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How Young Were the Huskies in 2012?

A common topic of discussion this year has been the youth of Washington's roster and starting lineup. That youth has been cited as an explanation for why the team was inconsistent and mistake-prone. But is it true they were young?

Shaq Thompson & Travis Feeney - part of the youth movement on the 2012 Huskies
Shaq Thompson & Travis Feeney - part of the youth movement on the 2012 Huskies

When looking back at the 2012 season, it's hard to avoid using descriptions like "inconsistent" and "mistake-prone". And when we do, inevitably it will be pointed out that the team was quite young this year. And that in turn will stoke debate: Were the Huskies really that young this year, and weren't there other teams that were also young that had greater success? That debate prompted me to do some research to answer that question.

Quantifying what we mean by youth is a bit tricky; do we go by eligibility or by years in the program? Do we look strictly at starters or include the entire depth chart?

For the purposes of this study, I decided to focus on years in the program, because obviously a RS-Junior has more experience than a true Junior (as an example). Now, you could argue that a true Junior has more experience than a RS-Sophomore, but I think on the whole that counting years in the program is a better measure of experience than strictly going by eligibility. For "greyshirted" players (those that deferred enrollment so as to be counted against the next recruiting class) I decided against adding another year to their experience total, both because that information isn't consistently available across conference roster listings, and because much of the advantage of years in the program as a measure is how long they've been getting hands-on coaching from their college coaches and how long they've been directly participating in their S&C programs. For JC transfers, I counted their time in the JC ranks, though you could make an argument that said time isn't as valuable as time spent at the FBS level. For kids that left on an LDS mission, I ignored that time away from the program; while you could argue those players are more physically and mentally mature, some of them come back out of football shape too, so I'm considering it a wash (though I think in general it's an advantage).

I also focused strictly on starting lineups, mainly because it was going to be impossible to accurately gauge how much backups played. I went with the listings provided by each school in their bowl guides, so I'm only counting regular-season games (plus the P12 Championship Game in the cases of Stanford & UCLA). For those schools that didn't go bowling, I had to go back through their game by game stats and work from their listed starting lineups.

I averaged the numbers for each team, broken down by offense & defense as well as the overall average (I left out specialists). I also tracked their OL averages just to see how the Huskies stacked up in comparison. A player in their first year = 1; a player in their fifth year =5. Obviously, the higher the average, the more experienced that team was.

So, with the methodology out of the way, here are the results. First up is the overall average:

ASU 3.73
Utah 3.71
Stanford 3.54
Oregon 3.52
Cal 3.48
UCLA 3.46
OSU 3.41
Arizona 3.33
USC 3.14
WSU 3.07
Colorado 2.89
UW 2.88

Next up is offensive average:

ASU 3.89
Arizona 3.74
Utah 3.73
Stanford 3.70
OSU 3.39
Cal 3.33
Oregon 3.24
USC 3.20
UCLA 3.18
WSU 2.99
UW 2.86
Colorado 2.82

Next up is defensive average:

Oregon 3.80
UCLA 3.74
Utah 3.69
Cal 3.64
ASU 3.57
OSU 3.42
Stanford 3.39
WSU 3.14
USC 3.09
Colorado 2.95
Arizona 2.92
UW 2.91

Lastly, here's OL average:

ASU 4.05
Arizona 3.98
Utah 3.87
Stanford 3.75
Cal 3.73
OSU 3.57
WSU 3.57
Oregon 3.43
USC 3.37
Colorado 3.15
UW 3.13
UCLA 2.40

As you can see, not only were the Huskies of 2012 young, they were (at least by this measure) the youngest team in the conference - younger even than Colorado. This surprised me - while I knew the lineups we were rolling out were young, I didn't expect to find out they were this young.

Obviously experience isn't the biggest factor in team success - Utah was the 2nd oldest team, yet they struggled and finished 5-7. Talent clearly matters too, and Utah just didn't have enough. However, you begin to understand why the Utah teams under Whittingham have done well - he's built up a program that has experience, and that experience helps mitigate a relative lack of talent. As they improve their recruiting now that they are a part of the Pac-12, they will likely become a consistent force in the P12 South.

USC is not surprisingly a pretty young team - sanctions have taken their toll, and the high level of talent on hand means they tend to have more players leave early for the NFL. But the youth also may be a good explanation of why the Trojans fell well short of expectations this year.

Colorado is very young as you'd expect, and WSU isn't far behind - also to be expected given the new coaching staff, as Mike Leach played a lot of true freshmen.

ASU led the way in this study, and I think that's probably part of the reason the Sun Devils were so infrequently penalized despite playing in the most flag-happy league in college football. It'll be interesting to see if they experience a drop-off next year, as their lineup is likely to be younger.

One thing of note - check out how young the UCLA OL was this year. As tough as Coz had it here with the injuries, Adrian Klemm had it much worse, and yet the Bruin offense was quite a bit better than the Huskies despite also starting a 2nd year QB. Now, part of that is attributable to the Bruins having a lot of experience in the skill positions, part of it is the mobility of Brett Hundley, and part of it has to be Klemm as an OL coach and Noel Mazzone as the OC.

Out of curiosity, I decided to look back at the two most successful teams of the Don James era and see how they compared by this measure. Here's how they did:

1984 Huskies: Overall - 3.89; Offense - 4.14; Defense - 3.64; OL - 4.13

1991 Huskies: Overall - 4.10; Offense - 4.04; Defense - 4.16; OL - 4.37

All of those results - with the exception of the 1984 defense - would have led their respective categories for 2012, and most by a significant margin. Obviously the game was a bit different then, as higher roster limits (95 scholarships then vs. 85 today) afforded greater opportunity to redshirt; as well, there's been a growing trend of underclassmen to leave early for the NFL. But it still points out that part of the secret of Don James' success at the UW was his policy of redshirting as many players as he could. You'd rather have a year of a kid at age 22 than a year at age 18.

So clearly the Huskies of 2012 were quite young; that begs the obvious question of "why?" Why in year 4 of the Sark era was this roster so young? I'll take a look at that in Part 2 of this feature in the next few days...