, making things fairly easy for Jake Locker and especially Keith Price when they needed to get the ball down the field. Sarkisian has found a big time receiver in Kasen Williams, but he needed both of these guys to have a consistent passing game during the first three years of his tenure. Kearse was a no brainer type guy to offer, but Aguilar was a huge pull out of Denver even though he didn't have great offers.
I really wish that Willingham could have found a way to redshirt Kelemete so Sarkisian could have held onto him for one more year, but none the less, Kelemete is another guy who like Kearse and Aguilar, is a lot more appreciated now that he is gone. Kelemete actually ended up being the best lineman of the Sarkisian era to date and though his ability to protect Locker and Price wasn't perfect, it is now clear that he was a very good player up front.
Another guy that I wish Willingham would have found a way to redshirt, but oh well. I believe it was Willingham's staff that decided to put him at defensive tackle even though he was more regarded as an offensive guard coming out of high school. Ta'amu was inconsistent, but was basically a rock for the Huskies the past few seasons and his performance in the 2010 Holiday Bowl is still probably the best defensive performance by a single player during the Sarkisian era.
So it isn't easy and I am as happy as anyone that the last footprints of Willingham's tenure at Washington are now completely gone, but there are some positives there if you simply focus on those special players that he was able to bring into the program. The man's record while coaching at Washington will always stand in all its pathetic glory, but the small collection of great players that he did sign will also always be remembered for the impact that they made maintaining the program while he was there and the improvements they made to bring the program out of the gutter in the program's first few seasons under Steve Sarkisian.