For 25 current University of Washington football players, the road to San Antonio began in a nadir so deep it couldn’t even be found on a map.
At least 15 of those Huskies will be playing their final games for UW on Thursday night, when a program that lost all 12 of its games just three seasons ago makes its second consecutive postseason appearance.
“It’s humbling to see where we came from and where we’re at right now,” said senior left tackle Senio Kelemete, a key member of the last full UW recruiting class before the arrival of head coach Steve Sarkisian in December 2008. “It shows that we went through adversity and perseverance, just sticking it through no matter what ups and downs. Just finishing strong our four years here.”
This year’s senior class has certainly come a long way from 0-12. Just seven members of the 2007 class are still around after two years of losing, a coaching change and massive roster attrition. Three of them will be in the starting lineup against Baylor: middle linebacker Cort Dennison, oft-benched cornerback Quinton Richardson and guard Nick Wood, who recently replaced injured freshman Colin Tanigawa in the starting lineup. Two others – kicker Erik Folk and punter Kiel Rasp – are prominent players on this year’s team.
The bulk of this year’s senior class is made up of 2008 true freshmen who were forced to play early and struggle through that forgettable 0-12 season. Kelemete, who was a defensive tackle that year, wide receivers Devin Aguilar and Jermaine Kearse, and defensive linemen Alameda Ta’amu and Everette Thompson are among the current seniors who started their UW career on a winless team.
“We worked our tails off, and it shows,” said Kearse, a graduate of Lakes High School in Pierce County. “This senior class, we’ve been through the lowest. And we just kept grinding and working hard. And it’s shown.”
A group of seniors that mostly drew from back-to-back recruiting classes in 2007 and 2008 is much smaller than it could have been. Of the 59 scholarship players who were in those two original classes, only 20 remain. Five others were seniors last fall, while a whopping 33 have moved on for a variety of reasons.
“The players that are still here, we’ve battled adversity and are here,” said Thompson, a senior defensive lineman from Renton. “There’s not too many of us in the senior class, and I feel like that’s a great accomplishment. Now we get to go to our second bowl game, after that 0-12 start, that’s good. We can build off of that.”
While the new coaching staff has gotten most of the credit, and deservedly so, the recent run of success does lend some credence to the recruiting efforts of former coach Tyrone Willingham and his staff.
“He put together a good group,” Thompson said of Willingham. “But I feel like this coaching staff inherited the group that Tyrone got and brought out the best in them. A lot of credit goes to the coaching staff. They turned it around.”
Like many of his classmates, Kelemete can’t help but think about how far this team has come while he’s been at UW. He admits now that there was no foreseeable light at the end of the tunnel when the Huskies were struggling through the 0-12 season in 2008.
“It was really hard,” he said. “It was hard football-wise, academic-wise. There really wasn’t anything to look forward to. I’m thankful to the coaches, to Coach Sark coming here and putting together a great staff and turning this program around slowly.
“It’s starting to be a good program.”