Even before we knew about the interest that Steve Sarkisian had in taking over the job at USC, many Husky fans had pointed to 2014 as "the year" for a UW breakout. The maturity of the lines on both sides of the ball were well forecasted, the emergence of key recruiting talents - particularly on the defensive side - were expected to hit full stride, and the assumption of the critical playmaking roles - such as QB, WR and CB - by players with high levels of experience and talent was expected to come to fruition. Add to that a schedule that many had already pegged as "favorable" and you have the makings for a breakout campaign that Husky fans started talking about as far back as 2011.
The defection of Steve Sarkisian and the early leaps by Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Bishop Sankey put a bit of a damper on the enthusiasm of the typical fan. If they were expecting a dramatic breakout in 2014 before, they may now be expecting more of a steady step forward over Sark's nine-win campaign of last year. Still, on paper, there really isn't much reason for any Husky fan to alter the outlook for 2014. The Husky O-Line comes back as one of the most game-experienced units in the country. The Husky D-Line is stocked full of talent and returns the nation's leading sack man. The back seven has a true set of "hang your hat" leaders at every level and features very promising talents like Sean Constatine, Azeem Victor, Keishawn Bierria and Jermaine Kelly. The ceiling for each of the QBs vying to win the job is higher than Keith Price's ever was and with at least one of them, Cyler Miles, we have documented game film that demonstrates his ability to run the offense and make good decisions under live fire. Oh, and the playmakers! John Ross, Jaydon Mickens, and Kasen Williams have all demonstrated their abilities and should be counted on to grow more in 2014.
Coach Pete and a Change in Culture at UW
Coach Petersen has a rare opportunity to affect culture change in a major FBS football program. We have three recommendations that he may wish to consider.
When we add to the mix a coaching staff that has more depth of experience than it's predecessors, there really are few good reasons to let go of that dream of a 2014 breakout for your Washington Huskies.
Well, maybe there are a few.
As I noted, the situation that Husky fans were banking on to substantiate a forecasted 2014 breakout is still relatively intact. However, there are some wildcards that come with the introduction of Chris Petersen as Head Coach that we must now factor into our analysis. As I noted in an article that I wrote last week, Petersen has been afforded a unique opportunity to adopt a long-term horizon on a variety of program-building decisions that are not commonly available to coaches moving from non-AQ to AQ schools for the first time. Depending on how he decides to proceed, I could see a things getting implemented where the here and now is traded against future growth. Below, I've noted three wildcards that could derail the dream of a 2014 breakout in the name of long-term program health.
Wildcard #1: The Quarterbacking Situation
The most important position on the field also happens to be the most interesting storyline for UW as it enters its fall camp. Prior to the events that affected Cyler Miles in the hours following the Super Bowl, he was seen as a shoo-in to assume Keith Price's role as the trigger man in UW's high-octane offense. The experiences that he had at UCLA and in leading the bombing of Oregon State last season demonstrated to Husky fans everywhere that he had the arm, the wheels and the judgment to develop into a high-level quarterback in the Pac 12.
Fast-forward to today. While Cyler gets huge credit for assuming accountability for his off season misdeeds and, by all accounts, has followed Chris Petersen's program for reinstatement to a "T", he has opened the door for somebody else to take that job. RS Soph. Jeff Lindquist and RS Fr. Troy Williams split the all the reps in Chris Petersen's first Spring Camp and got a huge head start in learning the new playbook. The good news for Cyler is that neither player flat-out seized the job (not that either ever really had a chance under the circumstances) while he was serving his suspension. The bad news is that he missed out on a golden opportunity to not only keep pace on learning the system but also in establishing his leadership position among the rest of his teammates.
Cyler should still be considered the favorite to win the job this fall, even if his discipline program involves not making the trip to Hawai'i. If he does, Husky fans should feel good about 2014. However, if Coach Pete decides to invest in one of the other candidates (including true frosh K.J. Carta-Samuels), then you can expect a "one step-backward" kind of situation as the young QB gets acclimated to the pace of Pac 12 play and acquires the rep experience that Cyler already has.
Wildcard #2: The OKG Factor
Related to the QB situation noted above is the idea of the "OKG Factor" when it comes to how Chris Petersen reshapes the program and relates to the players that he has inherited. Consider that we have built many of our hopes for 2014 on the shoulders of players that Sarkisian acquired and developed. It is not unreasonable to assume that Sark had his "favorites" and that certain players (ironically, Cyler Miles is one) were favored by the previous regime in situations where their play in practice may have been very similar to their primary competitors.
Some players that were "Sark guys" may not respond well to changes being made by the new regime. Whether they be related to culture changes, rules changes, playbook changes, or disciplinary changes, there are bound to be a few players that don't fully buy-in to the new coaching staff. We've already seen a few of those guys wash-out (hello Patrick Enewally) or deal with the realities of facing reduced playing time (farewell Josh Shirley). Fall camp is sure to reveal even more OKGs - Chris Petersen kind of guys - who usurp some positions that may currently be held by players favored by the old staff. If the staff decides to invest in the learning curve of some of those guys at the expense of the short-term benefits of playing the more experienced guys - even if we are simply talking about rotational PT versus a full-on swap of starters - it could result in a slight reduction of the outlook for 2014.
Wildcard #3: Slow Implementation of Fundamentals
During spring camp, we heard many references made by the previous staff to the idea of re-teaching fundamentals and plenty of warnings that "it will take some patience". One could interpret these comments in a variety of ways. For instance, you could just presume that this is typical coach-speak and that they really didn't want to get into much detail about what they were actually working on. Another way is to presume that the players were doing just fine, but that the coaches were having to go through an extended evaluation of what they have so that they could put themselves in a better position to craft both an off-season and a fall camp agenda. Yet another way, the most alarming way, to interpret this is that, in fact, the staff had determined that the players lacked basic capabilities to process and execute what it was that the new staff wanted to implement last spring.
The answer is probably a little of "all of the above". The truth is that Chris Petersen has a reputation of being one of the most detail-oriented Head Coaches in the game. He is a control-freak (in a good way, of course) when it comes to every element of the football program. There is little doubt in my mind that it makes more sense to a coach with such a proclivity to start all over from scratch as opposed to go through some kind of "assess and patch up as we go" type of process with his new team. This isn't to say that the players lacked certain fundamentals, but it is most plausible to think that it was just easier and more comprehensive to go back to square one.
But, what if the Huskies he inherited, in fact, lacked many of the disciplines that Petersen perceived as necessary to implement his full playbook? If that is, indeed, his general assessment and the Huskies have to invest more time than usual in continuing the build those fundamentals this fall, then the Dawgs could face significant delays in the installation of the full program. While the schedule is favorable for UW in the early-going, it is certainly a possibility that Petersen could elect to go into the season with half a playbook as he waits for his players to demonstrate excellence in the variety of fundamentals that he he perceives as pre-requisites in his approach. If this comes to pass, the Huskies might walk into their Week 5 game against Stanford with one-arm tied behind their back -a situation that could alter the outlook for 2014 to many a Husky fan.
The purpose of this article was to discuss some things that might come to pass as wildcards in a season where many Husky fans expect a breakout. In the end, I have little doubt that Petersen and his staff are highly motivated to win in the here and now. Accordingly, I believe that there are very few decisions that Petersen and staff will make that will greatly compromise their ability to succeed in the short-term.
However, I also happen to think that every winning coach subscribes to the notion that there is a right way to win. To achive it, you must organize and develop your talent in a very specific way. If there is a great deal of reorganization required, a step back in order to take two steps forward may be inevitable. We'll know a lot more about how much of such a reorganization Coach Pete has in mind as we get into Fall Camp in two weeks. Until then, stay hopeful, Husky fans. A breakout looks imminent.