April 19, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Just over a year ago, Jesse Callier was a teenage football star with dreams the size of California. One of that state's most prolific high-school rushers had defending Pac-10 champion Oregon, a Rose Bowl team that soon would play in the national championship game, offering him a scholarship.
Yet that wannabe star said, "No thanks, Ducks. I'm a Husky."
The running back with eye-popping production at Warren High School in Downey, Calif., had over 400 yards rushing and a 23-yard average per kickoff return as a true freshman for Washington last season. That was after he spurned the conference champion, and instead chose a team that hadn't been to a bowl game in eight years.
Why? Loyalty. And instant opportunity.
"Oregon offered me two weeks before signing day," Callier said before Washington's 10th spring practice Tuesday at Husky Stadium. "I was going to visit, but I was committed seriously here. And Coach (Johnny) Nansen had already helped me. He had stuck by me. That was big for me."
Nansen, the Huskies' recruiting coordinator plus defensive line and special teams coach, was the first to offer Callier a scholarship, in the initial weeks of his senior season at Warren High.
Every college could see his football talent. Only Nansen mapped out an academic success plan for Callier's final high school year that would allow him to reach NCAA qualification standards and give that talent an opportunity in big-time college football.
"At the time, in my situation because I had grade problems, I was just trying to make the best of my opportunities," Callier said. "Washington came in. They told me I had to get my grades up, and that they were going to work with me."
Nansen had Callier get with his high school guidance counselor to come up with an academic plan that would allow him to graduate and meet the NCAA's and UW's enrollment requirements. Callier was all for it. He wants to please his father James, a truck driver in Downey who raised Jesse and his six siblings.
"My dad growing up, he always told us to use football as your tunnel to a good education," his son says.
The Huskies used Callier mainly as a kickoff returner and as a fly-sweep specialist from a flanker alignment last season. They are making it a priority to get him a role this season as an every-down tailback.
UW already has junior-to-be Chris Polk, the third Husky to ever have multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons, plus dynamic Deontae Cooper back after a season-ending knee injury last season. Yet the Dawgs can't wait to unleash more of the potential the slippery Callier showed in his first college game last September at Brigham Young. He lined up at tailback and raced 39 yards on his initial carry.
The splashy debut was the first payoff from UW's proactive interest in Callier, who enrolled in college early last spring partly to get a head-start on academics.
All this spring, from Callier to linebacker Garret Gilliland and beyond, Huskies have been explaining how they signed with UW to stay loyal to a coaching staff that was the first to offer a scholarship.
When third-year coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff find a guy they want, they don't wait.
"I've never been concerned with how many (recruiting) stars a guy has or who ranks him where or who has offered him," Sarkisian said. "That part doesn't concern me. I believe in our ability to see talent, or potential talent. And not just talent on the field, but in the classroom and in their social world."
UW's early interest was the reason why Callier turned down the late-arriving Ducks.
"The Huskies just showed me a lot of loyalty," he said. "They stuck by me. They called me, always made sure my grades were OK. Then Oregon came into the picture and said, `Oh, we didn't know you had your grades right.' I said, `No, I'm good.'
"It was because of Coach Nansen."
Sarkisian credits Nansen for applying his recruiting philosophy perfectly with Callier, and then for making the extra effort to see that plan through Callier's final months in high school.
"The key was to get on him early and have him understand, `Hey, we're here for you if this is what you want to do.' And he did," Sarkisian said. "We wanted to paint a pretty good map for him of what it would take get done. To his credit, he did it. It wasn't easy.
"I think we're recruiting the right type of kids that stand by their word."
Callier's case not only shows UW's philosophy of following through on scholarships by providing opportunity for playing time from a player's first day as a Husky.
Last season, a school-record 14 freshmen appeared in a game. The Huskies set the record in the opener at BYU, when 13 freshmen played.
"I was really surprised," the 5-foot-10, 205-pound Callier said of all his playing time last season. "I was hoping for that, and I got it. I was blessed with it."
To the high-school recruit, that instant opportunity is the attractive by-product of UW rebuilding a program.
"We didn't bring them in to redshirt and maybe wait up to three years. We brought them in to play. If you can beat someone out and win a job over someone, then fair game," running backs coach Joel Thomas said.
"It also lights a fire under that veteran a little bit, too, that `I've got to compete every day and bring it.' I think that's helped our team, the competition that goes on. It's just a very real environment. That's life. You compete, wherever you go.
"I think (high-school) kids see that, `Hey, I played against that guy last year, and now he's rushing for 500 yards as a freshman or whatnot.' Yeah, I think it is a selling point for a program, especially ours."
Thomas remains deeply involved in keeping Callier on the right paths in the classroom, too.
The middle sibling of his family's seven kids, Callier has extra motivation to graduate from UW. He wants to equal his two older brothers. James and James played football at San Jose State and were the first in his family to earn college degrees.
"It'd be very big," Callier said. "That's what my dad raised us for, to get that piece of paper."