Last week I broke down my take on the tiers in CFB and the three building blocks that influence a program’s success. There are the Title Contenders, NY6Contenders, and the Conference Contenders, and each tier is comprised of teams that have similar annual expectations in the near future. As I wrote last week, sustained success or mediocrity can change expectations over a few years, but over the next 3-5 years (the full eligibility of a single recruiting class) this is how I broke down my tiers:
Title Contenders: Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson
Conference Contenders: Auburn, Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, USC, Miami, Texas, Oregon
*Since last week, I’ve added Auburn so that every team that meets the Blue Chip Ratio should be considered a Contender at some level. Others like Wisconsin can jump into the Contender tiers without the talent, but the talent automatically makes you a contender.
I also went through this exercise to also take stock of the various teams and how their program building blocks (players/roster talent, coaching staff, and administrative infrastructure) fared relative to programs with similar expectations. I took a look at how schools with different built-in advantages (ex. a deep pool of local talent, an expansive coaching tree with ties to a school, or a wealthy booster base) have capitalized on these strengths, and it served as a starting point to assess how UW has done in maximizing its own advantages.
Today I’ll begin to break down the building blocks of our program to assess how they influence where we land in the college football landscape. Before we start, I have to note that this was going to be a single post before I split it up for the sake of brevity, so stay tuned for the final piece of this series.
Our Program’s Foundation
Going through the three program building blocks that I used to assess the rest of the CFB landscape, administrative infrastructure might be the easiest to pin down for us. In my opinion, I believe we have strong administrative support and guidance backing our football program. Having a clear vision and alignment with the HC of the football team is the key to maintaining positive program momentum. Programs that lack an AD with the vision to align the key players within the program also tend to be dysfunctional and get mired in the doldrums (Texas, USC, Miami, Tennessee). Fortunately, I don’t think this is the case with Jennifer Cohen. She has done a fine job supporting Coach Petersen while he was in charge, and she was proactive and decisive in replacing him once he decided to step down.
Additionally, she’s developed or maintained significant resources for our program. In 2018, she secured us the Adidas deal that is among the ten most lucrative brand partnership deals in collegiate athletics. It builds upon our strong athletics program brand and our standing as the largest athletics program by operating revenue in the Pac-12 (athletics being all UW sports, Source: USA Today). She’s also presided over a spike in program ticket revenue, and although this is certainly related to our team’s impressive run over the last four years, success on the field doesn’t always translate to ticket sales. Stanford’s run in the 2010’s paralleled our recent successes but didn’t come close to our fan engagement, and for that Cohen deserves a lot of credit. It should also be noted that these resources don’t include the types of outside contributions that programs like USC and Oregon might benefit from, so this is a direct reflection on her efforts to develop resources within her control.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s a symbiotic, if not circular, relationship between the team’s success and the athletic department’s ability to marshal resources to continue to invest in the team’s success. In my opinion, most importantly, these resources have afforded our program the largest assistant salary pool in the conference. This is a fantastic place to invest resources, and a continued commitment here will pay dividends, but I need to also provide some context. Our assistant salary pool still only ranks #18 in the country, total staff compensation (so including the HC & support staff) pushes us down a bit, and the two schools with the most comparable assistant salary pools are South Carolina and Arkansas, who aren’t considered stalwarts in the SEC. Long story short, we are doing awesome relative to our conference competitors, and we are making the right investments, but we seem to not be in a position to out invest at a nationally competitive rate.
Recruiting & Talent
On the recruiting front, UW is positioned in a pretty decent position to build a competitive roster. The state of Washington produces 4-5 blue chip recruits (4 or 5 star talent by 247’s composite rankings) per year, and our conference footprint helps us to build pipelines into the SoCal recruiting hotbed, along with underrated talent centers in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Hawaii. As I mentioned before, UW also has a strong brand recognition in the west, and a strong academic program nationally, which are both durable recruiting advantages for some recruits. We also seem to be in the middle of a string of strong local recruiting classes that has been tagged as our golden opportunity to sustain the Petersen era of success.
I took a more analytical approach to get a better sense of our historic recruiting success and a feel for the regional recruiting trends that are in play. I did some number crunching, and since 2011 UW’s Pac-12 & Western regional footprint (Pac-12 states + Hawaii & Nevada) produced ~61 blue chip recruits per year, and on average we landed ~7. The recruiting classes from 2017-2020 were exceptionally strong with a 4-year average of 11 blue chip recruits, and this is likely attributable to our 2016 breakthrough and the Petersen staff hitting their stride on the recruiting trail in year 3. None of this is should be new news to anyone, but what might be a bit more interesting is where we are getting our top talent from.
Taking a look at that same 4-year stretch, about half of our blue chip recruits came from California each year, and this makes sense considering that California, on average, produces 60%+ of the blue chip talent in our recruiting footprint. The 8 California blue chips we landed in 2019 serves as our high water mark since 2011, and it’s no coincidence that the 2019 class as a whole was our team’s recruiting high water mark. Worryingly though, 2021 got us exactly 0 California blue chips for the first time in 11 years. There are a couple reasons why this might be, but the rejuvenated recruiting from USC might have something to do with it.
The second largest source of talent is Washington with 2.5 blue chip recruits per year (~50% of WA blue chips), but then there’s a steep drop off. No other states in our footprint produced more than 3 blue chip recruits for UW in that period, and those states (Oregon, Utah & Hawaii) aren’t legitimate pipelines for high end talent. Oregon only averaged 2 blue chips per year over the last 11 years, and 42% of the time they went to an in-state Power 5 program. That doesn’t offer great odds if we’d need a lock on the one other blue chip recruit to get any sort of consistent blue chip pipeline going. The statistics for Utah look much the same as Oregon.
Hawaii is a more wide-open with no in-state P5 team, but that doesn’t give us any sort of advantage. USC, Oregon, and Notre Dame have assistants with strong ties to the islands, and while Ikaika Malloe has made inroads, Fa’atui Tuitele, Julius Buelow, and Sama Pa’ama of the 2019 class represent 100% of the blue chip recruits we’ve landed in the last 11 years. The 2019 class is starting to look more and more like an anomaly, and like the rest of the states in our footprint, that track record just isn’t there for us to lean on.
This is all to say that we are extremely reliant on a couple of blue chip pipelines for consistent high-end talent. This year’s small class was also light on blue chip talent with only 4, and all 4 were from WA. This is the first time in a decade that we’ve had zero out-of-state draw for blue chip talent, and this likely has more to do than a weak recruiting staff.
Coaching is the most difficult building block to assess holistically, and its probably the most divisive. I believe we have one of the best coaching staffs in the conference on an individual basis. Between Coach Lake, Coach K (who I consider a top 5-ish DC), Coach Huff, and Coach Malloe we have a very strong core of tacticians, developers, and recruiters. The rest of our assistants are either solid additions or haven’t been here long enough to give a fair assessment.
John Donovan has been successful in his one season so far. While many immediately panned his hiring, he has done well in his brief time here to build an efficient offense that around a road grading OL and a deep RB rotation to smoothen the changes we saw at many of the key offensive positions. Dylan Morris looking good when called upon should also be credited to Donovan, who arrived with lots of questions regarding his ability to coach QBs.
Keith Bhonapha and Derham Cato are two other assistants to note in particular. Bhonapha has done better than his reputation with the fans would suggest. He continues to find solid under the radar running backs, land select blue chip recruits, and develop the workhorses of several successful rushing attacks. Some of his recruiting decisions have caused some head scratching when we took commitments from RBs when it seemed like we were in the hunt for higher rated ones, but Bhonapha has always had an answer whenever we stuck to a RB, so he should get credit for his results.
Cato on the other hand doesn’t have a long track record, but he is an assistant who is showing a lot of early promise. He’s been here for only a year, but he’s surpassed all early expectations on the recruiting trail by landing Quentin Moore, nearly landing long-shot recruit Brock Bowers, landing the commitment of Jack Yary (even if he never plays a down for us), and getting the ball rolling on 2022 with Chance Bogan’s commitment. That’s a lot of good work for another guy who’s hiring was widely panned for his lack of name recognition.
Now this is a strong group of coaches, but I believe the jury is still out on if the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The sample size just isn’t large enough to make any assessment on Jimmy Lake’s moves. The Donovan and Cato hires look good, but their ability to develop their players is TBD. Some of the staff that Lake retained will also need to be assessed for their fit into his long-term plans as well. Finally, the best head coaches develop their assistants as much as their assistants develop their players, especially the Chris Petersen-types of HCs. Developing the staff and empowering them to develop the team culture is important if you don’t have a X & Os guru like a Lincoln Riley. That’s not to say Jimmy Lake isn’t an X & Os coach, he certainly is, but it seems like he’s taking Chris Petersen’s lead with a more hands off approach on the play calling and scheming since he has a very capable DC in Coach K. In this type of role, we will have to see if Lake can provide similar added value as a HC as he did as a DB coach and DC.
There’s also the every present recruiting aspect of coaching. I’ve already touched on some of this in the section above, but the coach-side of recruiting comes down to sales. Some people are good at it, and some aren’t. Securing talent to build a competitive roster is obviously important, but it still comes down to a decision in the hands of someone outside of our building. Effective talent scouting, recruiting strategy, and plain old effort are things that our staff can control, so I judge them on that. For the most part we’ve aced the scouting and done alright on the strategy and effort. I think we’ve all been a bit underwhelmed by the seeming change in energy that Coach Lake has had on the recruiting trail since being promoted, so that’ll also be something to watch.
Where does that put our staff? We have one of the top staffs in the conference, and I’d argue that we have a nationally competitive staff when it comes to identifying talent and developing players. There may be areas of improvement that could spawn staff changes in the future, but we don’t have the types of glaring deficiencies that would prevent us from staying competitive in any game in the conference.
Administrative Support + Recruiting + Coaching = ???
Between the three building blocks that I just broke down, I think that grading on a national curve we are in the B+ to A- range on administrative support and coaching, and we are somewhere around a B to B+ on recruiting. Our athletic department brand, academic prestige, and decent regional sources of talent are durable advantages that provide a solid conference contender floor for our program, but we may lack the ace up the sleeve to launch ourselves up the national hierarchy to title contender status. That’s not to say we can’t strive for a national championship, and there are moves we can make to position the program to take the next step and help the stars align for another run like 2016. I’ll go more deeply into a few of my ideas next week.
Until then, let me know what you think and if you view the program’s building blocks differently in the comments below.