SEATTLE – Not sure what answer I’d get if I asked a Magic 8 Ball about how the Washington Huskies would fare next season, but I do know their coach has been behind a metaphorical eight ball since he arrived.
It was hard enough for Jedd Fisch to replace a man who just took a team to college football’s national championship game, but to come in when he did left him bound as players bolted.
You see, this past window for the winter NCAA transfer portal opened Dec. 2 and closed Jan. 4, making it nearly impossible for Fisch to land key, ready-to-play athletes after he accepted the Washington job Jan. 14. The only schools he could pluck from are the ones that also saw recent coaching changes, such as San Jose State or Jedd’s old spot, Arizona.
This is a not-so-concise way to say that, if you’re a Huskies fan freaking out about the anemic nature of the team’s current roster, Fisch should not get much of the blame. Although there is an area he might have done better. More on that in a bit.
After Alabama lured previous Huskies coach Kalen DeBoer away this month, 25 UW players hit the transfer portal. The (lofty) goal was to retain as many of them as possible, but that’s a redwood-sized order given all the changes the Huskies have endured since 2019.
Fisch will be the team’s fourth coach in the past five years – which removes “loyalty” from any coach-to-player sales pitch. UW lost its most dynamic players (see: Michael Penix Jr., Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan, Ja’Lynn Polk) to the NFL draft, anyway.
So for a new coach to keep a roster even relatively intact given those circumstances? Unlikely. Just as it’s unlikely for Washington to woo anyone of note from national champion Michigan or perennial power Alabama, who also made recent coaching changes.
Players from last year’s UW roster such as Mishael Powell and Germie Bernard will not wear purple and gold next season. That’s true of a slew of other 2023 Huskies. Heralded transfer Ethan Barr, the linebacker from Vanderbilt, backed out, too. So did Austin Mack, once considered Washington’s quarterback of the future.
Yes, Fisch was able to keep QB Will Rogers – the transfer from Mississippi State – from committing elsewhere. But we’re still talking about a team with just 63 scholarship players right now and nine offensive linemen, none of whom started last season.
As I wrote earlier, Fisch couldn’t go out and recruit potential transfers because he got this job after the window closed. But what he maybe could have done – or at least, what people hoped he would have done – is bring top-tier talent from Arizona with him to Montlake. He did not.
Yes, Arizona’s leading rusher in 2023, Jonah Coleman, is transferring to UW. But breakout quarterback Noah Fifita is staying put in Tucson. Leading receiver Tetairoa McMillan is, too, as is standout linebacker Jacob Manu. It’s not necessarily a failure that Fisch was unable to reunite with those key cogs from the desert, but I suspect the die-hards are disappointed.
So what does this all mean? In the short term – it means the Huskies could be in for a rough 2024. Perhaps there will be some unexpected stars that emerge from this current batch. Few thought Penix – last season’s Heisman Trophy runner-up – was going to do much before he took his first snap with the Dawgs in 2022, right? Or perhaps the Huskies will snag some impactful transfers when the portal reopens in the spring … although most of the top guys are committed.
But with the roster as thin and unproven as it is – most notably on the offensive and defensive lines – a Big Ten title push seems far-fetched. (Note: I am quite willing to be wrong.)
As for the long term? That’s not as worrisome. Sure, Fisch could end up having an uninspiring run at Washington. Coaches who succeed at one place often spiral at the next. This man, however, is a proven recruiter. Developer, too. It’s why Washington Athletic Director Troy Dannen hired him. It doesn’t take a long time to rapidly improve a program – just ask the Huskies who played for Jimmy Lake one season and DeBoer the next. With a full year to recruit unfettered, Fisch, his staff and his players could shine.
But make no mistake, when it came to providing a robust roster for the immediate future, Fisch entered Washington in an unenviable position. And barring some surprises or significant additions, Washington could be facing an unenviable season.