CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple: UW Huskies’ 5 former 3-star recruits who are key in 2023

Jul 7, 2023, 11:32 AM

The list of three-star recruits who developed into all-conference performers and NFL Draft picks under former UW Huskies coach Chris Petersen is a lengthy one.

Vita Vea. Dante Pettis. Ben Burr-Kirven. Greg Gaines. Sidney Jones. Nick Harris. Drew Sample. Will Dissly. And, depending what service you’re using, Myles Gaskin and Taylor Rapp. And even that is only a partial accounting.

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While it is imperative for any college program to successfully recruit blue-chip talent — hello Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Tuli Letuligasenoa — the reality is that UW’s best teams also have relied on players who didn’t receive such attention coming out of high school.

That doesn’t always mean the evaluators blew it, either. There can only be so many blue-chip prospects in each class, so of course some of the many hundreds of three-stars will develop into impact players in college. It’s just easy to overlook those players on signing day.

Sure enough, there are a handful of former three-star (or lower) prospects who will greatly impact Washington’s 2023 season under second-year coach Kalen DeBoer.

Here are five who come to mind. (All ratings per the 247Sports Composite.)

QB Michael Penix Jr.

Class: 2018
Rating: No. 548 nationally

Ever heard of this guy? Penix reported 11 offers out of Tampa Bay Tech and was originally committed to Tennessee before a coaching change sent him searching for a new home. He found it at Indiana, where Nick Sheridan had taken the quarterbacks coach job after helping recruit Penix to Tennessee when he was an offensive analyst. Penix also reported offers from Florida State and, perhaps surprisingly, Oregon and Arizona.

Quarterback recruiting is a bit of a crapshoot, and there are plenty of passers ranked within range of Penix’s high-school rating who go on to accomplish great things in college; Penix, for example, was rated 12 spots ahead of Will Levis in the 2018 QB rankings. Similar to how Levis transferred from Penn State to Kentucky and eventually became a second-round pick, Penix transferred from Indiana to UW, led the nation in passing yards per game, broke the single-season school passing record and enters his final year of college eligibility as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.

EDGE Bralen Trice

Class: 2019
Rating: No. 447

It’s not as if Trice flew completely under the radar, as he took official visits to UW, Oregon and Notre Dame, and also reported scholarship offers from Alabama, USC and several others. When he chose the Huskies over the Ducks and Irish, it felt like a big recruiting win for Petersen and staff, even within a 2019 cycle that saw UW sign 15 blue-chip prospects.

Trice opted out of the 2020 pandemic season, returned to play quite a bit in 2021, then broke out in 2022 with nine sacks and 12 tackles for loss. He also led the Power 5 in pressures, per Pro Football Focus, and is earning preseason All-America recognition ahead of the 2023 season.

EDGE Zion Tupuola-Fetui

Class: 2018
Rating: No. 811

The ZTF recruitment story is a fun one. A student recruiting assistant was watching film one day of a different prospect from Hawaii when a certain No. 4 kept making plays for the opposing team. When the assistant looked that player up, he discovered two things: his name was Zion Tupuola-Fetui, and he had no recruiting profile of any kind. UW was the first school to offer ZTF a scholarship, and the raw, athletic pass rusher from Pearl City in Honolulu eventually chose the Huskies over California and Vanderbilt.

By his third year in the program, Tupuola-Fetui established himself as one of the nation’s most intriguing pass rushers, logging seven sacks in the first three games of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. A torn Achilles limited him to five games in 2021, and he mostly came off the bench behind Trice and Jeremiah Martin in 2022, but still made 4.5 sacks. As a sixth-year senior in 2023, though, ZTF has a chance to play his way into early-round NFL Draft consideration.

WR Ja’Lynn Polk

Class: 2020
Rating: No. 468

Polk came to UW as a transfer from Texas Tech after the 2020 season, meaning he essentially joined a recruiting class that already included Odunze and McMillan. Those players became quite the trio last season, with Odunze and McMillan each eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark, and Polk chipping in 41 catches for 694 yards and six touchdowns — three of those coming in UW’s statement win over Michigan State.

Polk’s numbers were second-best in the Pac-12 among No. 3 receivers (only Arizona’s Tetairoa McMillan was better), and came after a clavicle injury kept him out for most of 2021. There have been some UW teams without a single receiver as talented as Polk, and it speaks to the Huskies’ depth at the position that he remains the No. 3 option — though still a crucial offensive cog.

LB Edefuan Ulofoshio

Class: 2018
Rating: N/A

Not only was Ulofoshio not a blue-chip recruit, he actually wasn’t rated at all in the 247Sports Composite, and was only a two-star by 247Sports’ own rankings — and he came to UW as a walk-on. By the end of his redshirt freshman season, though, Ulofoshio was starting at linebacker, and he received some All-America buzz ahead of the 2021 season. Injuries cut that year short, though, and another injury the following offseason kept him out for most of 2022.

Ulofoshio did return to play later in the season — even blocking a punt in the Alamo Bowl — and enters 2023 fully healthy and hoping to play his first full season as a starting linebacker.

A few more

LB Alphonzo Tuputala: An every-game starter as a fourth-year sophomore in 2022 — and a likely starter alongside Ulofoshio in 2023 — Tuputala was the lowest-rated position player in UW’s 2019 recruiting class.

TEs Jack Westover and Devin Culp: The duo shared the tight end duties more or less equally last season, and both will play prominent roles again this year. While neither was a blue chipper, Culp was at least a top-500 prospect in the 2018 class. Westover, meanwhile, was a walk-on unrated by any recruiting service.

CB Jabbar Muhammad: A veteran transfer from Oklahoma State, Muhammad wasn’t even ranked in the national top 1,000 coming out of DeSoto (Texas) High in the 2020 class. Now, he’s a certain starter for a likely preseason top-10 team.

This column from UW Huskies football insider Christian Caple is exclusive to Seattle Sports. Subscribe to OnMontlake.com for full access to Caple’s in-depth Husky coverage.

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