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12 for ‘16: Assistants provide the assistance

What was once a source of anxiety has become a source of confidence for Husky fans and UW players.

Jimmy Lake
Jimmy Lake has emerged as one of the top recruiters and assistants in the PAC
Twitter @coachlakeudub

So, it’s been a little while since I last wrote on the site. I assure you, my absence isn’t related to a silent protest over the sad state of Husky basketball or due to a nacho-and-beer induced malaise post-Super Bowl.

Likewise, my absence hasn’t been because of excessive consumption of cable news (geez, is there anything happening in the world?) or due to being sprayed by a mystery liquid while traveling through Malaysia. Let it be known, in fact, that I’ve never been to Malaysia.

The truth is that I’ve had this assignment lingering about Husky football assistant coaches and the impact that they had on the 2016 season.

Thanks to John Sayler for not volunteering to write this piece. After all, how do you make a story about assistants accessible to and interesting for the average fan?

This is a challenge of Ed Donatell proportions. All that I can do is promise that if you endure the next 700 words or so, you’ll be rewarded with gratuitous observations on the politics of the Donald, the babies of Beyoncé, the saga of Bradgelina, and something about recruiting.

Okay, no, you won’t. This is about football assistants. Read on at your own peril.

It wasn’t all that long ago that a broad contingent of Huskies fans were pleading with the new head coach to consider retaining many of the key holdovers from the Sarkisian era:

  • Marques Tuiasosopo, fresh off a bowl victory in his head coaching debut, was a favorite for QB coach or even offensive coordinator (despite never having held that position before).
  • Justin Wilcox, who had interviewed for the head role and had the defense on an upswing, was a Petersen acolyte and a natural retention candidate.
  • Peter Sirmon was Wilcox’s guy and a top talent evaluator.
  • Tosh Lupoi was the greatest recruiter UW had seen in a decade.
  • Eric Kiesau was an up-and-comer who had shown his potential in his first year calling plays for Sark.

It was argued at the time that many or all of these potential holdovers could help “ease” Petersen’s transition into the Power 5 and maintain continuity with recruits and current players. Even a former contributor on this site seemed to think that keeping Wilcox would be critical for Chris Petersen to have success at UW (this is kind of a fun read).

Man, were we fools.

But it was understandable. Back in 2012, Chris Petersen was a known commodity, but his assistants at Boise were much less so. Their résumés tended to top out with their stints in the Mountain West Conference. Fans were right to wonder how their talents and experiences would lend themselves to the brutal gauntlet that is Pac-12 play and to the rigorous sausage-making that is Power 5 recruiting.

Fans tended to dismiss the very things that Petersen himself argued were important. Continuity, cohesion, role clarity, shared values, understood expectations...these were the priorities for Petersen. How many times did we hear him talk about “only knowing how to do things the way that we know how to do them?”

We were all certain that some of our valued assistants would be retained. Yet, one by one, those same Sark assistants bolted for other jobs. Petersen clearly was intent on bringing his crew in from Boise. The only holdover on the actual coaching staff would be the young tight ends coach, Jordan Paopao. Outside of Paopao, the only name that was remotely familiar to Husky fans was offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith—a man we knew better as a former Oregon State quarterback than as a quarterback coach.

Change is nerve-racking, and Husky fans at the time were absorbing a healthy dose of it. Worries abounded. Could these guys winning recruiting battles against USC, Oregon, and Stanford? Could they coach up key Sark talent? Were they going to be able to make the transition to a major conference and fit in with the Montlake “culture”?

(I defer to Jimmy Lake who acquired himself a boat and seemed to fit in with that very Montlake culture from day one.)

Four seasons later, it is hard to overstate how badly most fans assessed this situation. It is certainly true that it took a few years for this staff to find its traction. It is also true that not everything has gone well (Smith’s learning curve, the Pease mistake, the slow development of the offensive line, the turnstile at WR coach). But it is hard to argue against the fact that this staff, collectively, has proven its worth.

Consider the things that we all mostly agree “have gone well” under this new staff:

  • Strength and conditioning coach Tim Socha’s development of athletes
  • DC Pete Kwiatkowski’s Xs and Os
  • Co-DC and secondary coach Jimmy Lake’s general awesomeness
  • The explosion of Jonathan Smith’s offense in 2016
  • The continued development of running backs such as Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman under Keith Bhonapha
  • The tremendous productivity of defensive linemen under Jeff Choate and, last season, Ikaika Malloe
  • The uplift of special teams play under both Choate and now Bob Gregory

Everywhere you look, discipline seems to have been restored under the reign of Petersen and his assistants. The system is in place, the program is functioning, and players are passing the proverbial “eyeball test.”

Things are not completely settled when it comes to UW’s assistants. The loss of first-year WR coach Bush Hamdan to (of all people and places) Steve Sarkisian and the Atlanta Falcons is a blow given how much progress UW has made on the field and in recruiting under his guidance. UW alum Ikaika Malloe still needs to show that he can contribute as much in recruiting as he does in preparing his defensive linemen to play. Petersen himself needs to continue to develop his network as prospects like Lake, Smith, Bhonapha, and Socha become hotter commodities on the open market.

Nevertheless, the combined UW football staff emerged in 2016 as one of the best in the PAC and in the nation. To say that they were a major part of the breakthrough in Huskies football would be a scandalous understatement. They were tremendous. Not just tremendous, mind you...YUUUUUGGGGGGE.

Okay, there was that political statement you were craving. Congratulations on getting through this post.