On Sept. 11, J.T. Tuimoloau and Emeka Egbuka — the top two football players from Washington in the 2021 high-school class, per the 247Sports Composite — will make their home debuts against the Oregon Ducks.
Only home, in this case, refers to Ohio Stadium — located 2,400 miles southeast of Seattle.
Tuimoloau, of course, is a five-star former Eastside Catholic defensive lineman and the top prospect nationally in the 2021 class. Egbuka, likewise, is a five-star Steilacoom High School standout and the No. 1 wide receiver nationwide.
Both, as of this summer, are Ohio State Buckeyes.
Which is a problem for Washington — and the Pac-12.
Because UW is far from the only Pac-12 power to lose local products to Ohio State and others. From 2005-18, the top 10 players annually from the state of California signed with a Pac-12 school 79.3% of the time (111 out of 140).
In the past three classes, that number dipped to 53.3% (16 of 30).
For Pac-12 fans, the eastward migration is equal parts concerning and unsurprising. After all, the Pac-12 hasn’t won a national championship since 2004, nor has it reached the College Football Playoff since 2016-17. In the past four seasons, a total of six programs — Alabama (four appearances), Clemson (four), Oklahoma (three), Ohio State (two), Notre Dame (two) and LSU — have claimed all 16 slots.
So elite recruits are understandably gravitating to elite results — to Alabama and Clemson and Georgia and Notre Dame, to the promise of exposure and fame and a championship game.
And the Pac-12, meanwhile, is left to explain the exodus.
“This isn’t something new,” second-year UW coach Jimmy Lake said at Pac-12 media day Tuesday. “Back in the early 2000s, when Pete Carroll was making his run at USC, Texas with Mack Brown, winning national championships, they did a good job of recruiting other parts of the country. It’s so funny, back then no one was saying how USC was stealing guys from the northeast and from the south. It wasn’t a news story. But I get it. We’re the one conference out west. It’s probably a bigger story than it needs to be. I think every single year there’s going to be players that leave our footprint, but there’s also going to be players that stay, just like there has been for decades.
“I know this, the National Football League loves our players, especially the University of Washington. Nobody (in the Pac-12) has had more NFL draft picks since 2014 than the University of Washington. We believe with the players we have selected and developed and trained, we wouldn’t want anybody else to sign with us. We feel like we’re pinpointing the right guys. I think some other teams in our conference can say the same thing. I think it is a fantasy world to think that every player from the state of California, from the state of Washington, Oregon, Arizona, is just going to stay here right in our footprint.”
But while every elite player from Washington hasn’t stayed out west, that assertion isn’t far off. Since 2005, 54 of 65 four- or five-star prospects (83.1%) from the Evergreen State have signed with a Pac-12 program. And in that 17-year stretch, multiple blue-chip prospects from Washington had never signed outside the Pac-12 in the same class … until 2021, when Archbishop Murphy defensive end Josh McCarron (Virginia) joined Tuimoloau and Egbuka.
Due in part to the unusually small size of available roster spots, UW’s 2021 class ranked (via the 247Sports Composite) just sixth in the Pac-12 and 36th nationally — numbers that would have dramatically improved with Tuimoloau’s and Egbuka’s additions. And, with just eight verbal commits, the 2022 class sits at ninth in the Pac-12 and 57th nationwide.
Until recently, UW’s foremost threat for homegrown prospects was its Pac-12 partners. But now, commissioner George Kliavkoff said at Pac-12 media day that the conference is forming a football strategic working group, in part, to “keep our very best recruits in our markets and to market our league to recruits everywhere.”
With Ohio State, Alabama and Clemson reaching outside their regional footprints to raid West Coast recruits, is it time for UW (and others) to return the favor?
“I don’t think we need to do that,” Lake said, when asked about expanding his traditional recruiting footprint. “I think there’s always special cases where we can go outside of our footprint where there’s a connection. We’ve actually had players (from outside our footprint) that are Washington football fans; their dream was to play at Washington. If there’s a special connection like that, for sure.
“But we feel there’s enough talent in the footprint that we currently recruit in to win the Pac-12 and be on that national stage, which we’ve been on. Now we just have to make sure we win those football games we’ve been in, those three New Year’s Six games in a row that we went to from 2016 to 2018. We need to take that next step and win those football games. When we do that, there won’t be all this talk that we need to go recruit way outside of our footprint.”
Currently, UW’s primary recruiting footprint consists of Washington, California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Texas, Oregon and Hawaii. But the Huskies also have extended stray offers to players from Michigan, Missouri, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia in the 2022 class.
“What I never want to do is take my attention somewhere way far away and then miss out on the players that are right around us,” Lake said. “We’ve been very, very successful with the players that are in our current footprint. But we never want to handcuff ourselves. If there is somebody that is outside our footprint and we have a special need, we will go get those guys, for sure.”
Essentially, the focus remains on keeping West Coast recruits at home — which, in this case, refers to Husky Stadium.
And as for Tuimoloau, Egbuka and the Ohio State Buckeyes, UW will see them in Seattle in 2024.