Why do so many of us follow recruiting so closely? Its the future.
Recruiting is a building block for a program, and typically the trajectory of a program coincides with the talent we bring in. Great talent is often saddled with high expectations, and talent sometimes needs time to develop. However, those that arrived with great fanfare and were able to immediately step up often left as Husky greats. Guys like Budda Baker in 2014, Jake Browning in 2015, and Trent McDuffie in 2018 were all able instantly elevate the team. In McDuffie’s case, while much is left to be written about his career, he has a shot at completing his career as one of the best CBs to ever play on Montlake.
Other times, impact players come out of nowhere when opportunity meets hidden talent. Think Myles Gaskin in 2015 or Taylor Rapp in 2016. It just goes to show that stars can come from anywhere if given a chance to shine.
For the sake of this exercise, I’m going to consider three things before making my pick for the 2021 impact true freshman: talent, depth chart & playing time situation, and potential impact. Talent is an obvious one. An all-world talent like Savell Smalls in 2020 was going to find the field no matter what as a freshman. The depth chart situation is a little more case-by-case. For example, there’s only one QB on the field, so the third string QB is really a non-factor, but a back up WR or pass rusher who can carve out a situational role has a mush clearer path to seeing the field and making an impact. Finally, the potential for impact has to be considered because not all impacts and contributions on the field are created equal. A speedy DB like Davon Banks could find himself on the punt team as a gunner or on kick off as a returner, but the overall impact as a gunner would pale in comparison to Huard stepping up late in a game in relief of an injured QB. The bigger the potential impact the better.
Let’s take a look at the main candidates.
Sam Huard, QB
Huard is a good choice here, and he would’ve been the prohibitive favorite as recently as last week until Lake named Dylan Morris the starting QB. However, that doesn’t mean that Huard won’t still be the most impactful true freshman. Between his All-American talent and his participation in Spring Practices, Huard could make a push to win the back up QB job over the more experienced but similarly new Patrick O’Brien.
As the ordained future at QB, winning the QB2 job would put him in position to play in garbage time, fill in for Morris if he were to go down with injury, or even nip at his heels if his play starts to tail off. Obviously his path to significant playing time is all contingent upon him winning the back up job and several other things happening (injury being a worst case scenario and significant reps in a blowout being unlikely), but his contributions could be huge.
Jabez Tinae, WR
After Huard’s undeniable talent, we have to start looking for available opportunities, and Huard’s favorite HS target Jabez Tinae might have the best one. With as much turnover as we’ve seen over the offseason, it’s hard to think that there’s an entrenched hierarchy in the WR room after Terrell Bynum. Obviously Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan will have the first crack at the starting rotation after earning playing time as true freshmen last year, but we’ve rotated through WRs in the past and there could be snaps up for grabs and Junior Adams isn’t afraid to play young guys.
The best case scenario for Tinae would be for him to leverage his rapport with Huard in practice to win the back up slot receiver job behind Bynum. Odunze has taken snaps at slot, but he has inside-outside versatility that could open up opportunities for Adams to shuffle the line up to find the most talented and productive combinations. A couple catches a game is probably on the high end of Tinae’s potential impact, but a few hundred yards over a 12+ game season on a team with little returning WR production could be the toehold he needs to launch a productive career.
Kuao Peihopa, DL
An early impact non-blue chip defensive lineman (especially DT) would be a bold pick for sure, but there is good reason to think that Peihopa could be in the mix for playing time. I’ve been a pretty staunch advocate for Peihopa throughout his recruiting because I’ve seen what type of athlete he is in person. Digging up my notes from last year:
Coming back to watch Peihopa’s tape was refreshing. Not only have I seen this kid’s progression from his middle school days, but I also love seeing how his hard work is paying off, especially after a somewhat circuitous journey. As you can see from my previous breakdown below, I first knew of Peihopa as a DL as he was coming up through the intermediate and JV football programs at Kamehameha (Malloe’s alma mater). Over 3 years, his teams would play my HS’s teams 2-3 times a year in our league, so I got to see a lot of live reps. In those days he relied on his physical talents to win, although not as frequently as he should’ve. After spending a year at OL as a sophomore, Peihopa was a full-time starter playing both ways, and something about getting back to DL clicked for him this year. Not only did he slim down ~20 lbs to 285, which has helped his first-step burst tremendously, but he has also refined his overall game. While somewhat underrated, hand fighting technique is critical for DTs, and it is evident to me that the mix of angles, leverage, and hand techniques are finally coming together where he is consistently playing up to his potential.
While I had initially thought we may have been recruiting him as an iOL, it sounds like we are offering him as a DT. I think that the progress that he has made at DL far outpaced his progression at OL, where he was permanently shifted inside after playing his sophomore campaign at LT. With his upside being so much higher at DL, I think Peihopa could be a diamond in the rough
Typically I’d expect linemen to need a year or two at a minimum to acclimate to the college game before they become regular contributors, but Peihopa is both advanced in his individual development and a beneficiary of our transition to Bob Gregory as DC. The physical readiness has been pretty evident from early this summer when Peihopa landed in the top 5 on the team for the bench press, and although its just one aspect of being ready, it is a great sign.
Even BG had good things to say about Peihopa’s readiness and opportunity to play early.
UW DC Bob Gregory said freshman DL Kuao Peihopa is "emotionally ready and physically gifted" enough to play at this level early. Will be interesting to see if he breaks into the rotation.— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) August 8, 2021
Beyond the readiness, Gregory’s addition of more 3 DL fronts to the defense will lean on a larger number of DL than we’ve used in the past. Where we might’ve leaned on a 4-man rotation of Taki, Tuli, Tuitele, and Bandes this year if we ran our typical 2-4-5 personnel, we might now see us run a 6-man rotation that could also include Noa Ngalu and some other yet-to-be-determined 6th man to fill out the second group in our platoon rotation. If Peihopa can win himself that spot and help shore up our run defense, he’ll have played a bigger role than anyone could’ve expected.
The other contenders in this competition are huge underdogs here. The other blue chip recruits in this class are either deep down the depth chart at a loaded position (Owen Prentice, OL), or has since stepped away from the team (Will Latu, LB). The other linemen in this class (Wyrsch, Tunuufi, & Finau) are unlikely to play much barring a rash of injuries for the aforementioned reasons.
Caleb Berry, RB, would be a good pick in other years to be a dark horse contender, but given that we have 4 solid options ahead of him who have earned extended playing time, plus another underclassman who has been making waves at practice (Jay’veon Sunday), there just isn’t much opportunity to rise up the depth chart.
DB is another position where we’re loaded with talent ahead of the freshmen and there just isn’t much opportunity. Special teams is a spot that DBs often cut their teeth early, so there’s an opportunity for a speedster like Davon Banks to find a role, but unless he wins one of the returner jobs, becomes an elite gunner like Kyler Gordon, or sudden realizes that he’s actually Australian and can punt over the mountains, the overall impact of an individual special teams player is rather limited.
Coach B’s Pick: Kuao Peihopa, DL
Which freshman is most likely to make an impact?
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