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UW’s recruiting and roster philosophies are all about balance

Is the rebuild of the UW roster finally complete?

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There has been quite a bit of chatter amongst the fans in this forum concerning the Huskies' current recruiting class and the likely number of “slots” left to fill to reach a full class.

All of this talk has gotten me thinking about the message that Chris Petersen imparted to us when he first arrived. To paraphrase, Petersen talked about how it “would take a little while” to get the roster in the shape that he wanted. He observed that the Sarkisian regime had left him with some quality talent but hinted that the roster was not organized in the way he wanted to build the program.

In defining what his actual goals in roster construction were, he was a bit vague. He did note back then that he preferred “balance” as his primary roster management strategy. That is, he prefered replacing scholarship players on a one-for-one basis with every graduating class. He also has said that he prefers relative equality in numbers across all of the graduating years on the roster.

This notion of balance, of course, is more of an ideal than an end state. On a year-to-year basis it is impossible to be able to plan for things like early departures, transfers, and medical-related roster turnover. Still, we’ve now booked enough years of Chris Petersen recruiting to undo some of the roster issues that he inherited and to draw some conclusions on how his actual results resemble his original strategy. The roster is effectively “his” in every way and we ought to have enough information to infer what his completed rebuild really means.

To start, let’s look at the program roster by the numbers. The chart below shows the number of scholarship players by class by position grouping. I’ve had to make a few assumptions related to who plays what position (e.g. Levi Onwuzurike as a DE, Cade Otton as a TE, Salvon Ahmed as a RB), but it gives us a nice flavor of how the roster is shaping up.

Washington Scholarships by Year

Position Seniors Juniors Sophomores RS Freshman Tr Freshmen Commits Total Active
Position Seniors Juniors Sophomores RS Freshman Tr Freshmen Commits Total Active
QB 0 2 0 1 1 2 4
RB 1 1 0 2 1 1 5
WR 2 2 3 1 3 2 11
TE 2 1 1 0 3 1 7
OL 2 5 4 1 3 3 15
DT 0 2 1 0 0 0 3
DE 0 2 1 1 0 2 4
LB 3 2 3 1 0 2 9
OLB 1 0 3 2 2 0 8
CB 0 2 2 1 2 1 7
SAF 1 1 1 2 1 0 6
ST 1 0 1 1 1 0 4

So, what can we take from this as it relates to Petersen’s ideals from a roster balance and a recruiting strategy standpoint?

the balancing ...

We certainly have enough information to get a feel for how the current staff views the ideal roster breakdown.

Offensively, the skill positions - WR, RB and QB - look like they are in the ideal Chris Petersen-defined “balance” when looked at from a total numbers perspective:

QB: 4-5

RB: 4-5

WR: 10-11

NCAA Football: Washington at Oregon
The move of Jomon Dotson from RB to CB balances out the secondary and demonstrates UW’s roster strategy at RB.
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to the gross numbers by position, you can see that program is in a relatively good rhythm in terms of adding a similar number of players to the roster in each year. This creates a nice spread of players across scholarship years and minimizes the inevitable disruptions that come when players depart the program.

The move of Jomon Dotson from RB to DB this offseason provides us a clue as to how the staff looks at the RB position, in particular. Many fans felt when it was announced that this move may have left UW a bit thin at RB. Petersen obviously doesn’t think so. The fact that Salvon Ahmed - who I’ve counted as a RB - is getting snaps at WR this fall is a clear indication that the staff isn’t worried at all about going into the season with what most of us may instinctively feel is a thin group. They prefer a smaller RB corps than what we may be used to.

The offensive line and tight end positions seem to be in perfect balance right now with the staff at close to their ideal numbers in each group:

OL: 15

TE: 6-7

The staff favors multiple TE sets that feature blocking specialists and receiving threats on the field at the same time. Thus, a roster of six to seven TEs - which might feel like a lot to most of us - is what the staff is shooting for. This might also explain why there was such a sense of urgency to move Will Dissly from the defensive side of the ball, leaving what many of us considered a gap on the D-line last season.

It also appears that the staff is going for an ideal state of three offensive lineman in every class. They’ve not been able to achieve it quite yet, but they seem to be getting closer to that end state each year. The obvious gap they have to that goal is the current redshirt freshmen signing class. Thus, you might expect to see an extra body or two added to one or each of the 2019 and 2020 classes.

Defensively, I’m looking at each level of the defense in two groupings: the D-line (DT and DE), the linebackers (LB and OLB) and the secondary (CB and SAF). Let’s start with the line excluding “BUCK” linebackers:

DT: 3-4

DE: 4-5

I have a sense that Husky fans are inherently worried that there are not enough bodies in either of these groupings. The staff might very well agree with you, but I suspect they feel like they are relatively close. The reason being is that UW tends to play their base set with only two true D-linemen on the field at any given time. The presence of a BUCK and a true OLB allows Pete Kwiatkowski the option of rushing between two and four on any given play without having to change personnel or restricting the versatility of the unit. This is a key strategy when dealing with the variety of offenses presented in the PAC.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington
Jaylen Johnson’s big game against Alabama demonstrated his versatility as a defensive lineman.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Even when Kwiatkowski requires his “big” groupings (excluding goal-line), it is unusual to see more than three full-time D-lineman on the field. Thus, a unit that has between 7 and 9 total players is effectively 3-deep.

I’ll also note here that some players might still move around over time. A guy like Onwuzurike or Jaylen Johnson might still become more of an inside guy while a guy like Benning Potoa’e may still move to more of a traditional DE role. This kind of movement may help to even out class-to-class imbalances like the one that we see forming with DTs right now.

The linebackers are divided into two groups following the titles used in the official roster: linebackers and outside linebackers. Here is what looks to be UW’s ideal balance (and we assume the BUCKs are all OLBs).

LB: 8-9

OLB: 8-9

There isn’t a whole lot of controversy here. The only thing to point out is that among the OLB group, there are players (think Hau’oli Kikaha) who are natural “hand in the dirt” kinds of guys while there are others (like Travis Feeney) who are going to be standing up most of the time. The versatility of player types can give this group a different look and feel from year to year.

The secondary is the one group that seems to have achieved ideal balance both in terms of overall numbers and year-to-year numbers. Here are the total numbers the staff seem to favor by position.

SAF: 6-7

CB: 6-7

When you look at the the total number of DBs by year, Jimmy Lake has three players in every single class (with the exception of a senior class that is missing a couple of early NFL declarees). That kind of balance is what ensures that the coaching staff always has access to raw talent and to experienced players in any given year.

The special teams comprise of kickers and snappers. Petersen appears to have a preference to have at least one active snapper and three kickers on the roster at any given time. Important to note here that P Joel Whitford has been reported as having three years of eligibility. However, UW lists him as a freshman on their roster.

... and the staggering

One last aspect that jumps out when you look at the roster broken out in this way is how the staff looks at staggering. We’ve all assumed that the standard is simply to recruit in the upcoming signing class the same number of players in a position that are graduating that year. That is sort of true, but it isn’t the whole story.

A more accurate description of the strategy based on a look at how the classes are currently shaping up might be that the staff wants to replace outgoing players with the same number of incoming players who can contribute on the field the following year. Thus, the strategy is more nuanced in that it includes redshirts and true freshmen who are presumed to be ready to contribute.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington
Daniel Bridge-Gadd was recruited to effectively replace the now departed Jeff Lindquist at QB.
RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

The easiest example illustrative of this point is the QB position. UW has two juniors - Jake Browning and K.J. Carta-Samuels - on the roster. Still, Petersen appears very likely to take two QBs in the 2018 class. Assuming that Browning doesn’t leave for the NFL, the Huskies would open the 2018 season with six scholarship QBs, two of whom are seniors and two of whom are true freshmen.

If the staff was being literal about recruiting only to fill spots vacated by graduation, then they’d take no QBs in the 2018 class and two in 2019. But, if they are actually recruiting with an eye towards having field-ready talent to replace the graduating players, getting two in 2018 and redshirting them both makes complete sense.

The QB position isn’t the only position we see this nuance showing up. It is also present with the receivers, the offensive linemen (if we assume that Trey Adams leaves early, UW will have three redshirt freshman arriving just as Adams, Andrew Kirkland and Coleman Shelton move on), the running backs (if Ahmed redshirts, then he’d replace an outgoing Lavon Coleman), defensive ends (where Ali Gaye and Draco Bynum would be moving out of hypothetical redshirt years just as Jaylen Johnson and Shane Bowman are graduating) and the defensive backs.

Maybe I’ve just burned 1600 words stating the obvious. I had actually started out by breaking down the UW roster now compared to Sark’s last year, but it was a little messy. Needless to say, you can see the big differences among running backs, tight ends, and defensive linemen from a total numbers perspective and a huge shift towards more balance across the scholarship years.

The “rebuild” of the Washington football program was over in the eyes of the fans when UW made the college football playoffs last season. If you were to look at this strictly from a football roster standpoint, 2017 might be the first year you’d say that Chris Petersen’s roster is close to “balanced” against his vision for the program. Of course, there is still work to be done - particularly in smoothing out the numbers by class for the receivers, the offensive linemen, and the interior defensive linemen. But the program has clearly turned the corner from rebuild and moved toward optimization - a state of existence Husky fans haven’t enjoyed since the late 90s.