Can Huskies' late push salvage recruiting class?
With three of the state's Blue Chip football recruits saying they'll leave, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian revamps his coaching staff and makes a late effort to keep them home.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Steve Sarkisian stood so close to the Lakes bench he could have been a team trainer.
After the Lancers basketball team rallied from a 28-point deficit against Garfield on Monday at Edmundson Pavilion, Washington's football coach put on a fourth-quarter, full-court press, trying to bolster his 2012 recruiting class.
After the game, while Lakes players celebrated on their way to the locker room, Sarkisian waited for five-star lineman Zach Banner. The coach greeted the 6-foot-9, 310-pound senior with one of those awkward handshake hugs before Banner ran off to join his teammates, and Sarkisian headed for an in-home visit with Mercer Island quarterback Jeff Lindquist.
Banner, one of five Blue Chip recruits on this year's Seattle Times Chip List, is the biggest in-state star still on Washington's wish list. The No. 2-rated offensive tackle in the country according to Rivals.com plans to pick between Washington, USC and Oklahoma on signing day, Feb. 1.
After seeing three in-state Blue Chip recruits rule out Washington or give verbal commitments to other schools, Sarkisian is doing everything he can to land Banner.
"From what I've heard, he's taking my recruitment into his own hands," Banner said. "So that's special."
After signing all five Blue Chips in 2011, recruiting experts said Sarkisian appeared to be locking up in-state talent, building a figurative fence around Washington that would make Don James envious.
In 2012, though, there are holes in that fence.
KeiVarae Russell from Mariner of Everett picked Notre Dame. Cedric Dozier from Lakes of Lakewood committed to California. And Joshua Garnett from Puyallup, the son of former Washington defensive lineman Scott Garnett, is down to Stanford, Michigan and Notre Dame.
Each found a better fit at other schools.
"It needs to be about what you want to do and what you can see yourself doing, not going because they want you there or because the hometown wants you there," Garnett said. "You have to go somewhere you can really flourish. It might be selfish to think this way, but you need to pick a school that can really help you out in the long run. You need to be looking out for yourself, first and foremost."
Last year, Sarkisian and his staff sold the excitement of a program on the rise. In-state recruits had an opportunity to be a part of a group setting out to put Washington football back on the map.
Convincing kids to start a rebirth is an easy sell. But recruiting momentum is only sustained with wins.
"If you're not winning, then those recruiting classes haven't meant anything and you're not going to sustain it," said Brandon Huffman, the national football recruiting analyst and West Regional recruiting manager for FoxSports/Scout.com.
Finding the right fit
For Lindquist, the perfect fit was Washington.
"The coaches there I think are really genuine guys," said Lindquist, the No. 8-rated quarterback in the nation, according to Scout.com. "They want to win, but they also want to develop you as a young man. Then on the football side, kind of like Mercer Island was for me, it's not where it can be and, being a part of that change, I'm really excited for."
For Russell, it was Notre Dame.
"I wanted to experience something new, get out of my comfort zone and Seattle's kind of my comfort zone," Russell said. "It will be a new experience for me, basically, a chance to experience life. That's what college is all about, life-changing experiences."
And, for Banner, that could end up being any of the three schools still on his list.
"The feeling will come," he said.
"Not playing around"
Recruiting is so important, after losing to Baylor in an Alamo Bowl shootout, Sarkisian remade most of his defensive staff with coaches who carried distinguished recruiting reputations. Gaining top talent was almost as critical as fixing the program's porous defense.
The moves resonated throughout the Pac-12.
In addition to adding Justin Wilcox (defensive coordinator) and Peter Sirmon (linebackers), Sarkisian locked in up-and-coming recruiter Tosh Lupoi and Eric Kiesau (offensive coordinator) from Cal.
"They're trying to win," Dozier said. "They're not playing around any more. Coach Sark, he's not playing. He's trying to win."
Adding Lupoi and Kiesau was enough to get Dozier to rethink his commitment to Cal, but it might not move him to Washington. The changes caught the attention of all the Blue Chip recruits, but it remains to be seen if it will have much impact on this year's class.
"You can't go somewhere because of a coach," Garnett said. "That's just going to break your heart if they leave. You've got to make a personal choice for yourself."
The social-media effect
Coaches make their pitch. Athletes weigh their options. Sometimes, though, there is static.
When word began to circulate about Washington bringing in Lupoi, fans wanted to know if that opened the door for Russell, Garnett and Dozier to reconsider the Huskies. Questions circulated on Twitter, message boards and the comments section of blogs.
Recruits were peppered with another round of questions asking if the changes would alter their decisions.
Garnett said he was surprised when Lupoi left Cal, but he understands college football is a business. It didn't change his mind.
"He would always preach the Cal-Berkeley pride and how he would never leave there and how he just loves Cal and how he wished I could be a part of Cal's family," Garnett said. "A job opportunity came about. It's a business, so he had to make a business decision."
People with aliases vilified the teenager. He read the comments. He wasn't surprised to see them. His friend, Tacoma Baptist lineman Walker Williams, endured similar sentiment when he decided to attend Wisconsin. Russell was treated the same way after picking Notre Dame.
"People do rub you the wrong way, especially when they're talking about some of your best friends," Garnett said. "Ultimately, it comes down to what you want to do with your life, but in the end you're always going to hear about that stuff and, in the back of your mind, it's always going to be in your head like, 'What if that was me?' "
Russell said he expected it, so it didn't bother him.
"Growing up, I figured it out enough to know that, no matter how good of a player or person you are, no matter what you do, negatively or positively, you're going to have someone that criticizes you, thinking you're not doing the right things," Russell said.
Whether it is the influence of coaches, or anonymous comments, recruits are learning that, regardless of what anyone says, the decision has to be one that feels right for them. The business of recruiting has become so intense, so public and so scrutinized, criticism comes no matter which school they select or how they make the decision.
"Everyone isn't feeding into the, 'Oh man, let's go build a great team,' " Dozier said. "Everybody is being smart about the decisions they are making. For KeiVarae, he feels that the best place for him is Notre Dame. You've got to respect his decision."
Mason Kelley: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org