With the recent commitments of Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams to Washington, much ado has been made of coach Steve Sarkisian's recruiting prowess. It's little wonder; this is a fan base that hasn't been to the Rose Bowl in a decade and is still stinging from the indignity of a winless season in 2008.
However, the plaudits he's receiving are a little curious. Why? Because the data tells us that what Sark is doing really isn't all that out of the ordinary for a Washington coach, and that Husky fans might be wise to wait until a little more time passes before anointing him the program's savior.
Scout.com* keeps a recruiting database that dates back to 2002, which covers nine signing classes. Of those nine recruiting classes, seven are what you would consider "full" recruiting classes, since two followed the firings of Keith Gilbertson (2005) and his successor, Tyrone Willingham (2009). Both were doomed from the start.**
*I know some people might prefer Rivals or Scouts, Inc., but in my experience, Scout.com does the best job at thoroughly evaluating talent up and down the entire West Coast, not just California, which is what is most germane to this conversation. That's why I've chosen to use them for this analysis.
**I am aware that Gilbertson took over for Rick Neuheisel in 2003, but that recruiting class was already signed before his firing, and will be correctly attributed as a full class and treated as such.
Of those seven full classes, six of them were ranked in Scout.com's top 30: 2010 (Sarkisian), 2008 and 2007 (Willingham), 2004 (Gilbertson), 2003 and 2002 (Neuheisel). And the reality is that there is a simple formula that most of those coaches used to get those classes ranked that high.
Keep the state's talent in the state.
In 2010, the state of Washington had two Scout.com Top 100 players. Sarkisian was able to convince one (Sionae Potoae) to stay home. That's good. Between 2006 and 2008, there were six Top 100 players in Washington -- Willingham got four of them. Even better. Unfortunately, Scout's database doesn't include their Top 100 lists from 2003 or 2004, but in 2002, there was one Top 100 in Washington, and Neuheisel (predictably) landed him, too.
Guess how many Top 100 guys are in the state this year? Two. And Sarkisian got commitments from both of them.
I imagine much of the fanfare comes from the fact that both are five-star prospects and considered elite-level talent. But it's worth noting that Washington just hasn't generally had much Top 100 talent over the years -- only 13 players since 2002 (which doesn't include those missing 2003 and 2004 lists). Only five of them have escaped the University of Washington's grasp, and two were in Willingham's first partial class.
"I think he's doing a better job than Willingham did, especially early on," Huffman said via phone interview, "but this is kind of what you expect UW to be able to do year in and year out. ... You kind of expect Washington, in a state like this, to be able to do this sort of thing."
Does it speak well of Sarkisian that he convinced both Seferian-Jenkins and Williams to stay home? No doubt -- both were highly sought after by other programs. And it's not like his predecessors did a great job with five-star recruits: Three of the four five-star recruits in those seven full recruiting classes didn't pick Washington.
However, with such a small talent pool, it certainly is fool's gold to try and make too much out of that. For example, there was one five-star recruit in the state last year: Jake Heaps. He picked BYU and not Washington. Why? In large part because he's Mormon. This year, Williams made it clear that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, who also was a wide receiver at Washington.
Each kid has highly individual reasons for picking his school, and sometimes, it just doesn't much matter who the coach is. If you're losing them all -- or getting them all -- that certainly says something. But this isn't either of those extremes.
"If you're the No. 1 player in Hawaii like Mantei Teo was, of course Hawaii wants that kid," Huffman said. "But when he goes to Notre Dame, that's not a knock on Hawaii -- you have to expect those guys are going to leave. Yeah, you want to keep the main guys in state, but you have to expect some of those guys are going to leave."
Huffman specifically pointed out the 2005 class, in which five-star guys Taylor Mays (USC) and Steve Schilling (Michigan) left the state, but Willingham convinced a four-star quarterback named Jake Locker to stay. Huffman said such decisions are magnified by the small size of Washington's talent pool.
"Florida's not going to sign every guy it wants. It's still going to have to go into Georgia, it's still going to have to go into Alabama to get guys, because some guys are going to leave," Huffman said. "It's just more glaring in a state like Washington where you have a smaller talent pool."
Taking a wider view of the best talent in the state -- both five- and four-star recruits -- gives a much better picture of what a coach is actually doing. Of the 41 five- and four-star players over those seven full recruiting classes and 2011, 22 have elected to play at the University of Washington. With another Pac-10 university in the state, getting half of a state's eligible elite prospects to come to your school is exceptional, especially when you consider WSU only convinced six of the state's four-star players to come to Pullman in that same span.
That's not to minimize how important it was for Sarkisian to land both of these guys. Although Williams was pretty much always in the bag, it's important to note that Seferian-Jenkins had a silent commitment to UCLA, according to Huffman, and Sarkisian was able to sway him. Those are good things. He's "also being far more aggressive than Willingham ever was," Huffman said, which has led to the high number of early commitments that currently rank the Huskies as the No. 14 recruiting class nationally.
But don't let the number of stars in front of the names Seferian-Jenkins and Williams skew your view too much of the job Sarkisian is doing. He has landed six of 10 potential five- and four-star recruits in the state over the past two years, with one player still uncommitted in this class. That's pretty much right in line with what his predecessors have done: Convince the top players in the state of Washington -- especially those within an hour's drive of the school -- to come to the state's biggest school with the state's richest football tradition in the state's biggest city.
Where Sarkisian is likely to make his mark is in the guys he convinces to come from out of state, as when Don James' rosters were loaded with speedsters from California. Last year was an excellent start on that front, as the Huskies signed a total of nine four-star recruits in 2010, propelling them to a No. 11 ranking nationally -- the highest since Scout.com has been keeping track. However, this year, with 18 commits already on the books, Sarkisian only has two of the four-star variety. He's in the mix for a number of those guys out of state, but they haven't pulled the trigger yet.
It's just too early to call Sarkisian the pied piper of the UW football program. All he has so far is one five-win season (with talent that was roundly considered to be wildly underachieving under Willingham) and one top-15 recruiting class under his belt. While Husky fans are right to be excited, they might be wise to temper their over-the-top enthusiasm for their still-young coach.
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