Oh, what could have been.
This fall should have been a feast for local football fans because of the bounty of high-school talent in the state.
This year’s senior class is considered by experts to be the state’s best ever. Not only does the state boast three of the nation’s top recruits — Eastside Catholic’s J.T. Tuimoloau, Steilacoom’s Emeka Egbuka and Kennedy Catholic quarterback Sam Huard — but it has more than a couple dozen other seniors expected to play for FBS schools.
Of course, none has played this fall, with Washington one of 15 states not playing high-school football this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. A shortened spring schedule is planned — possibly with regional instead of state championships — but it’s anyone’s guess whether that will actually happen.
Still on schedule is the three-day early signing period that begins Wednesday. No matter how long a player has been committed, it’s still a big deal to finally sign.
“It feels like I’ve waited a long time to sign those papers,” said Huard, who committed to Washington as a sophomore, and whose father, Damon, and uncle, Brock, are former UW and NFL quarterbacks. “I couldn’t be more excited.”
The same goes for Mount Si quarterback Clay Millen, who has committed to Arizona.
“It’s always been a dream to play Pac-12 football, and I’ve put in a lot of hard work,” said Millen, whose brother Cale is a quarterback at Oregon, and whose father, Hugh, is a former UW and NFL quarterback. “It’s definitely a special day. I am super excited for Dec. 16.”
A class for the ages
Washington has not had a player finish in the top 25 nationally in 247sports.com’s composite rankings since 2017. This year, there are three in the top 12.
“It’s pretty unprecedented, and it’s been a long time in the making,” said Brandon Huffman, national recruiting evaluator for 247sports, about Washington’ senior class. “I wrote that this was going to be a special class when they were freshmen, and I would say it’s passed my expectations.”
Tuimoloau, a 6-foot-5, 277-pound defensive lineman, is 247sports’ No. 1 national recruit (No. 3 in its composite rankings). Ebuka is the nation’s top-ranked receiver (No. 9 overall in the composite rankings) and Huard is the nation’s No. 1 pro-style quarterback (No. 12 overall).
“If Washington had a guy who was top five at his position nationally, that was a rare thing. Now they have three who are the best at their position, including the best player in the country. The depth in the state is unprecedented, too.”
Nineteen seniors from Washington have committed to Power-5 universities, and that number will grow. Tuimoloau, for instance, isn’t expected to sign until February. In October, he said his choices were narrowed to Washington, Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, USC, Oklahoma and Michigan.
“He loves football and he loves competing,” Eastside Catholic coach Dominic Daste said.
Daste tells the story of a team bowling excursion a couple of years ago to illustrate Tuimoloau’s competitiveness.
“He had never bowled before; some of the guys knew that and were giving him some crap,” Daste said. “And the first time out, he bowls a (near perfect) 280. Whatever he does, he’s good at. And it was just festering inside him that there was a chance he wasn’t going to be very good at this.
“Everybody talks about how athletically gifted he is, but a lot of work has been put into his craft that people don’t see — working out and watching film.”
But this class is much more than one headliner. Hugh Millen, a longtime football analyst for 950 KJR, said he thinks it’s a coincidence that there are so many top players from the state in this class.
Huffman has a different theory.
“When you look at when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, in 2014, the ’20 and ’21 guys would’ve been fifth- and sixth-graders,” Huffman said. “That’s about the time those guys started playing youth football. I think with the surge of the Seahawks on a national level, you started seeing more kids playing youth football (in Washington).”
Whatever the reason, no one seems to dispute the star power of this class.
“Going through seven-on-seven camps and keeping up with other teams, it’s pretty evident there are a lot of great guys around the state,” Clay Millen said. “It’s pretty cool to be a part of the class that’s considered one of the best classes Washington has ever had.”
The price of not playing
The top seniors in the state were not affected from a recruiting standing by the pandemic because teams made offers to them before the pandemic hit.
But Hoffman said the group of seniors a notch below have been affected.
“In a normal recruiting cycle, when coaches could get on the road and evaluate at camps, we probably would’ve seen even more (recruits from Washington going to Power-5 universities) this year,” he said. “There are four to five guys on the top of my head who are probably Pac-12, Power-5 guys, that just because coaches never got a chance to come to their schools to see them, didn’t get that Power-5 offer.”
Huffman used O’Dea quarterback Milton Hopkins as an example.
“He’s 6-5, 220 pounds and he’s playing out of position at quarterback to help his team win — he had them on the brink of a state championship last year,” Huffman said. “He would be the first to tell you he’s not a quarterback in college. But the majority of film on him is throwing the ball, or handing the ball off.”
In normal times, Huffman said, college coaches would have gone to O’Dea, which lost to Eastside Catholic in the Class 3A state title game, last spring to watch Hopkins perform linebacker drills. But those in-person visits weren’t possible because of coronavirus restrictions.
“Now, his biggest offer is Eastern Washington, but in a normal year, I think he would have been committed for five or six months because a Pac-12 offer would have come,” Huffman said. “He’s a guy who sacrificed his future by playing a position that’s not his best college position to help his team win, then falls victim to a worldwide pandemic that wipes out any ability for him to be seen in person.”
Hugh Millen said the players in this year’s junior class might be impacted the most from a recruiting standpoint.
“Most of the decisions (by colleges) are made after a player’s junior year,” he said. “The junior year is pivotal, so I feel the people most impacted on a personal level are those who are juniors now. When you’re a junior, you’ve gone through puberty and you’re an upperclassman ready to play good football. That’s where you get a lot of looks.
“(If they don’t play as junior), you’re trying to project sophomores. And you know what you’re doing? You’re limiting yourself to the pool of players who are early developers.”
Daste said all players would be affected by losing a year of experience.
“I think not playing would be a sizable stunt in growth,” he said.
Before the pandemic, Huard planned to graduate after the fall football season, enroll early at UW and take part in the Huskies’ spring practices.
Now, he’s hoping to play a spring football season at Kennedy Catholic.
Huard has thrown for 11,741 yards — fourth most in state history — and 132 touchdowns in three seasons in Burien. He’s on track to become the state’s all-time leading passer this season (Brett Rypien from Shadle Park in Spokane is No. 1 with 13,044 yards), but Huard’s motivation for staying is a state title and playing with his friends.
“It was a tough decision, because I know it’s so important, especially for quarterbacks, to get (to college) early to learn the offense and try to win the starting job,” Huard said. “But before I’m ready to move on to that next chapter, I have some unfinished business here at Kennedy. It’s such a close group and we’ve been through it all together, and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to go out there one more time to try and win a state championship with my teammates, and for coach (Sheldon) Cross and the school that I love and care about. It was a tough decision, but I knew I wanted one more shot at it with my guys.”
If the high-school spring season is scrapped, Huard will enroll at UW in March and take part in spring practices. But that’s his second choice.
Clay Millen, the No. 11 pro-style quarterback in 247sports’ national rankings, understands. He also changed his plan of starting college this winter.
“You can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the season never got pushed back and we got a full 14-game season (including playoffs),” said Millen, who threw for 3,145 yards and 34 touchdowns last season. “But it’s out of my control and the team’s control, so we’re trying to prepare as best as we can even though we have to fight with this virus. We’ve still got to be ready to go in March, and I’m jacked up for that.
“I have been playing with a lot of these guys since third grade, and I felt the best decision was to stay back and play my senior year with my teammates. It’s your last season of high school football, and we deserve that. I’m very hopeful.”