Let’s talk about the Pac-12 North. While pretty much every program is getting better in the upper left Pac-12, two teams’ foundations look especially strong. I’m referring to the Nerds and the Dawgs.
There are three pillars that should keep them both duking it out for first for at least a few years.
The most obvious is both programs’ coaching staffs; clearly both David Shaw and Chris Petersen are in it for the long haul at their schools. This might seem like a “duh” statement. It is. But it’s also a “duh” statement which underlies probably the most important factor in keeping a program at a high level for a long time, so long as that coaching consistency comes from, ya know, good coaches and not ones who go 8-4 every year (lookin’ at you, Kevin Sumlin and Butch Jones!). (#Championsoflife.)
Petersen’s and Shaw’s staffs both actually coach discipline and fundamentals, and that’s what makes the longevity of their tenures significant; Montlake and Palo Alto train their kids in the art of not getting stuck in a nine-win-per-year, not-bad-enough-to-be-fired-but-not-good-enough-to-be-legit cycle of crap. These skills include not being a loser who can’t tackle in space, not being a loser who screws up their scheme, and not being a loser who gets out-physical’d. Basically, as long as Petersen and Shaw are around, the teams they field won’t be flashy. They’ll just do their job and do it well.
‘Cause let’s be real — half of winning a game in any sport is waiting for your opponent to screw up and then making them pay. If you’re playing Petersen or Shaw… You’ll be waiting for a while.
Furthermore, Stanford’s recruiting classes — especially in their cornerstone positions in the trenches — have been really, really good lately. Washington’s recruiting appears to be on its way there as they become more prominent and their stock rises.
While anyone with a brain agrees that a winning program starts with its lines, nowhere is that more a part of a team’s brand than under the Harbaugh/Shaw-forged Stanford. Even with their offensive line being somewhat down last year, evidence points to that being part of the natural cycle of a college program’s dips and rises as opposed to the beginning of the end of Stanford’s trench-dominance.
The Cardinal had two four-star offensive tackles in 2016 and two of the nation’s top three tackles, five-stars Walker Little and Foster Sarell, sign with them in 2017. Those guys alone could be forces on any college team and with the aforementioned coaching at Stanford… Ow.
Meanwhile, although Washington hasn’t brought in a five-star recruit since Shaq Thompson, they have a cache of talented guys in their cornerstone units, just like Stanford. This is most notable in their secondary ‘croots. The 2016 year reeled in Chris Petersen’s most highly-touted signee, CB Byron Murphy (who’s killing it in fall camp, by the way) and other significant defensive backs, while the aggregate of 2017’s secondary recruits was equally impressive.
But while Stanford has established themselves as a power for the better part of a decade, the Huskies are still climbing an uphill battle until they prove on the field that they’re here to stay. That could take five years of consistent success before highly sought after recruits are easy to get. So while Washington still has that obstacle for them, one thing should make Husky fans optimistic: Pete has proven he’s not afraid to drop coaches who can’t do everything needed to reach or exceed his standards. Obviously, that means if you can’t coach kids up, you’re gone. But somewhat surprisingly, given Petersen’s reputation of getting scrappy underdog types at Boise State, it also means if you can’t recruit, you’re gone.
This has been on display for the last three recruiting cycles. In 2016, the Huskies couldn’t sign receivers. Receivers coach Brent Pease was replaced and the 2017 and 2018 WR classes have been nuts. In 2017, the Huskies couldn’t sign O-linemen. (They also couldn’t sign DTs thanks to, among their own incompetency, some shady flipping by USC’s Johnny Nansen but that’s a different story.) Offensive line coach Chris Strausser — a good on-field coach but pretty awful recruiter — was replaced by Scott Huff and 2018’s offensive line recruiting is already an upgrade from the last few years*.
(*Although the recruit rankings of Washington’s 2017 O linemen are better than their 2018 class, the overall class of OL recruits out west in 2017 was insanity whereas 2018’s OL recruiting doesn’t have as much talent. In other words, UW’s 2018 line recruiting did a lot more given the ceiling of that year’s available recruits; All else constant, the Dawgs’ 2018 OL coach brings in more than the Dawgs’ 2015-2017 OL coach. #DataAnalysisIsFun. Moving on!)
Anyways, which position’s recruiting is lagging behind in 2018? Nose tackles. (Seriously, as a UW fan the lack of 0 techs from 2017 and 2018 has me dangerously close to double-fisting battery acid and antifreeze.) And guess who’s not gonna last on Petersen’s staff if that doesn’t change? Mr. DL coach, Ikaika Malloe.
And that’s why I’m not busy chugging battery acid and antifreeze over the state of Washington’s DT recruiting: because I know Petersen doesn’t let those recruiting failures stand. Either Malloe turns it around or he’s replaced by someone who’ll do his job better. Either way, the 2019 class will inevitably include eight five-star tackles who could single-handedly disarm Kim Jong Un’s nuclear arsenal.
Although the last Stanford/Washington-ism can’t be isolated from the coaching and recruiting, I’m still considering it its own thing. That is, they’ve got quite the backlog of quarterback talent coming up.
Stanford had the 3rd ranked pro-style QB of 2016, KJ Costello, and the 1st ranked pro-style QB of 2017, Davis Mills. Their 247sports.com composite ranking average is .984. That’s… good. Then add in 2018 QB Jack West from Saraland, Alabama, another mid-high range four star. Oh, and they’re favorites for 2018 mission-taker (so, effectively a 2020 recruit) Tanner McKee. He too is real-ass good.
Up north, the Dawgs have solid-but-not-spectacular QBs from the classes of 2016 and 2017 and then it gets exciting. Their 2018 class includes two top 100 signal-callers, Jacob Sirmon and Colson Yankoff, and the 2019 class nabbed top 300 QB Dylan Morris earlier in the summer.
It pays to have lots of good quarterbacks on hand.
(Before you point out “But the burnout rate of star high school quarterbacks in college!” in an effort to sound contrarian and wise or whatever, please shut up. We all know quarterbacks don’t pan out in college at a rate that makes the casualties in Stalingrad look tame. Pointing that out doesn’t disprove anything. Because as it turns out, the burnout rate of quarterbacks in college is super high regardless of their star ranking but high profile recruits are, ya know… high profile. Nobody notices the two stars and walk-ons who never see the field. Point is, for every Luke Falk there’s a dozen guys we’ve never heard of and for every Jake Heaps there’s an Andrew Luck.)
That’s why the key is “lots” of good quarterbacks. No doubt multiple of the teenagers I just mentioned won’t play a snap for the nerds or sundodgers they’ve committed to. Chances are, though, that at least a few of them will. They might even be quite good.
When you wanna win your division in a passing league like the Pac 12, it sure is helpful to have a competent passer. One might even call it a necessity.
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