I didn't actually realize how tough it was to find a good coach for your favorite college football team until I was 18. It was late summer of 1993. I was getting ready for my freshman year at the University of Washington, and Don James resigned right before the start of that season. I figured that Jim Lambright would step forward and build upon James' foundation, and my years as a student would easily span the sanctions years and end with a trip to Pasadena following the 1995 season. 1996 at the latest. Heh.
Starting late August of this year, the Huskies will play under their 6th coach in the last 22 years. Of those 6 coaching changes, none has united Husky Nation like the hiring of Chris Petersen. Of those 6, I don't think that any has been perceived to be an upgrade the way Petersen's hiring has. The guy has done nothing in his career but win football games, recruit at a level that outpaces his school, and establish himself as maybe the most desirable coach west of the Mississippi.
Normally, a new coach at a new school has a bit of a honeymoon period with his new fan base. I'm not sure that Petersen has that at Washington, and really, that's probably the way it should be.
Even though the Dawgs will be breaking in a new QB in 2014, this is the most experienced two-deeps that I can remember in a long time. Every single player on the offensive and defensive lines is entering his second or third year as a starter. The same is true at linebacker. There are big questions in the secondary, but when your lone returning starter is All-American caliber cornerback Marcus Peters (sidenote: I'm going to refer to Marcus Peters as "All-American Marcus Peters" for the duration of his likely all-too-short career at the UW, and I think you should too), it takes much of the pressure off. There are young and talented running backs aplenty, all that can play in the Pac 12. While the makeup of the receiving corps isn't ideal right now (pending the recovery of Kasen Williams and the ongoing saga of Demorea Stringfellow), there's experience and electricity.
While this isn't a senior-laden roster, the numbers are actually critical when assessing things beyond 2014. To me, it's actually a really scary proposition. Assuming everybody comes back from injury, I count 5 senior starter on offense, and 4 on defense. Not insurmountable, right?.....RIGHT????!!!...
On offense, the losses are Kasen Williams, which is tough but not insurmountable. But the losses of 4 of 5 (and likely 5 of the top 6) offensive linemen might be. Mike Christe, Micah Hatchie, Ben Riva, Colin Tanigawa, and James Atoe will all exhaust their eligibility at the end of the 2014 season. On defense, the sure losses are all up front as well, with Danny Shelton, Evan Hudson, Hau'oli Kikaha, and John Timu all graduating. Two key pieces of depth in Andrew Hudson and Josh Shirley will also be done. The two most likely early departures would also hit the defense hard, if one or both of Shaq Thompson and All American Marcus Peters decide to forgo their final seasons of eligibility. Peters considered it after this last season, so if he even matches his 2013 production, it's highly likely he'd go following the 2014 season. When he signed with Washington in 2012, Thompson's plan was always to leave after three seasons. It'd take a fairly significant jump in production to make Thompson an early round draft pick, but it's certainly not out of the question.
On the defensive side of the ball, the replacements for the dearly departed seem a little more obvious and established, even though it seems there'll still be at least one hole in the interior of the defensive line. On offense, the losses are downright scary, and that's taking into account that these same linemen have been widely seen as the limiting factor of the offense their entire careers. In scanning the roster, it's tough to see who steps in on the edges. Our very own Onewoodwacker has been pretty outspoken in his support of Jake Eldrenkamp as the left tackle of the future. I'll defer to him, since he's seen Eldrenkamp a lot more than I have, but I was hoping to see a bit more than I did from the spring scrimmage. A sample size of one poorly-covered practice is pretty meaningless, however...
Obviously, this is a lot of premature hand wringing because things are so fluid for a football team over the course of almost a year and a half. But as I try to assess the future, the question is, would I predict more success for a team with an inexperienced but talented quarterback and a veteran but enigmatic offensive line, or from a team with a more experienced quarterback but almost entirely green offensive line?
In Chris Landon's article about getting back to the Rose Bowl, one of his suggestions was to focus on 2015 (although his reasoning was that the Rose Bowl is one of the playoff games in 2014). Right now, today, I see a team that's got a clearer path to winning in the short term than it does down the road. I'd rather break in a new quarterback behind a veteran line with 4 overmatched opponents to start the season (and 4 of the first five games all at home, plus a bye, before the first significant road test) in 2014 than to take the field in 2015 with an unproven offensive line on the road in what will be a hostile environment at Boise State, and in two weeks have to then play a Utah State team that's looking a lot more dangerous than it was when the game was scheduled. The well-chronicled issues with the offensive line (and defensive tackle) recruiting and development that we've beaten to death around here the last few years have been building to a bubble that was set to burst heading into 2015. And even if the development will be superior with this new coaching staff, it's not unfair to question whether or not the raw materials are there to work with.
If Steve Sarkisian had returned for his sixth season, a 9-4 finish to the regular season (which would've almost certainly meant a fifth straight 5-4 finish in the Pac 12) would've caused some heads to explode. That has to be the baseline (at a minimum) for Chris Petersen if he and his staff are the upgrade we all expect. And even though the Huskies have 5 conference road games, three of them (Cal, Colorado, and WSU) are imminently winnable. A fourth (Arizona) is one that could very well be won. Given that, as backward as it might sound, a 5-4 finish in conference under Petersen might actually be more disappointing than it would've with Sarkisian. And only meeting that standard, with what I expect to be a much more challenging season to follow in 2015, may very well lead to some questions about Petersen's ability to win here.
The very first time Petersen met with the Seattle media, he said that he at one time or another tried to recruit the majority of the current UW roster to Boise State, but without success. Maybe there's some hyperbole there, but I think it's more truth than poetry. I don't think he gets to wait for "his" players here the way that Husky fans had to wait for the past few coaches to do. And while Petersen had absolutely no part in creating the current roster outside of 22 guys that will be arriving in August, I think that the expectation is that a "better" coach will have a better way to fix it than the guy that made the problem in the first place. I fully buy into the concept of team culture, but excepting the exceptions of environments as toxic as the one Willingham left here, I don't buy the notion that it's a years-long fix. There may be ongoing refinement, but it's not something that should require a wholesale makeover to achieve.
Shiny new coaches depreciate faster than shiny new cars, especially when they take over a situation that doesn't really require much heavy lifting. For the Huskies to maintain the health of the program, they have to make a significant splash in the next two seasons. Fans aren't going to remember the warm fuzzies that luring away one of the most desirable coaches in the country provided for the winter nights of 2014. The Koetter and Hawkins comparisons will be brought up.
Two years obviously doesn't define a tenure, and I'm not suggesting it does, But for only the second time in my lifetime, the Huskies are changing coaches with a high degree of continuity and being largely on solid ground. It's enough time to make a statement that, if nothing else, the new coach hired the right assistants. The way it looks to me, Petersen has a great chance to do that in 2014, no matter who takes the snaps at quarterback. 11 wins this year will make the little hiccup I expect in 2015 look like the blip it'll end up being.