One of the biggest storylines of this past off-season was Chris Petersen leaving the cozy confines of Boise State and taking the job at Washington. Since the completion of his first season as Head Coach of the Broncos - an undefeated, 13-0 run culminating in a shocking and wildly entertaining OT win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl - he has been one of the hottest head coaching targets in the country. With each successive season as he built his reputation for success on the field, he was building an equally impressive reputation as a coach that could not be pried away from his job with Boise, no matter how prestigious the school that pursued him.
So when it came to pass that he finally did decide to make the jump to a major-conference school, it was big news, and Husky fans reveled in the fact that it was their school that got him. What has been somewhat overlooked in all of this is the impact of his assistants. Petersen is a fiercely loyal coach, and when granted the luxury of the open wallets of the Washington athletic department, he declined to pursue high-profile assistants from elsewhere and instead offered jobs to most of his current staff with the Broncos and a few of his former assistants that had left for greener pastures.
For many Husky fans, the names of Petersen's assistants don't register much recognition. But perhaps they should - Petersen has nurtured a number of assistants that have attracted national attention and moved on to bigger jobs, including Justin Wilcox, Bryan Harsin, Sean Kugler and Marcel Yates. Both Brent Pease and Jeff Choate had worked under Petersen at Boise State before moving on to bigger schools (Pease to Florida, Choate to WSU and then Florida) before deciding to rejoin Petersen on his Washington staff.
Steve Sarkisian had assembled a talented coaching staff at Washington highlighted by Wilcox, Tosh Lupoi, Peter Sirmon, Keith Heyward, Eric Kiesau and Marques Tuiasosopo, so Petersen's staff have some decent-sized shoes to fill. The question today is, which of Petersen's assistants figures to have the biggest impact? My top-3 candidates are:
Option #1 - Chris Strausser, OL Coach
It's no secret that Husky fans had mixed-feelings (at best) about former OL coach Dan Cozzetto. Strong OL play had been a staple of the glory years of Husky football, and high expectations were placed on him to deliver the next great UW hog-mollies. The results were a mixed-bag - while they developed into a pretty good run-blocking unit, they struggled in pass-protection. Cozz probably doesn't get enough credit for the success of the run-game - he had significant input into that aspect of the offense - but the bottom-line is that his guys had a hard time keeping the QB upright and few of them gained much in the way of accolades. Under his his watch, only Senio Kelemete earned better than Honorable Mention All-Conference honors (2nd Team, 2011) and has thus far been the only one of his players drafted. To top it off, Cozz wasn't regarded as much of a recruiter. Enter Chris Strausser.
Strausser boasts an impressive run at Boise State. In his 2nd stint as OL coach from 2010-2013, his units were among the very best in college football at protecting the QB, allowing just 52 sacks in that span (for comparison, the Huskies gave up 126 over the same span). They also consistently produced effective rushing attacks that averaged no worse than 4.54 ypc and 168 ypg. Including his first stint as OL coach with the Broncos from 2001-05 under Dan Hawkins, his charges earned 7 first-team All-Conference honors including one consensus All-American (Nate Potter, 2011) and three of them were drafted. He also coached the most famous Boise State OL alumnus Ryan Clady for his first two seasons as a Bronco before Strausser opted to follow Hawkins to Colorado.
Option #2 - Keith Bhonapha, RB Coach/Recruiting Coordinator
When highly regarded assistant Joel Thomas bolted for Arkansas following the 2012 season, Sark turned to Johnny Nansen to take over the RB coaching duties. This was met with some level of skepticism as Nansen - a former LB in college - had never coached the position before. Despite his inexperience in that role, you can't argue with the production of his charges as Bishop Sankey eclipsed his strong Sophomore season with a record-setting Junior year that earned him a ticket as the first RB selected in the 2014 NFL draft. Still, it's hard to say whether Nansen was a good fit in that role or if he simply was the beneficiary of a highly talented pupil who didn't need much guidance.
Taking over for Nansen is Keith Bhonapha, a staple on Petersen's staffs at Boise State. Starting off as Director of Football Operations from 2006-08, he moved up to the RB coaching job in 2009, and in 2011 he added the title of Recruiting Coordinator. Bhonapha has had an impressive run, having boasted a 1,000 yard rusher in each of his five seasons as coach. Included in that run is Doug Martin, a 1st round draft pick. Bhonapha has also earned recognition as the Mountain West "Recruiter of the Year" by Scout.com following the 2013 Signing Day. Under his watch the Broncos netted the top class in the MWC two out of three years (and were 2nd in the other year).
Option #3 - Jeff Choate, DL Coach/Special Teams Coordinator
Tosh Lupoi was a huge get for Sark following the 2011 season; he carried with him a rep as one of the top recruiters in the country during his stint with Cal, and to top it off was considered an upper-tier DL coach. When a mini-scandal erupted this past off-season regarding allegations he paid for test-score prep classes for a recruit (he was subsequently exonerated), he found himself too toxic to be hired at USC with his fellow UW assistants and was not retained by Petersen.
Nansen - the DL coach prior to Lupoi's arrival - was also the Special Teams coordinator throughout Sark's stint at the UW. While the kicking specialists under his watch generally performed well, the kick coverage and return units were well below par. Early on this was attributed to a lack of quality depth left behind by Ty Willingham, but things had not improved much by last year despite a strong and deep roster.
Jeff Choate developed a reputation during his first stint with Petersen as one of the top special teams coaches in the country, with his units finishing in the top-25 in kickoff returns three times and in the top-25 in punt returns four times. After a one-year stay with WSU under Mike Leach as their LB coach, he ended up with Florida (after a brief stay at UTEP as their DC) as the Special Teams coach. A tough year with the Gators led to Choate resigning and shortly thereafter rejoining Petersen to be a part of his Washington staff. In a bit of a surprise, he was tapped to coach the DL despite no prior experience at the position. Choate is also regarded as having a strong recruiting pipeline into Texas, something he mined effectively during his stint at Boise State and which helped earn him his jobs at WSU, UTEP and Florida.
The Verdict: Keith Bhonapha
This is a tough race to call. All three candidates take over roles that had been filled by some of the weaker assistants on Sark's staff (Cozzetto/OL, Nansen/RB/Special Teams) and as such have the most potential to feel like upgrades. It's tempting to go with Strausser - if he can work his pass-blocking magic with this OL, they could emerge as one of the top units in the country and go a long ways towards ensuring the Husky offense doesn't miss a beat from a highly successful 2013 campaign.
Choate is also a tempting candidate for his special teams coaching acumen and his potential to open a path into Texas for recruiting, something the UW has not historically had. He will certainly have his hands full replacing Travis Coons, and his success in doing so could have a significant impact on the 2014 season. It seems doubtful however that he'll be an upgrade over Lupoi in terms of DL coaching.
While you really can't go wrong with any of these choices, ultimately I think Bhonapha will have the biggest impact. He takes over a RB crew that is deep in numbers and talent but relatively untested with the departure of Sankey; if he can successfully develop Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman into dependable workhorse backs and oversee a full return to productivity from veteran backs Jesse Callier & Deontae Cooper (both past victims of serious knee injuries) it would go a long way towards making the life of the new QB that much easier. But what gives him the edge over the other two candidates is his impact in recruiting. Many Husky fans have wondered if Petersen has what it takes to recruit at the Pac-12 level and compete against the likes of USC, UCLA, Oregon and Stanford. Bhonapha is his ace recruiter and will be the guy leading the charge on Petersen's first full UW recruiting class.
Who's your pick?