The 2021 Washington football season felt like a slog at times. Losses piled up and the Dawgs had the same problems week after week. It was clear to any observer that the program needed to make changes after the season. About six weeks after the Huskies announced Kalen DeBoer, the number of changes has been head-spinning. Even the most dedicated UW fans would have a tough time listing all the recruits who have committed or decommitted, transfers who have arrived or left, and coaches who have stayed, moved on, or come aboard. Today, I want to try to make sense of these moves as they stand today to get a better sense of what Coach DeBoer has accomplished in his first stretch in charge at Montlake.
Save for Scott Huff on the offensive line, the entire staff has turned over under DeBoer. Given the level of performance in 2021, it’s hard to argue that many of the prior coaches earned additional time. The two position coaches who caused the most heartache for their departures were probably Ikaika Malloe and Junior Adams. Fortunately, both spots look on track to be filled by new coaches who are arguably upgrades from their predecessors. Inoke Breckterfield will coach the DL (a slight change from Malloe’s OLB designation) after great success at Pitt, Wisconsin, and Vanderbilt. He has an impressive resume as a recruiter and developer. With the untapped potential along the DL, it will be fun to see what he can accomplish in the immediate future. Adams only committed the mortal sin of leaving for Oregon very recently. Yesterday, we learned that the Dawgs are set to hire Purdue’s JaMarcus Shepherd. The passing game has lifted the Purdue team during Shepherd’s tenure and he could also build on a talented group that Adams assembled.
The coordinators also look promising. Ryan Grubb will be the OC and he has long-term experience running DeBoer’s offense. Simply put, DeBoer’s offense has worked everywhere he has gone. Yes, UW is the biggest program where he’ll implement it, but he has been successful in the Big 10. As long as he doesn’t put himself at a huge talent deficit, the offense should work, so having an OC in lockstep with the philosophy and tactics is a bonus.
After close to a decade with a great deal of defensive continuity, it will be refreshing to get some new ideas in the office. William Inge was the DC at Fresno and will share that job with Chuck Morrell. The Fresno defense was better than its reputation last year. The Bulldogs ranked 14th in the country in Expected Points Added per play by the defense and made it in the top 25 against both the pass and run. They didn’t get to that point by having vastly superior talent than the opponents; the schemes and preparation brought them to the top of the conference.
Market Status – Up. It would be hard to feel worse about the new coaching staff than I did about the old one. This one is a gimme, and they’re still in the honeymoon period.
One of the disincentives to making a coaching change is that a new staff does not have the history with the new school’s recruits and the incoming class can fall apart. In a weird way, it turned out to be beneficial that Jimmy Lake’s final recruiting class was so small and unimpressive- there weren’t many players to lose.
Yes, Germie Bernard’s defection takes away a big play prospect from the receiver room, but there are potential solutions coming in the transfer market. While Vega Ioane pulled his commitment, it sounds like there’s still a chance to get the Graham-Kapowsin OL back in the class. DeBoer is also working to replace Jackson Stratton as the QB in the class. Max Brown out of Tulsa looks like the target and he brings more mobility than recent UW QBs have exhibited. Washington OT Josh Conerly is the top prospect in the state and one of the best in the country. If DeBoer can pull a rabbit out of the hat and land Conerly after just a few months of recruiting him, it will be an enormous feather in his cap.
The bigger development in recruiting has been DeBoer’s obvious focus on recruiting as his own developmental area. Going all the way back to his days at Sioux Falls in the NAIA, he has proven that he can win the vast majority of games where the talent levels are at least close to each other. Theoretically, UW should provide the resources to stay near the top of the conference in total talent level. In practice, the coaching staff will have to identify and woo talent at a higher level than it has ever done before.
It’s reassuring that they brought in Courtney Morgan as the Director of Recruiting from Michigan. He has the big game hunting experience that DeBoer and his long-time colleagues don’t. The staff’s early offers show that they are not shying away from recruiting battles with heavyweight opponents (see: Kevonte Henry and Emar’rion Winston in the ‘22 class and Ashton Cozart in ’23). Still, we won’t have much definitive proof of the staff’s ability to get top talent to come to Seattle until signing day next year.
Market Status – Flat. It’s fair to start with some healthy skepticism until DeBoer and his staff prove they can recruit at or near the top of the Pac-12. The early data points are mostly positive, but we need to wait for better evidence to form solid conclusions.
Out: K Tim Horn, LB MJ Tafisi, OLB Laiatu Latu, OLB Cooper McDonald, WR Sawyer Racanelli, TE Mark Redman, DL Sam Taimani, WR Terrell Bynum, LB Will Latu, LB Jackson Sirmon
In: QB Michael Penix, CB Jordan Perryman, S/LB Demario King
The transfer story is slightly misleading because players have been eligible to leave for a lot longer than they have been eligible to arrive. Nonetheless, the overall picture does help us identify interesting themes.
The first theme is depletion of the linebacker position. I won’t give much weight to the Latus- Laiatu was not cleared by UW’s medical staff to continue his career here and Will mentioned off-field priorities in his departure post. The ILBs struggled at times over the last two years. Sirmon and Tafisi were not superstars, but with their departures, the two-ILB system will feature Eddie Ulofoshio and Carson Bruener returning as starters and Alphonzo Tuputala and Daniel Heimuli as their only backups with any experience. Ulofoshio is coming off a serious injury and Bruener only emerged late in the year (and inconsistently at that). There’s time to fill in that gap, but there aren’t obvious, natural connections with any established ILB. Inge will likely lead the recruitment in this area and it will be an opportunity to prove himself early on.
The other hot position has been wide receiver. Adams’s departure for Eugene threw the position group into turmoil. Racanelli was a minor contributor, albeit one with developmental potential. Bynum had a full, successful career at UW and would have provided stability for next season. Bernard could have been a worthy reinforcement, but he will be playing at Michigan State. More recently, Jalen McMillan, Ja’Lynn Polk, and Giles Jackson have indicated they will remain at UW. Rome Odunze has hinted at the same. That group plus Taj Davis could make the position group a strength in spite of the defections. Washington product Junior Alexander recently announced his departure from Arizona State and he has been connected to UW. With Alexander in the fold, it would be a very strong combination of retention and addition to salvage the position.
Elsewhere, Penix provides depth and competition for a QB room that underperformed last season. I blame most of the QB issues on a disastrously bad offensive game plan and position coaching from the “mastermind” of that system. I am confident that one of Dylan Morris or Sam Huard will take a big leap forward going from a QB de-developer to someone who made Jake Haener look like a star. Penix looks more like an experienced fallback to me. Perryman and King will take big steps up in competition from FCS and JuCo, respectively. With all three starting CBs deservedly headed to the NFL draft, the depth and experience will be very welcome.
Market Status – Flat. How the new coaching staff handles the ILB position between now and the start of the season will dictate whether they have “won” the transfer portal. Losing multiple middling LBs and replacing them with superior players could turn into a sizable victory.
Husky stock bottomed out near the end of 2021 when Jimmy Lake lost his job before completing his second season. DeBoer is so early in his tenure that it’s hard to draw long-term conclusions. There are a few conditional opinions I have formed already. First, DeBoer seems to have a quiet confidence that his preparation and tactics can win a fair fight; his tiger style is better than your crane style. Second, DeBoer has allocated significant resources building a staff that has Power 5 experience and connections. Putting those factors together, it’s clear that DeBoer does not share Lake’s inability to identify and improve upon his own weaknesses.
Market Status - Stock Up.