Stellar Class Offers Immediate Help for Depth

Steve Sarkisian (Kim Grinolds/Dawgman.com)

Nothing is going distract from this already monster signing class, unless of course there are a couple of more desertions coming down the stretch - and that is unlikely with this staff. Losing a wide receiver in Keanon Lowe is probably the one area where Washington won't hurt simply because of the returning depth there.

This incoming class has balance, speed, and size to bolster this team in almost every area. Still, it is very rare for a true freshman to come in and help at the varsity level his first year. Considering they didn't sign any junior college players, it means that any kid who plays is doing so right out of high school.

Your hope is two or three of your first year kids can play immediately, and five or six others can help you somewhere in the depth. I would guess, however, that the majority of this in-coming signing class will end up red-shirting. Last year's class started at 19 was reduced to 15 before the season even began, but over half of those played with three becoming starters. Having nine players out of 15 end up on the field was probably unexpected but obviously reflected the existing talent on hand, as well as the coaches' desire to play the best available, regardless of experience or seniority.

Addressing needs is critical in recruiting, as it was last year when the Huskies signed Will Mahan to come in and do the punting. He did so, and although having a few dips in performance, proved to be an excellent signing. The only real need in the kicking game this year is at snapper, and that was not openly addressed. Brendan Lopez was the back-up to Danny Morovick, who graduated, and they added a walk-on in the fall as a snapping specialist. The coaches even toyed with Kavario Middleton long-snapping during game warmups, so expect the long and short snapper to come from within the existing team.

This year they will add another kicker, Alejandro Maldanado, and his leg strength may give him a solid look at kicking off, as well as offering competition to Erik Folk for the job as field goal and extra point kicker. Other than that, Maldanado will most likely be trying to drive kickoffs right through end zones, as that will be his ticket to play right away.

Another obvious need is at punt returner, and even though Devin Aguilar showed some promise at the end of the season, I could easily see a freshman getting a solid look there. Because Deontae Cooper is already enrolled and will be participating in spring drills, he will have an advantage there if he has the background. His highlight tape would indicate he could be special, and getting the ball in a play maker's hands could greatly help this football team. It's really been since Joe Jarzyka - almost a decade ago - that Washington has had a quality punt return specialist.

Of all the incoming freshmen, the one who impresses me most is receiver Kevin Smith. He has a mature look about him and appears more physical looking than most of the kids we already have. I think he makes an impact similar to James Johnson did last year and ends up being another Jermaine Kearse down the road. I would be surprised if Smith doesn't make the field his first year.

With the graduation of Paul Homer at fullback, that means either incoming Zach Fogerson or Melvin Davis could get a shot to prove he can block and catch. Cooper, Jesse Callier, and Davis are all listed as running backs, and considering the recent attrition at that position there appears an opportunity for a young running back to hit the field early. With Chris Polk sitting out spring ball and Willie Griffin leaving it means lots of looks for the younger kids, and Cooper is at an advantage because he'll already be here.

The decision of Ronnie Fouch to transfer has also opened a need for a holder, meaning that two out of the three parts of the kicking battery need to be replaced. This could be a spot where Taylor Bean or Keith Price could earn time on the field quickly.

Signing only one quarterback and losing one will allow them to travel Nick Montana and still not have to play him in games, injuries notwithstanding. That is perfect for both he and the program. There is no doubt this is Jake Locker's team and he will be the quarterback.

Montana can obviously use a year in the weight room and the film room. I would imagine they will try to find another kid like Bean to help them with the scout team, although it would also help Montana in adjusting to the speed of the college game. Certainly getting Montana here for spring would greatly help his chances, but I still think he should redshirt.

The Huskies expect to sign six offensive linemen and hopefully one proves good enough in camp to become a backup and eventually play. However, offensive line is probably the toughest area for a freshman to play, much less start. That doesn't mean two or three of these kids couldn't end up being on the second team, which means they are just an ankle injury away from playing.

Strength is just too important up-front, and that makes it really hard for a rookie to break in early. There is talk that Erik Kohler may enroll this spring, and that would really help his chances of getting into the depth, but otherwise it's best to redshirt most of them.

Size and strength may be the factors that help tight end Michael Hartvigson to see early playing time. He is a very physical looking youngster and I think the Huskies really need a road-grader type tight end to complement that position, and they haven't gotten that so far consistently from Kavario Middleton, Chris Izbicki or Dorson Boyce.

Because they often use two or even three tight ends at times, that greatly enhances his chances of getting on the field. If Hartvigson proves he can block then he will probably play early.

On the defensive side, however, I see them playing upwards of five or six of the incoming kids. One of the defensive ends is going to have to help, because they lost both starters to graduation (Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and Darrion Jones). By the end of the pre-season I'll bet they play at least three and maybe four rookies up front and probably a couple of the incoming linebackers as well. I know coach Nick Holt and coach Johnny Nansen would like to substitute more frequently up front, thereby keeping everyone fresh. Most teams now rotate as many as eight or nine defensive front kids in every game, if they have the numbers.

There are at least four defensive ends coming in, and all need time in the weight room but all look really quick off the edge, and speed is always a factor in pass rushing. Darius Waters, Brent Williams, Andrew Hudson and Hauoli Jamora all show impressive first steps and any one of them could make the field the first year just due to position need. All are lacking a little lead in the pencil, but speed is more important than size the way the game is played now. One or more could end up as linebackers, and linebackers tend to fill up special teams.

Sione Potoae might be the highest-rated kid the Huskies are signing, and there is no doubt he and Lawrence Lagafuaina will be given every opportunity to compete. Any other kid they sign coming down the stretch - whether it be a Kirifi Taula or Ricky Heimuli - is being done so to play immediately. There's no doubt the Huskies have a need inside, and all of them could contribute if they come in ready to go.

That is what is so exciting about this program: It is based on daily competition, and all of these youngsters are going to be given the chance to play, so long as they have put in the work. That will also apply in the secondary, where there is need for quality depth at both the corner and safety spots. Greg Ducre looks like he could help with quickness alone on the corner, and I'm positive they can use a couple of safeties immediately. Taz Stevenson will play safety, even though he was a pretty good receiver in high school. He is 6-foot-2 and rangy.

Chris Young and Jamaal Kearse are two of my favorite in-state skill players the Huskies are signing, and both have size and speed to help. Either could challenge for playing time on the back end, or on special teams.

Playing a lot of first year kids may indicate you have a really good class, but early playing time also often means you have questionable depth in the first place. Obviously they'll go a long way toward answering those questions once the season starts.

Last year I counted 18 first-year players for the Huskies: Eight were redshirt freshmen, seven were true freshmen, two were junior college transfers, and one was a walk-on, running back Cole Sager. That was a lot of first year players, and all of those kids will be back with that much more experience. It's almost easier to talk about the players that didn't play from the 2009 class; six redshirted, and two were injured the whole season; Chris Robinson and Will Shamburger.

The Huskies won't use anywhere close to that many first-year players in 2010, but my guess is nine or ten of the 30 or so Washington is expected to sign this year will likewise see the field early, and they also have the six red-shirted kids from last years' class: Price, Robinson, Shamburger, Kimo Makaula, Marlion Barnett and Tim Tucker.

You can never count on a first-year kid to shine on the field right away because there is such a big learning curve, but sometimes need forces the issue and you need to always be upgrading your level of talent. If you need an example of that, see: Desmond Trufant .

Competition does that for you and good recruiting does that for competition.

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