CHRISTIAN CAPLE

How Jedd Fisch’s Year 1 challenge compares to his UW Huskies predecessors

Jan 19, 2024, 10:25 AM

UW Huskies Jedd Fisch coach...

New UW Huskies head football coach Jedd Fisch talks during a press conferece on Jan. 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

(AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

On paper, Jedd Fisch should be inheriting the Washington head coaching job at its most desirable. The UW Huskies are coming off a 14-1 season in which they appeared in the national championship game. They’re joining the Big Ten next season. And they’re paying Fisch an annual average salary of more than $7.7 million, the richest contract in university history.

Bruce Feldman: What Fisch brings to UW, biggest challenges he faces

Of course, the circumstances are more complicated than meets the eye.

Washington might have to replace far more than NFL-bound stars like Michael Penix Jr., Rome Odunze, Bralen Trice and others. More than a dozen players have entered the transfer portal since coach Kalen DeBoer left for Alabama, and while those players could conceivably choose to stay at Washington, the UW Huskies must also brace for the possibility of a roster overhaul in Fisch’s first offseason.

Michigan, Iowa, USC, Penn State and Oregon are on the schedule in 2024. Washington’s 2023 title-game appearance could be a distant memory by the time those games commence.

In that way, Fisch’s debut season could be unlike any first-year coach at Washington in the modern era — not worse, but starkly different.

For example: UW hired Steve Sarkisian, then the offensive coordinator under Pete Carroll at USC, to replace Tyrone Willingham following the Huskies’ 0-12 finish in 2008. Washington’s program is in a different stratosphere than it was then. But Sarkisian did have the advantage of inheriting a roster that included several future NFL Draft picks — including, crucially, quarterback Jake Locker — and that returning talent was a big reason UW won five games in Sarkisian’s first season, then went 7-6 and won a bowl game in Year 2. There was no immediate eligibility for transfers back then, which prevented UW’s top players from bolting in the wake of 0-12.

DeBoer walked into a program that had just gone 4-8, lost 40-13 in the Apple Cup and fired coach Jimmy Lake … but also had a roster largely composed of players recruited by former coach Chris Petersen, who had signed three consecutive classes ranked in the national top-16 from 2018-20. And once DeBoer pulled Michael Penix Jr. from the transfer portal, he had the key piece to fuel UW’s 11-2 turnaround in his first season.

Petersen himself inherited a relatively ideal roster situation when he took over for Sarkisian in 2014; four UW players from Petersen’s first team were selected within the first 44 picks of the 2015 NFL Draft. When the Huskies broke through with a Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff appearance in 2016, Petersen’s third season, they did so with a combination of Sarkisian’s top recruits and those Petersen brought to UW in his first three classes.

In the transfer-portal era, though, that type of roster construction is less common. Immediate eligibility makes it easier for players to either follow their head coach to his new school, or start over at a different school where they have existing relationships — particularly for younger players who haven’t seen the field yet.

It’s what made DeBoer’s roster retention so impressive. The new coaching staff successfully convinced most of Washington’s best players to stick around after Jimmy Lake was fired, then won 25 games in two seasons. (And speaking of Lake, he inherited a program from Petersen that had played in three New Year’s Six bowl games in the previous four seasons, and was ranked in the top-25 ahead of the dreadful 2021 season.)

Fisch’s charge is a little different than DeBoer’s two years ago, because Washington is losing its very best players to graduation or the NFL Draft; even without the transfer portal, the Huskies would be assured of losing eight of their offensive starters from the national championship game, plus six defensive starters and two key reserves.

So the players Fisch and his staff are trying to keep at UW are either younger guys who could help form the team’s core going forward, or the handful of starters, potential starters or starter-caliber reserves who contributed in 2023 and have eligibility remaining — such as offensive line starters Parker Brailsford, Nate Kalepo and Julius Buelow, and promising players like Geirean and Landen Hatchett.

The Huskies also added a handful of transfers under DeBoer who now must decide whether to stick it out at Washington, or try to find a different landing spot — like Mississippi State transfer quarterback Will Rogers, Montana State d-line transfer Sebastian Valdez and San Diego State offensive tackle transfer Drew Azzopardi.

Fisch surely will make his own additions from the transfer portal — several Arizona players have entered — and can use the February signing day to add high-school recruits, too.

Roster challenges aside, Fisch arrives at Washington at a time when UW just proved it is still capable of competing for a national championship, is moving to one of college football’s top two conferences and has shown greater willingness than ever to invest in the football program. Some degree of patience might be warranted in Year 1, pending how this offseason shakes out, but the bottom line isn’t changing.

Then again, when Fisch took over at Arizona, the Wildcats had just gone winless in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and lost 70-7 to rival Arizona State. Three years later, they won 10 games and finished ranked No. 11 in the country.

He’s at least building from an elevated foundation in Seattle.

“We are not going to rebuild,” Fisch said Tuesday, “but we are going to reconstruct.”

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.

More on Jedd Fisch and the UW Huskies

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• UW hooked Jedd Fisch with chance to consistently contend for titles
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