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Originally published October 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 8, 2008 at 12:12 PM

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Trace Huskies' problems to poor recruiting classes of 2004-06

You expect at some point that maybe the Huskies will change their name to Puppies for the rest of the season. Because if there is one overarching...

Seattle Times staff reporter

You expect at some point that maybe the Huskies will change their name to Puppies for the rest of the season.

Because if there is one overarching theme this year, it is the youth of the team.

It's one coach Tyrone Willingham fell back on again earlier this week when he was asked how he would sell a recruit on the current Washington program.

"I think recruits can see this is a young football team out there playing that, with some growth, will be a much better football team," Willingham said.

And while fans might be tiring of hearing about the youth, there is little doubt it is a major factor in the team's 0-5 start, a record that has Willingham on the brink of losing his job, barring a miracle in the last seven games.

A scan of Pac-10 rosters reveals just how young the Huskies are.

The Huskies had seven freshmen — including four redshirt freshmen — in the lineup for Saturday's 48-14 loss at Arizona. The rest of the conference combined had 14.

The only other team with as many as four freshmen in the starting lineup this week is UCLA (one redshirt).

Maybe more telling, UW has an equal number of upperclassmen (juniors and seniors) as underclassmen (freshmen and sophomores) in its starting lineup — 11 each.

The only team with a ratio as close is Washington State — 12 upperclassmen, 10 underclassmen. Every other team has at least 14 upperclassmen in its lineup this week, led by Oregon's 19 and Arizona State's 18.

To further state the point, UW has 81 scholarship players on its roster (of an allowed 85). Only 26 of those are upperclassmen, 16 seniors and 10 juniors. The other 55 are true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores.

Which begs the question — just how did the Huskies get so young in a season so critical?

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The answer lies in looking at the recruiting classes of 2004, 2005 and 2006.

The Huskies have just 24 players remaining from those classes. The 2004 class was the only full class signed by Willingham's predecessor, Keith Gilbertson. There were 22 players signed that year, nine of whom remain and four of whom regularly start. Five players (including Dan Howell and Greyson Gunheim) have already used up their eligibility, and others either left early for a variety of reasons or never got to UW in the first place (such as QB Matt Tuiasosopo, who decided to play baseball). Given all that has happened in the program, the number of players left from that class is about what might have been expected.

The 2005 class was Willingham's first after taking over for Gilbertson in mid-December. With an unusually full roster at the time, the Huskies had only about 15 open spots and signed 14 players, headlined by Bellevue High stars J.R. Hasty and E.J. Savannah. Just six remain, only three of whom are position starters (defensive ends Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and Darrion Jones and left tackle Ben Ossai).

The 2005 class was rated last in the Pac-10 and 55th in the nation by Scout.com, the lowest for a UW class, and it looks even worse now due to the attrition of some of its top-rated players.

"It was a really, really below-average class for Washington," said Greg Biggins, a recruiting analyst for ESPN.com. "The last month they got the two kids from Bellevue and I remember saying those two kids basically make the class because there wasn't a lot else there. But the two guys they counted on to make that class went belly-up, so when that happens, the rest of the class was just kind of a washout from that standpoint."

While some give Willingham a pass for that class due to his late arrival, others point out that he waited a while to fill out his staff, which didn't help.

"It was just not a good effort in 2005, and he can be blamed for not realizing that he needed to put his staff together earlier to help in that regard," said Allen Wallace, the national recruiting editor of Scout.com.

And any responsibility for a 2006 class that also doesn't appear to be passing muster is all Willingham's.

The Huskies signed 22 players that year, highlighted by quarterback Jake Locker. But three years later, just 13 players remain, and only two were in the starting lineup at Arizona --- offensive tackle Cody Habben and fullback Paul Homer. Locker, WR D'Andre Goodwin and Donald Butler likely would have been if not injured and DL Cameron Elisara, S Jason Wells and guard Ryan Tolar have been starters in the past.

One reason for the lack of numbers remaining from that class is that Willingham, in an attempt to fill some immediate needs, signed eight junior-college players. Only four contributed and only two remain — Wells and long snapper Danny Morovick.

Biggins says signing that many JC players is always risky, "because those guys are always hit and miss. At most, you want to bring in one or two or so to round out your class. You don't want to make them half your class, or even a quarter of it."

Some view that year as a missed opportunity. Locker committed in late July, before Willingham had coached a game at UW, and the hope around Montlake was that the Huskies could use the momentum of that news to put together a great class. Instead, the other two big names in the state — O'Dea safety Taylor Mays (USC) and Bellevue offensive lineman Steve Schilling (Michigan) — went elsewhere and the class was rated just 35th by Scout.com.

Biggins says Locker was an obvious star, and he also had high evaluations of players like defensive tackle De'Shon Matthews, who has struggled to find playing time, and running back Leilyon Myers, who didn't qualify academically.

But overall, Biggins says, "it's a group of players I look at and I would say are not high-level Pac-10 guys."

Said Wallace: "In the second year, you've really got to pull it together, and he did in some respects with Jake Locker. But without Jake Locker, that's probably not a top-50 class. So that means he didn't ramp it up fast enough."

Washington's last two classes get better grades — Scout.com rated the 2007 class 29th nationally and the 2008 class 15th. So it makes sense that the Huskies are getting more production from the past two classes than the other three.

But Willingham admitted Tuesday the goal in recruiting is to get to a point "where you don't have to rely as much" on playing freshmen.

The struggles with the first two classes, however, have meant UW has had little choice.

"In some respects," said Wallace, "he sealed his fate early."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Pac-10 starters
Washington has the most freshmen — and fewest seniors — as starters in the conference.
Team Sr. Jr. So. Fr.
Arizona 7 8 6 1
Arizona State 8 10 3 1
California 7 7 5 3
Oregon 14 5 3 0
Oregon State 12 4 4 2
Stanford 7 7 7 1
UCLA 7 8 3 4
USC 11 5 6 0
Washington 6 5 4 7
Washington State 8 4 7 3
Note: Position players only. Source is depth charts on each school's Web site this week.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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