As soon as the 2011 Alamo Bowl was done, the debate over the fate of Defensive Coordinator Nick Holt was over - there was no way he could return. Not after the 2011 defense allowed a school record 453.3 yards per game, and not after an utterly embarrassing showing in the Alamo Bowl as they surrendered 777 yards and 67 points, wasting an amazing performance by Keith Price (7 TD's) and the UW offense (56 points).
Just two days after Holt, LB coach Mike Cox and S coach Jeff Mills were fired, Head Coach Steve Sarkisian had plucked highly regarded DC Justin Wilcox and his best friend LB coach Peter Sirmon away from Tennessee. About 1.5 weeks later Keith Heyward was hired away from Oregon State to coach the secondary, and in another coup, Sark & Wilcox were able to convince super-recruiter Tosh Lupoi to leave the only school he'd ever known - California - and head north to become the UW's DL coach and recruiting ace.
Somewhat obscured by the changes on the defensive side, OC Doug Nussmeier was hired away by Alabama, and Sark again looked to Cal and hired away Eric Kiesau to be the new OC and QB coach. Former DL coach Johnny Nansen was reassigned to focus on Special Teams and retained his Recruiting Coordinator status.
After 3 seasons of stability, the coaching staff had been shaken up in a significant way - how did they do?
Kirk: Year 4 was an interesting one for the Huskies under Sark - while they were following up two straight 7-6 bowl seasons, expectations among most neutral observers was muted for year 4. Projections typically hovered around 6-6 to 7-5 for the regular season, with factors such as another difficult schedule, uncertainty about the defense and a general issue of youth & inexperience cited most frequently. With a series of key injuries striking the team from Summer through the end of Fall Camp - Colin Porter, Ha'oli Jamora, Deontae Cooper & James Johnson all were lost for at least the season (Porter had to retire altogether) and more once the season was underway - Jesse Callier, Erik Kohler, Colin Tanigawa & Lawrence Lagafuaina were felled - Sark had a serious challenge on his hands.
The new defensive staff exceeded expectations, and the defense was, for the first time in the Sark era, the strength of the team. Wilcox adapted to his personnel and appeared to bring a more aggressive approach. The secondary was allowed to play in man coverage with much greater frequency, and they responded well to that challenge. There were a significant number of position switches as Wilcox & Sirmon responded to major question marks about the LB group by moving up a number of safeties, giving the position an influx of longer, quicker athletes. The improvements on defense were notable; by Football Outsider's S&P metric, they jumped from 97th in 2011 to 44th in 2012; by their FEI metric, they rose from 103rd to 37th. By conventional measures, they improved in yards allowed per game from 106th to 31st, and in scoring defense from 108th to 39th.
Unfortunately that improvement in the defense was offset by a decline on the offensive side. While the run game saw only a minor decline as Bishop Sankey did a terrific job replacing the departed Chris Polk, the passing game dropped off significantly; in the 2011 the passing efficiency for the team ranked 12th - in 2012 that dropped to 86th.
Part of that was due to ongoing issues with the OL. This is a group that has struggled to pass protect for quite some time now, and those problems were not helped by the rash of injuries to hit that group. But even factoring away the injuries, there remain serious question marks about this group under the watch of OL coach Dan Cozzetto. They've shown to have promise as run blockers, but they have to get a lot better at pass-protection. He himself has admitted his butt will be on the line in the 2013 season.
There were questions as well about the job Kiesau did as QB coach; he had big shoes to fill following Nussmeier, and the results did not reflect well on him. It's not a surprise then that another staff shuffling happened this off-season, as Kiesau was shifted from QB coach to WR coach when Jimmy Daugherty left and Husky legend Marques Tuiasosopo was hired away from UCLA (where he coached their "inside receivers", i.e. primarily TE's) to become the new QB coach at the UW. RB coach Joel Thomas was one of the few bright spots on offense, but he left to join the new staff at Arkansas, so Sark moved Nansen over to coach the RB's.
Nansen didn't distinguish himself with the performance of the Special Teams, but he's noted for his recruiting ability as he has very strong connections in Southern California, particularly in the Long Beach area, and he's well-connected in Hawai'i as well.
The addition of Lupoi to the staff made an impact in recruiting, as did Sirmon & Heyward. The 2012 class finished strong with Lupoi leading the way, and the 2013 class was the best yet under Sark. The program has a lot of momentum on the recruiting trail, and if they can win 9+ games this upcoming season they appear to be primed to make a push for a top-10 type of class.
Overall, considering the injury situation I think the staff did a reasonable job. The defensive staff graded out quite high, the offensive side not so much, but the recruiting was strong.
Ryan Priest: Any conversation about the Husky coaching staff has to begin with the defensive side of the ball, where UW replaced its entire staff following a historically bad 2011 season. Just four days after Washington surrendered 67 points and 777 yards to an RG3-led Baylor squad in the Alamo Bowl, Sark replaced third-year defensive coordinator Nick Holt and his staff with Tennessee's Justin Wilcox (coordinator) and Peter Sirmon (linebackers), Cal's Tosh Lupoi (defensive line) and Oregon State's Keith Heyward (defensive backs). Their coaching acumen gave the UW defense the shot of adrenaline that it had largely lacked under Holt's leadership, with the Dawgs vaulting from 11th to 4th place in the conference by allowing just 357 yards per game after surrendering 453 YPG in 2011. Perhaps more importantly, Washington toughened up considerably against opponent scoring drives, giving up nearly 12 points less per game compared to the previous season. Their talent on the recruiting trail is not to be overlooked, either: Though Tosh is (deservedly) regarded as the coaching staff's recruiting all-star, Wilcox, Sirmon and Heyward are all considered to be valuable assets come the first Wednesday of February, and Washington's 13th-ranked 2013 class (according to Scout) is in large part the result of their collective talents in that area.
Conversely, Washington's struggles on the offensive side of the ball have been well documented, and it's easy to see in retrospect just how large an impact offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier's departure had on the team in general and Keith Price in particular. A few isolated series and the Utah game aside, Washington never really found an offensive identity, and Price in particular looked out of sorts from day one. Early in the season, I remember predicting that UW's struggles in the trenches (due in large part to its starters' various injuries) would cost Dan Cozzetto his job, but the offensive line coach survived the season and will return in 2013. I'm still not sure that I'm sold on his ability to develop players into Pac-12-level performers -- exhibit A being that UW hasn't had better than a second-team all-conference offensive linemen under Cozz's tenure, that being Senio Kelemete in 2011 -- and there's no question that his unit will need to play several orders of magnitude above what they did in the previous season if UW is to reach the high expectations that its fanbase has for the program in 2013. Meanwhile, Joel Thomas turned the sourest of lemons (Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier's early-season ACL injuries) into the sweetest and most unexpected vintage of lemonade, in the form of Bishop Sankey's 1,438-yard season that ranks as UW's fourth-best ever by a running back. His departure to join Bret Bielema's new staff at Arkansas figures to be a blow to the Huskies in the coming seasons if Johnny Nansen proves unable to fill Thomas' shoes. Kiesau's run as QB coach was largely disappointing, and Sark (wisely, I think) transitioned him to coach receivers in the coming season, a position in which he excelled at Cal by developing players like DeSean Jackson and Keenan Allen. His expertise in that area will be sorely needed by UW's receivers, with the unit coming off of a year in which its players outside of Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins largely failed to live up to their promise.
On special teams, the Huskies' struggles, I think, were more a function of the departure of rock stars Erik Folk and Kiel Rasp than any coaching deficiencies by Nansen. Almost any player responsible for a team's trifecta of place kicking, punting and kickoff duties is at an automatic disadvantage, and Travis Coons proved to be no exception to that rule. A few breakdowns in the kickoff and punt games stand out upon reflection (Marvin Hall's muffed punt return against Oregon and Boise State's long kickoff return to set up their game-winning field goal in the Las Vegas Bowl, for instance), and after ranking in the bottom half of the conference in most every special teams statistic other than opponent punt returns, there's no shortage of room for improvement for UW to take advantage of going forward.
As the head honcho of the program, Steve Sarkisian naturally bears the full brunt of responsibility for both the team's successes and hardships. His fourth year as head coach was in many ways a microcosm of his career at UW: some surprising wins at home (Stanford and Oregon State), some head-scratching (Arizona) and infuriating (Wazzu) losses on the road, and a general sense that, growing pains aside, the program is headed in the right direction. Three years of consecutive 7-6 finishes, though, has left the Husky fanbase antsy to take the next step toward greatness, and there's no question that 2013 presents something of a fulcrum for Sark: A 5-7 or 6-6 season would convince many that he's incapable of leading the program to Pasadena (and beyond), while a 9-3 or 10-2 campaign would quiet most every naysayer in the land. Until then, he's left with the knowledge that his future as a head coach will in many ways be dictated by what he does or doesn't accomplish in the next 10 months.
Jack Follman: I think the Huskies still lack the talent that they need to become an elite team so I think the coaches are getting about average results from what they have. The problem is that they still have no identity, while a lot of teams in the conference a scheming with kinds of talent as opposed to just talent, the Huskies are a little bit vanilla and don't have a specific aspect of the game they can beat you with.
Jeffrey Gorman: After the Alamo Bowl loss ended the 2011 season, Sark rained fury on the defensive coaches on his staff and hired new position coaches for each part of the defense. They are Keith Hayward (Defensive Backs), Peter Sirmon (Linebackers), Tosh Lupoi (Defensive Line), and the cherry on top, Justin Wilcox (Defensive Coordinator). So, how did these new coaches grade out in their rookie seasons with the Dawgs? I'll examine that, and take a look at the offensive coaches as well.
Defensive Coaches: This side of the ball saw tremendous improvement across the board, and that all starts with Justin Wilcox. He is a very scheme versatile coach, who uses a very "freshman friendly" system that gets players playing fast, loose, and aggressive. He brought with him from Tennessee Peter Sirmon, who did a truly remarkable job turning 3 players (John Timu, Shaq Thompson, and Travis Feeney) who were in their 1st or 2nd year playing linebacker into serious play makers. He also made his mark on the recruiting trail, playing a large part in some of the big fish UW was able to reel in on signing day. Tosh Lupoi was easily the most high profile of the new hires, but I would say his on field coaching impact was the lowest. The defensive line improved stopping the run, but he failed to develop any defensive ends into strong pass rushers. Now, that's probably more to do with the players on hand than his coaching, as once he got his recruits into Cal, he developed them into a top Pac-10/12 defensive line. Lastly, there is Keith Hayward. He took a secondary that was the laughing stock of the nation and turned it into a hard hitting and ball hawking unit that stuck to receivers like glue, even when the pass rush gave opposing teams all day to throw. Overall, the defensive coaches grade out extremely well.
Offensive Coaches: This side of the ball a little bit murkier. The only new face on the offense is coordinator Eric Kiesau who also coached the quarterbacks. I don't need to remind most of you of the play Keith Price last season, but suffice it to say that he seemed to miss Doug Nussmeir. Anyone notice the improvement in Alabama's QB play since his arrival? Kiesau never seemed to develop a rapport with Price and it showed on the field. Joel Thomas continued his excellent running back coaching by molding Bishop Sankey into a top conference back. He teaches his running backs to run without fear (see Chris Polk) and most importantly not to fumble. It truly showed on the field with Sankey's play, but Thomas couldn't get much out of the players behind San him. Jimmy Dougherty had been a solid receiver coach up until this year, but the group regressed due to injuries and inexperience. Kasen Williams did improve upon his freshman form which can be attributed to coach D. He is also a very underrated recruiter, and since moved on to take the OC job at San Jose State. Lastly, there's Dan Cozzetto, the most wanted man around Montlake. Everyone knows the offensive lines' struggles this past year and are very quick to blame Cozzetto. The fact is when you're playing 1st, 2nd, and even 3rd year players on the offensive line, you're going to struggle much like they did especially in pass protection. They did improve significantly in run blocking and he did start to develop some really great young lineman, like Ben Riva, Dexter Charles, and Mike Criste.
Special Teams: Punting and kicking were pretty bad last season. It is hard to now how much of that is coaching, and how much is talent, but I would wager that having reliable kicking and punting is almost surely in the hands (or feet) of the kickers/punters. The coverage units were solid, and there were no major breakdowns. The team even blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown! My bet is next year with a better kicker, and a dynamic player like John Ross returning kicks and punts, the special teams will be pretty special.
Head Coach: Sark seems to have us on the right path and is recruiting the athletes to bring us up to the next level. This past season was rough as the team was prepared to finish 9-4 but sauntered to another 7-6 season. The Apple Cup break down and the Las Vegas Bowl loss are very reminiscent of Sark's "house money" comment a few years ago. Is that rubbing off on his players? It is hard to say without being in the locker room but losing to that WSU team and a very beatable Boise team without its best pass rusher (and they still got after Keith nearly every play!) are tough pills to swallow. The Pac-12 doesn't get any easier next season and the Pac-12 north is arguably the toughest division in college football in 2013. All in all, considering the injuries the team sustained, he did an admirable job of making sure they didn't go down in flames.