Rumors that existed, at least on the back burner, for much of the 2013, were officially realized late in the morning of December 2nd, 2013. After a five-year run of digging the Huskies out of the worst times in the history of Washington football, Steve Sarkisian was officially named the coach of the USC Trojans. And Husky fans were left in limbo, unsure both of the cache of the job, and Scott Woodward's ability to attract a top-flight coach that could build on the work Sarkisian had started, but failed to finish.
After four days that felt more like four months, Scott Woodward introduced Husky fans to college football's White Whale. A man whose name came up with virtually every coaching search west of the Mississippi (and a few to the east as well), had finally decided to leave the comfortable confines of Boise State University and "take his talents to Montlake" (in the parlance of our times). Chris Petersen was our new head man, and the hire was met with almost universal praise.
2014 in Review
Petersen's season began immediately after he was hired; he immediately had to assemble a staff, and salvage and build upon the 2014 recruiting class. To the latter, Petersen et al did a fantastic job, landing two of the best prospects in the state of Washington in Budda Baker and Kaleb McGary that weren't 100% sold on Washington under Sarkisian, bringing several of his recruits with him from Boise State, flipping others from rival Pac 12 schools, and landing a highly-touted quarterback who had previously been committed to a school that ended up undergoing its own coaching change.
On the former, the reviews were a little more mixed. But most fans were willing to trust the judgement of a guy that had built a 92-12 record as a head coach, and when the dust settled, Petersen and the Huskies had a staff that consisted of Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, Defensive Line Coach and Special Teams Coordinator Jeff Choate, Linebackers Coach and Assistant Head Coach Bob Gregory, Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake, Offensive Line Coach and Associate Head Coach Chris Strausser, Running Backs Coach and Recruiting Coordinator Keith Bhonapha, Wide Receivers Coach Brent Pease, Tight Ends Coach Jordan Paopao (the only holdover from the previous staff), and Quarterbacks Coach and Offensive Coordinator Jonathon Smith.
After the recruiting season wrapped up in early February, Petersen's first order of business was to indefinitely suspend presumptive starters in quarterback Cyler Miles and wide receiver Demor'ea Stringfellow for their roles in two altercations in post-Super Bowl celebrations. While questions about the players' status were mainstays in interviews with Petersen, most of the rest of his comments centered around his process, and getting players to buy in to his culture and his way of doing things. He asked for patience from Husky fans whose expectations were high based not only on the returning talent on the field for the 2014 season, but the man hired to coach it.
Spring came and went with only a limited amount of information available to fans, and the limited amount learned in the summer and into fall camp had fans anxious for the opener August 30th at Hawaii, as well as the rest of the relatively easy early schedule that was going to allow the Huskies to ease into being a well-oiled machine by the time conference play came around. Unfortunately, that never happened. On either side of the ball, really.
Instead, the Huskies struggled to find a consistent rushing attack and an offensive identity, and a defense that featured two All-Americans (plus a third that was named All-American for his all-around abilities) finished the season as good, but by no means great, unit. There were bright spots along the way - most notably the emergence of Budda Baker and Sidney Jones in a very young secondary, Dante Pettis as a return man and receiver, senior Danny Shelton's dominance (and barrel roll), unanimous All-American Hauo'li Kikaha, Shaq Thompson's Ultimate Football-ness, and the late-season big play running of Dwayne Washington - the season as a whole wasn't very satisfying. It wasn't a step forward, and arguably, was a step back. Really, though, it's only going to be properly assessed in hindsight; either the foundation for a long, consistent run of success under Chris Petersen, or the next in a series of mediocre seasons that ultimately leads to firing yet another coach.
In assigning grades, it's tough to separate the coaches from the players, and the assistant coaches from the head man. But let's give it a go anyway.
Tim Socha: He immediately became one of my favorite hires on the new staff early in the spring when he said that one of his first jobs was to remodel a brand-new weight room to get rid of many of the machines that cluttered it, and replace them with free weights. He probably spends more time with the players than any other coach, and has one of the least outwardly-recognized jobs. His results also take the longest to reach fruition. I'm not a huge fan of the sloppy weight gain that we saw in a lot of the players, but that's as much a product of the desires of the position coaches and Petersen as it is Socha. There are still too few guys lifting as much as players at a school like UW should, but the trend is the right way. Grade: B-
Jeff Choate: He probably inherited more talent than any other position coach in Danny Shelton and Haou'li Kikaha, but he did a fine job of coaxing a very good season out of Andrew Hudson, and got serviceable play from Evan Hudson. His insistence on rotating the defensive line throughout the course of a game, every game, developed some decent depth and will help mitigate the loss of the four senior starters in 2015. Elijah Qualls and Joe Mathis in particular were playing good football by the end of the season, and true freshman Will Dissly had a credible, if outmanned, showing. Grade: B-
Bob Gregory: If Choate didn't inherit the most returning talent, then Gregory did. Shaq Thompson was asked to do a lot more in terms of engaging linemen in this new scheme, and struggled most of the year in that regard. But he was a phenomenal playmaker (on both sides of the ball). He was a much better all-around linebacker in 2014. John Timu didn't show as much progression, but continued steady (and underappreciated) play. Gregory never really figured out how to "aim" Travis Feeney, and instead platooned him often with Keishawn Bierria or Scott Lawyer. Things leveled of for the most part by the end of the season. There was a decided dropoff between the first and second units here, which doesn't bode well for 2015. Less well still should Corey Littleton assume Kikaha's job at "Buck." Grade: C-
Jimmy Lake: This was a man that was likely fearing for his job early in the season, especially following the Eastern Washington defensive debacle. A third of the way through the season, Lake's already young secondary was down both of the starting cornerbacks (Jermaine Kelly to a broken ankle, and Marcus Peters to a boot stuck firmly up his hind parts) with no depth behind them. True freshman Sidney Jones stepped in as a starter, and looks to hold that position as long as he's a Husky. True freshman Budda Baker might have been the "best" recruit in the 2014 class, so I'm wary to give Lake too much credit for his play, but there's no doubt that Baker maintained his confidence in the face of early adversity and excelled as the season wore on. Lake's best job might have been with sophomore John Ross, who in a scant few weeks of practice at corner, was a more complete defender than he's ever shown as a receiver. Kevin King had his struggles, but also showed improvement from an injury-shortened freshman season. Grade: B+
Chris Strausser: In a somewhat puzzling move, Strausser chose to move the returning starter at guard to center, and the returning center and Rimington Watch List nominee to the bench in favor of James Atoe. From a purely blocking standpoint, the move makes some sense. But it begs the question of whether that lineup featured the best five linemen that the Huskies could put on the field. This was an experienced group that had never really lived up to the advanced billing, and they continued that trajectory in 2014. This isn't to suggest that Strausser is entirely to blame - starting tackle Ben Riva missed virtually the entire season, and Dexter Charles missed a handful of games as well - but he didn't provide a tangible "positive" to the line. In fairness, this isn't the type of line he would want. Had he been here for the entire careers of the line class of 2010, things might look substantially different. But in the short time he had to work with them, it's fair to suggest his results weren't what we'd hoped to see. Grade: C-
Brent Pease: Stringfellow chose to transfer, and Kasen Williams never really appeared to be 100%. Jaydon Mickens and John Ross are largely redundant with each other. DiAndre Campbell puts forth the effort, but just was never going to be a star; his best attribute was likely his willingness as a blocker. Pease was dealt a tough hand, personnel-wise. Dante Pettis and Brayden Lenius made strides by the end of their true freshmen seasons, and Kendyl Taylor was beginning to emerge late in the season. Marvin Hall's greatest contributions might have come as a passer. As a group, this unit didn't appear to show as much willingness to block as needed, and it's tough to suggest that any one of the returners was "better" in 2014 than in 2013 in terms of hands, route-running, blocking, etc. Given the QB struggles, it's tough to blame the lack of performance all on Pease, but at the end of the day, he's the one with the bright, shiny whistle. Grade: C-
Jordan Paopao: Josh Perkins quietly turned in a nice season, with all 25 of his catches coming in the final 9 games. Perkins is more of a "big receiver" (and not particularly big for that position) than a true tight end, though; he's a largely ineffective in-line blocker. Michael Hartvigson carved out a role as the primary blocker, but he lacks the athleticism for the new breed of tight end. Darrell Daniels has the greatest combination of these traits, but in 2014 he lacked the experience, health, and playing time to really develop. I'm struggling between a "C" and an incomplete for Paopao. (flips coin) Incomplete it is. You win this time, Jordan.
Keith Bhonapha: This unit suffered a big blow when Jesse Callier was lost for the season to injury in the 3rd game. Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman also each missed multiple games to injury. And Coleman was a freshman, without a baseline to grade against. But Coleman and Washington both had their struggles to set up blocks, and to find the holes that were there (when they were there). Both also struggled with pass blocking, which frequently put Deontae Cooper on the field and kept them off. Speaking of Cooper, he had the best complete skill set once Callier went down, but still isn't the back he was prior to his injuries. Washington still runs too upright, and had some struggles holding on to the ball. Coleman, for such a powerfully built back, appeared to go down a little easier than you'd like. All in all, this was a group of backs that ran behind a struggling offensive line, but still appeared to fail to get everything that was potentially there for them. Grade: C-
Jonathon Smith: I really, really, really want to know the criteria that Smith and Petersen used in determining the starting quarterback. Obviously, the answer is an equation whose sum is "Giving the Team the Best Chance to Win." I want to know how much "taking care of the ball" and "ability to throw the ball" weigh in the that. I absolutely have to believe that risk aversion is factor that breaks all ties, because the alternative is that Miles is the actual "best" quarterback on the roster and the Huskies are screwed six ways from Sunday next year. While I believe that much of the criticism of Smith is overblown - I don't actually think he's the biggest problem with the Husky offense, or that his play calling is near as bad as it's made out to be by many fans - I question the density of his playbook, since only one quarterback on his roster could understand it. I question the decision to not actively work to establish an identity, and instead look to create a team that's a jack-of-all-trades (and master of none). I question his play calling at times. I question how much value he adds as a recruiter. But really, I question if, under Chris Petersen at the University of Washington, he's the best that the Huskies can do at these two oh-so-important roles. Not if he could be at some time down the road, but if he is right now. I don't know the answer for sure, but I'm pretty sure it's "no." Grade: D+
Chris Petersen: When you get right down to it, this is the only coach that really matters. Everything, inside and out, contained in the Washington Huskies Football Program is a reflection on Chris Petersen. If he doesn't have the talent he needs, it's up to him to recruit it, or delegate the job of recruiting it. If he's not getting the development he needs, it's up to him to surround himself with the assistants that can get it. If he doesn't win, it's up to him to elicit a winning performance. And in 2014, Petersen didn't get it done. There were some successes along the way, but too many of them were individual and not of the team. This season went a long way toward changing the culture of the program, but it didn't provide any tangible results, and the results of culture are the only reason that culture matters at all (it's not an end unto itself). On the overarching bell curve of college football, the 2014 Huskies were a very minor success. A winning record. A bowl game. But on the curve specific to teams like Washington, and to coaches with the abilities and track record of a man like Chris Petersen, it was a failure. That's by no means suggesting he should be fired, or that 2014 will end up meaning all that much in the big picture of Petersen's tenure - it may or may not. But it's less than anyone, including Chris Petersen, expected from Chris Petersen. Grade: D
Looking Forward to 2015
Some have been suggesting since last summer that 2015 would be a step back from 2014 almost no matter what, due to the key losses the Huskies were going to suffer. And pretty much the worst case is being realized, as both Shaq Thompson and Marcus Peters won't be around (for different reasons, of course). 6 of the 7 members of the front seven depart. 4 of 5 starters on the offensive line (maybe 3.5, if you want to call Coleman Shelton a returning starter). Huge questions as to who steps in to fill those spots. A quarterback situation that ostensibly looks worse than it did heading in to 2014 (this past summer, having Cyler Miles around at least appeared to be a bright spot). Questions at running back, and at receiver.
It doesn't have to be a cratering of the program by any stretch, though. In year two, the intangible things that Petersen and his staff can provide are that much more rote now. He and his coaches know their personnel better. In short, the development that provided so much to his program at Boise State should begin to make the whole better than the sum of all parts. It may not manifest itself in as many wins as fans would like to see, but there should be significant improvement in the 2015 Huskies over the course of the season. I know it's almost a dirty word, Husky fans, but this is going to be a young team next year. Both in age and in experience.
For anyone looking for a magic bullet in the form of some dramatic coaching change, it's probably safe to say that you should prepare for disappointment. If anything was going to happen, it would've happened by now.
I hit my reset button on my expectations for 2014 after the Georgia State game. That doesn't mean I'm "settling" for anything less than winning, but I'm willing to let Petersen implement his process, because for the first time in what seems like forever, the Huskies actually have a coach that actually has a process. So I'm going to do my level best to set my expectations for 2015 based on the process.
Hug a Buckeye, and GO DAWGS!!!