CHRISTIAN CAPLE

‘We play freshmen’: Where UW Huskies may rely on young players

Feb 8, 2024, 4:15 PM

UW Huskies football...

The UW Huskies offense huddles during a football game at USC on Nov. 4, 2023. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

As Jedd Fisch begins molding the UW Huskies football program to his own preferences, distinct themes have emerged.

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• The Huskies will run pro-style systems on both sides of the ball, leaning on years of NFL experience accumulated by the head coach and the offensive and defensive coordinators.

• Fisch wants to sign “the best recruiting class Washington has ever had” in 2025.

• The program will build its foundation via high-school recruiting.

• NIL will be a major selling point.

• As Fisch has mentioned more than once now, he likes to play freshmen.

I find that final point pretty interesting, because it cuts against what many have accepted as conventional wisdom in college football for decades. During an interview last week with Seattle Sports’ Brock and Salk, Fisch said he believes that playing freshmen is a selling point for star recruits, and that players will be better equipped to meaningfully contribute as sophomores and juniors, referencing Arizona’s breakout, 10-win 2023 season.

The Wildcats depended heavily upon players from Fisch’s stacked 2022 recruiting class, many of whom played as true freshmen the year prior and stepped into bigger roles as sophomores (or, in some cases, as redshirt freshmen).

In 2022, true or redshirt freshmen accounted for about 22.8 percent of Arizona’s offensive snaps, using data from Pro Football Focus, and about 23.6 percent of all defensive snaps. That figure dipped to about 5.2 percent for Arizona’s defense in 2023, but freshmen still played about 21.6 percent of Arizona’s offensive snaps, thanks largely to redshirt freshman quarterback Noah Fifita and redshirt freshman offensive lineman Wendell Moe.

Washington’s true and redshirt freshmen, meanwhile, played about 12.7 percent of offensive snaps on a veteran-laden roster in 2023, while freshmen played only 2.8 percent of snaps on defense.

Between Fisch’s proclivity for playing freshmen and Washington’s enormous roster turnover, will we see more freshmen contribute in 2024? Among the 75 scholarship players currently committed to UW for next season, I count 17 true freshmen and 16 redshirt freshmen — that’s 44 percent of the roster.

Which positions are most likely to lean on younger players in Fisch’s debut season? We examine. Players are true freshmen unless otherwise noted.

Quarterback

Freshmen: Dermaricus Davis, Demond Williams

Outlook: The Huskies should only need freshmen contributions here if something bad happens, with the staff convincing senior Mississippi State transfer Will Rogers to stick around. But with only three scholarship quarterbacks and two of them arriving as members of the 2024 class, the Huskies are obviously going to need either Davis or Williams to serve as the backup. You never know.

Running back

Freshmen: Adam Mohammed

Outlook: At present, Cam Davis and Jonah Coleman appear to give the Huskies a solid, veteran 1-2, though we’ll see where Davis is in his recovery from an August injury. Plus, Tybo Rogers stayed at UW after entering the transfer portal, and Will Nixon is still on board, too. Mohammed, a three-star prospect from Glendale (Ariz.) Apollo, rushed for 2,147 yards and 39 touchdowns as a senior. But this looks like a crowded room, at least for now.

Receiver

Freshmen: Rashid Williams (R-Fr.), Keith Williams (R-Fr.), Vincent Holmes (R-Fr.), Jason Robinson Jr., Justice Williams, Audric Harris

Outlook: Harris has yet to officially sign, but I’ll assume for now that he will. Unless they add multiple veteran receivers from the portal, the Huskies are absolutely going to need contributions from at least their redshirt freshmen, and likely from at least one of their true freshmen — because right now, Giles Jackson, Jeremiah Hunter and Denzel Boston are the only scholarship non-freshmen in the room. Williams and Reynolds saw the field some while redshirting last season. Robinson is already enrolled and could help in the slot. At 6-4 and 205 pounds, Williams seemingly has the size to contribute right away. And Holmes is switching from safety to wideout, according to UW’s updated roster. Does the staff envision a role for him already?

Tight end

Freshmen: Decker DeGraaf

Outlook: There’s no way the Huskies can roll into the 2024 season with only three scholarship tight ends, which is all they have in the wake of Josh Cuevas entering the transfer portal; it seems likely they’ll add another player or two in the spring portal window. Regardless, DeGraaf should have ample opportunity to earn a role as a freshman, especially since he’s already enrolled and should get plenty of reps in spring practices.

Offensive line

Freshmen: Zachary Henning (R-Fr.), Elishah Jackett (R-Fr.), Kahlee Tafai (R-Fr.), Soane Faasolo (R-Fr.), Paki Finau, Davit Boyajyan, Justin Hylkema

Outlook: True or redshirt freshmen represent seven of the 10 scholarship linemen currently on the roster for 2024. How many more experienced players will Fisch and his staff bring in ahead of them? The coach said he wants to add another four or five o-linemen during the spring portal window, so the true freshman impact here is TBD, but it’s hard to imagine they won’t need at least a couple of those guys to contribute. Henning is a name to watch. When I spent the Saturday of UW’s spring preview last season following Kalen DeBoer around for a story, he pointed out how impressed the coaching staff already was with Henning’s transition to college. He wound up playing 41 snaps in two games at guard last season. With Gaard Memmelaar and Landen Hatchett still recovering from injury, those 41 snaps actually make Henning one of the most experienced returning linemen on the team. You should see him a ton this spring.

As he answered my question about the need to add more offensive linemen through the spring portal, Fisch reiterated: “We play freshmen.”

Defensive line

Freshmen: Anthony James (R-Fr.), Elinneus Davis (R-Fr.), Omar Khan

Outlook: James began taking practice reps at defensive tackle last season, so I’ll put him here until further notice. At present, the Huskies could roll out an interior rotation of Sebastian Valdez, Jacob Bandes, Bryce Butler and Jayvon Parker, with Armon Parker also a potential factor if he’s healthy. They will of course continue to search for portal solutions, but I wonder if James, in particular, might help out some in the middle (assuming that’s where the new staff sees him). Davis was injured last season and redshirted. Khan won’t enroll until the summer, but he’s an interesting prospect.

EDGE

Freshmen: N/A

Outlook: We’ll see where James winds up. If he’s a d-tackle, the Huskies actually don’t have any freshmen (true or redshirt) presently committed at edge/defensive end. They originally had three such players committed in the 2024 class — Noah Carter, Dominic Kirks and Keona Wilhite — but the coaching change scattered those players to Alabama, Ohio State and Nebraska, respectively.

Linebacker

Freshmen: Deven Bryant (R-Fr.), Jordan Whitney (R-Fr.), Khmori House

Outlook: House, an early enrollee, went into the portal but decided to stay. He’s on the smaller side for an inside linebacker, listed at 6-0 and 187 pounds, but I’m curious to see if he can earn a role with his speed. The previous coaching staff was pretty high on Deven Bryant, who saw 45 defensive snaps last season while redshirting. Four seniors — Alphonzo Tuputala, Carson Bruener, Bryun Parham and walk-on Drew Fowler — may sit atop the depth chart, but don’t be surprised if Bryant plays his way into a role.

Cornerback

Freshmen: Leroy Bryant (R-Fr.), Caleb Presley (R-Fr.), Curley Reed (R-Fr.), Jordan Shaw (R-Fr.), Elias Johnson, Rahshawn Clark

Outlook: Clark is actually just listed as an “athlete” on UW’s roster, but I’ll slot him at cornerback until we hear more about where the coaches see him. The Huskies have plenty of veteran talent here, with junior Ephesians Prysock transferring from Arizona to join returning starter Elijah Jackson, plus senior Thaddeus Dixon and fourth-year juniors Davon Banks and Darren Barkins. I do wonder if Leroy Bryant might make a move. Shaw also showed some promise in a couple starts at Indiana last year, and Fisch mentioned that the staff likes him at nickel. Presley and Reed were four-star recruits. My guess is Shaw and Bryant might have the inside track as potential freshman contributors.

Safety

Freshmen: Diesel Gordon (R-Fr.), Peyton Waters, Paul Mencke Jr., Rahim Wright II

Outlook: If you had to choose UW’s Week 1 starters right now, who would they be? Kam Fabiculanan and Makell Esteen? Fabiculanan and Tristan Dunn? Esteen and Dunn, with Fabiculanan at nickel? This is another position where you shouldn’t be surprised to see additions from the portal, but right now, it seems set up for one of the freshmen to earn some playing time. Waters might be the most intriguing athlete of the bunch, and it was potentially a pretty big deal for the staff to convince him not to transfer. He’s already enrolled, too.

This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.

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