On Feb. 6, 2019, Chris Petersen sat in front of a purple backdrop, with a single black and silver microphone pointed at his chin. For a moment, the 54-year-old coach with the neatly parted silver hair stared at the ground and swallowed, tapping his fingers on his crossed arms, silently preparing his statement.
Then he looked up and spoke.
“(It’s a) good day,” UW’s former head coach said with a smile on national signing day. “Good day to be done with this recruiting cycle and kind of on to the next. I think our coaches did a really awesome job throughout the whole thing. I think we feel really strongly about this class in general.
“That’s the best way to probably put this: I think we just feel really good about these kids. I think you just go down the list and can make a case for why we were so excited for each one of these guys.”
At this point, you’re already on your way to winning Signing Day Bingo. It’s a good day? That’s a square. Coaches did an awesome job? That’s a square. Feel strongly about this class? You already know the answer.
The fact is, every coach at every program says essentially the same thing on National Signing Day. They signed kids that fit their system. They’re incredibly proud of the coaches. They’re adding great players, but better people. B-I-N-G-O.
But, in Petersen’s case, there was legitimate reason to be excited. On Monday, Pro Football Focus ranked the top 10 true freshman classes of 2019 — using its wins above average metric, which evaluates how a player’s presence impacted his team’s expected wins. Washington’s class — comprised of 22 scholarship signees — ranked No. 7 in the nation on that list. (USC and Oregon ranked No. 4 and 5, respectively.)
On the surface, the Huskies’ strong standing shouldn’t come as a surprise. UW’s 2019 class, after all, was ranked 10th nationally by 247Sports and 15th by the 247Sports Composite. It included a whopping 15 four-star signees.
But only a handful of those Huskies made a significant on-field impact last season. By almost any measurement, the class’ premier freshman was four-star cornerback Trent McDuffie, who started in 11 games and finished with 45 tackles, three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and an interception. McDuffie’s 85.4 overall grade, as evaluated by PFF, was 11th among 456 qualifying FBS cornerbacks. The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder also missed just one tackle last season and allowed only six plays of 15-plus yards on 421 coverage snaps.
But McDuffie wasn’t the only contributing freshman in UW’s defensive secondary. Safeties Cameron Williams and Asa Turner combined to start 12 games in the back end, helping to solidify an inexperienced secondary alongside senior Myles Bryant. Williams finished second on the team with three interceptions, while the athletically adaptable Turner (6-3, 187) proved his worth at both nickel and safety.
Elsewhere, freshman wide receiver Puka Nacua was slowed only by his own broken foot. The 6-1, 204-pound wideout earned just 11 targets in his debut season, but he converted them into seven catches, 168 receiving yards, 24 yards per reception and two scores — including five catches of 15 yards or more. He also hauled in three of five contested targets, displaying both strong hands and a penchant for big plays.
The only other true freshmen who didn’t redshirt last season were outside linebacker Laiatu Latu and kicker Tim Horn. The 6-4, 275-pound Latu made 16 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss and a safety in 12 games, while Horn recorded touchbacks on 56.4% of his kickoffs — an improvement from the team’s 32.4% clip in 2018.
So, all things considered, the 2019 class’ debut season must be deemed a clear success. But it’s even more encouraging, when you imagine what’s to come.
For example, defensive linemen Faatui Tuitele and Jacob Bandes — the class’ most highly ranked recruits, according to the 247Sports Composite — both redshirted in 2019, and could contribute to a dominant UW defensive front this fall. They’ll likely join seniors Levi Onwuzurike and Josiah Bronson as well as sophomores Tuli Letuligasenoa and Sam Taimani in Ikaika Malloe’s formidable defensive line rotation.
And, of more immediate importance, the 2019 class could foreseeably fill UW’s void at inside linebacker. Josh Calvert, Daniel Heimuli, Alphonzo Tuputala and Miki Ah You will all compete this spring and summer to start alongside ascendant redshirt sophomore Edefuan Ulofoshio. The 6-2, 223-pound Calvert — an early enrollee last winter — was trending toward a burned redshirt before a knee injury in fall camp ended his freshman season. A year in UW’s strength and conditioning program may also propel Heimuli — the defensive MVP of the 2019 Polynesian Bowl — toward significant playing time. They’ll all have to contend with third-year sophomores Jackson Sirmon and M.J. Tafisi as well.
Oh, and what position are we forgetting? That’s right: the quarterback. Following redshirt junior Jacob Eason’s NFL draft departure, redshirt freshman Dylan Morris suddenly has a realistic path to the starting job. The 6-0, 196-pounder from Puyallup will have to beat out redshirt sophomore Jacob Sirmon and true freshman Ethan Garbers to get there, but he may have the arm, mobility and makeup to start against Michigan on Sept. 5.
Indeed, McDuffie may be the headliner, but UW’s 2019 class could soon be defined by its quality depth. Redshirt freshman running back Cameron Davis could work into the rotation this fall. Offensive linemen Julius Buelow, Nate Kalepo and Troy Fautanu could all be future starters. Kamren Fabiculanan (6-1, 181) has an intriguing frame in the defensive secondary. Defensive lineman Sama Paama (6-4, 336) is the most physically formidable prospect in the pack.
A year ago, Petersen cleared his throat and said with a smile that he felt really strongly about this class. He may have been on the money.
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