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Sports >  UW football

Commentary: Unfinished business a big reason many UW football stars decided to return

Dec. 21, 2022 Updated Fri., Dec. 23, 2022 at 6:06 p.m.

Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer reacts during a Nov. 19 Pac-12 game against Colorado at Husky Stadium in Seattle.  (Tribune News Service)
Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer reacts during a Nov. 19 Pac-12 game against Colorado at Husky Stadium in Seattle. (Tribune News Service)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – One by one, Husky football stalwarts have announced their decision to return for 2023, rather than avail themselves of the enticement of an immediate pro career. At this time of year, when defections via either an early pro exit or a berth in the transfer portal are wreaking havoc on many programs, it’s another early signal that 2023 could be a special year on Montlake.

First, of course, came quarterback Michael Penix Jr. with his dramatic and somewhat unexpected revelation at the Washington football banquet. Since then, defensive lineman Tuli Letuligasenoa, edge rushers Zion Tupuola-Fetui and Bralen Trice, and offensive lineman Troy Fautanu – team leaders, all – have all announced that they, too, will be coming back next season.

Each of them uses some version of the same phrase to explain their decision – unfinished business. But Fautanu might have come closer to the real reason when he described his football version of FOMO – fear of missing out. It prompted him to forgo a possible high draft selection – likely second or third round, although some even had him going late in the first.

“For me, it was just like, I don’t want to be left out of what was going to go on here next year,” Fautanu said. “And I promise you, big things are coming.”

The Huskies have managed to avoid too much portal trauma, with far more players coming in than going out – though that can always change. And two major contributors, 1,000-yard receivers Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan, have yet to reveal whether they will enter the NFL draft or return to the Huskies for another season.

But the momentum within the UW program is all moving in the right direction.

The Huskies have compiled a 10-2 record in coach Kalen DeBoer’s first season, with an Alamo Bowl matchup against Texas coming up on Thursday.

There was just enough disappointment amid that glittering record, in the form of barely missing a berth in the Pac-12 title game, to fuel their motivation for another run at the conference title and whatever potential glory lies beyond.

The two losses (to UCLA and Arizona State) that kept the Huskies out of a potential run at the national playoffs still eat at them.

“This is the second Pac-12 championship that I should have been in that I had to watch from the couch,” Tupuola-Fetui said. “And so, yeah, there’s some unfinished business. I definitely feel like we were the best team in the Pac this year. If I’m selfishly speaking, then so be it.”

Penix was a sort of pied piper of one more year in college for the Huskies. No subsequent player announcing his return said he did so directly because of Penix, but it definitely appeared to have a positive influence, along with the general sense that the UW program is heading in the right direction.

“I think it just goes to prove everything that DeBoer’s pumping into this program, all the juice that we have,” Tupuola-Fetui said. “I mean, keeping Mike is huge. It just kind of started the domino effect of everyone saying, ‘OK, let’s run it back.’ ”

Tupuola-Fetui and Trice proved to be a package deal, jointly announcing their decision in a video posted on Sunday. Asked if they were always going to go in the same direction – pro or college – ZTF replied:

“You know, we never really talked about leaving once we started the conversation. So it was more like we just wanted to make sure that we’re doing it together, I guess. But I’m glad it wasn’t really in his mind to leave because it wasn’t really in my mind, either. So if he was, like, ‘Nah, bro, I’m out of here,’ I don’t know what I’d be doing right now. So thank God for Bralen Trice.”

Trice said he sees an opportunity to improve the nuances of his game (“I could be up there leading the country in sacks right now”) while helping take UW to another level of success.

“Coming back and playing with these guys that I know are staying and these guys who are my brothers, I just want to enjoy another year of college football with them,” he said. “Just take my time and appreciate everything around me, and especially the coaches here. We’re going to be a great team next season. I’m excited for where we’re at.”

As for his collaboration with ZTF, “There was a lot of talking going on between me and him and our coach and our other teammates. And I think that we kind of decided together we should stay and get this done and go win a championship. That’s the goal.”

It’s unknown what role name, image and likeness (NIL) and possible financial inducements had in various decisions to stay. ZTF said in extensive discussions with DeBoer and other coaches, he got the “reassurances” he needed to feel comfortable in coming back.

Asked to elaborate whether that meant NIL, ZTF said, “Yeah, NIL was one of the reassurances I had gotten from the coaches. But that wasn’t at the forefront of what I was considering at all. It was more like we had a conversation and it was brought up eventually, but I was thinking more in terms of football. I’m sure nobody would turn down a pretty penny if offered, but it wasn’t like, ‘If they don’t pay me I’m not coming back.’ It was never like that.

“So, yeah, I’m happy with my decision.”

Now, after a new crop of UW recruits and transfers was revealed Wednesday, the Huskies eagerly await the decision of McMillan and Odunze on their status in 2023. If they follow their teammates’ trend and both return, it would be another huge boost for the Huskies. But it’s also possible they upped their NFL draft stock so much in 2022 that they are pulled in that direction.

“I’m not going to speak on it, because it’s not my decision to be made,” Tupuola-Fetui said. “Two thousand-yard receivers, their quarterback is staying; I don’t see why not run it back. But that is a beautiful season they just put on tape, so no blame either way.”

It’s one more bit of unfinished business for the Huskies in 2022 that could point to a prosperous 2023.

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