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Gregg Bell Unleashed: Sarkisian's 'Fence' Around Washington Gets Taller
Release: 02/02/2011
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Feb. 2, 2011

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SEATTLE - The biggest fax of the Huskies' national letter of intent day, the one from local monster wide receiver and Parade magazine's national high school player of the year Kasen Williams, arrived in Steve Sarkisian's office at 7:11 a.m.

At the same moment the top edge of the sun shined through the east windows of UW's football building, majestically appearing over Lake Washington for the first time Wednesday.

"It really is a new day," a beaming Huskies football staffer said to me as he basked in the symbolism and the signing from across the hall from Sarkisian's humming office. The coach was smiling in a sports coat and tie that was loosened far below the neck. Music was blaring on Sark's office stereo.

Yes, it's a new era for Washington. A new-old era, actually.

Who knows how good Sarkisian's second full recruiting class at UW really is? That won't be fully known for another four or five years, though the first-blush opinions of "experts" at Scout.com had the Huskies' haul as 19th-best in the country.

And, yes, Washington lost a couple of players who had given them verbal commitments - just as the Huskies gained a couple of signees who had committed elsewhere.

All I know now is, after a decade of setbacks, Washington has resumed keeping the state's best players at home.

It's a return to the foundation Don James used to make the Huskies a Rose Bowl team and national power decades ago.

A fence? In just 25 months on the job, Sarkisian has built walls the size and strength of Grand Coulee Dam around this state.

"There's a few (new) guys I'm going to have a hard time keeping off the field," said the coach who played a school-record 14 freshmen last season.

The Huskies announced Williams' signing at 8:09 - just 14 minutes after Austin Sefarian-Jenkins' fax was in and official. The mammoth tight end from Gig Harbor joined Williams among the five highest-rated and most sought after players in Washington in this class. They could have played anywhere.

The Huskies signed all five.

"That's been our philosophy since Day One, that we have to take care of our own backyard first," said Sarkisian, who left behind his Southern California roots to revive the Huskies in January 2009. "It's easy to get on planes and go around and try to find really good football players. But at the end of the day if the guys in your own backyard are going off to other universities and you end up playing against them, you're not going to be successful.

"It was a real focus for us. We focused on that part of this class - and we were able to get it done."

Sarkisian is reminded often of the NFL-caliber players who got away from UW, just in the last few years: Taylor Mays, a Seattle high school star who went to USC in 2006 when Sarkisian was a Trojans assistant and is now a safety for the San Francisco 49ers; Steve Schilling, a steamrolling blocker from suburban Bellevue who left for Michigan that same year and is now readying for the NFL draft; and Jonathan Stewart, who left Lacey's Timberline High School in 2005 as the state's career rushing leader and went to - gasp! - Oregon. Stewart is now running for the Carolina Panthers.

Wednesday showed that the days of the Huskies watching homegrown stars shine elsewhere are over.

"I just said, `If we're going to get back to winning Pac-10 championships and competing for national championships, we've got to keep these guys here,'" Sarkisian said.

Even though Williams had given his verbal commitment to UW in August, these days you just never know. Cell phones, Twitter, Internet hounds, friends, rival coaches - the sources of sway on teenage kids to change their minds and sign elsewhere is so widespread, no staff is sure it has a recruit until his signed fax arrives in the office.

"For me, to think that Austin is sitting up there choosing between the University of Texas and the University of Washington I think speaks volumes," Sarkisian said. "To think that Kasen Williams had scholarship offers from LSU and Florida and Florida State, USC and all these other places, to think that he's staying here, those are big wins for us that in our opinion are hopefully setting a precedent on what we're about when we recruit the state of Washington."

The Huskies also signed running back Bishop Sankey of Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, the top rusher in Greater Spokane League history; 300-pound defensive tackle Danny Shelton of Auburn, an all-state lineman on both offense and defense who is among the top 10 tackle recruits in the nation; and defensive lineman Taniela Tupou from Marysville and Archbishop Murphy High School, a Class 2A all-state selection.

Shelton is "a real beast, the real deal inside," Sarkisian said. Tupou's was the first letter to come across Sarkisian's fax Wednesday, four minutes after 7 a.m.

"Hopefully it's a little discouraging to some of these other schools to want to try to come up here and recruit against us in our own state," Sarkisian said.

This just doesn't happen because Sark has a good smile, cracks jokes and plays hip-hop jams at practices and in his office.

The day he was introduced as Washington's new coach two years ago, Sarkisian was inside Skyline High School in suburban Sammamish, talking to Williams' coaches. He has had Tupou, who is from Marysville, in both of the summer camps he's run at UW so far.

"It's about developing relationships, not only with the young men but their parents, their coaches, their families. And it's about staying true to who we are," Sarkisian said. "We sell who we are, as people. We're very real. We're candid. We're upfront. We're honest. And that doesn't change, that doesn't vary from player to player, or family to family, or in-state or out of state. That's just who we are.

"How we are at practice or how we are in my office is the same way I am in their living room."

That summer football camp at UW is becoming Sark's kennel for future Dawgs. Eight of the 10 Washington players the Huskies signed Wednesday went to one of his Huskies camps. That includes speedy safety Evan Zeger. He is from Bishop Gorman High School in Henderson, Nev., but began his prep career at Skyline High.

You can't overestimate how big that is. Having the top recruits in camp allows UW coaches to go beyond the guesswork of projecting how good or bad a kid's high-school competition may have been. It allows Sarkisian's staff to get to know the recruits, and vice versa.

"It's huge," Sarkisian said. "We get to coach them. We're seeing them, getting to know them. They are seeing us, getting to know how we coach and interact."

The tally of Washington's haul was 23 as of late Wednesday afternoon, pending some later announcements that could run through Friday. Now come the obligatory assessments and rankings of how teams did.

Beware. While they give people jobs and Internet readers something to debate, rankings of 17- and 18-year-olds projected onto a big-time national stage are often meaningless.

Donald Butler was rated by Rivals.com as only the 55th best high-school linebacker in Washington's 2006 recruiting class. He became a star for the Huskies, third in the Pac-10 in tackles and second in tackles for loss in 2009. He was the seventh linebacker taken - and 79th player selected overall, by the San Diego Chargers -- in last spring's NFL draft.

The so-called recruiting experts said Daniel Te'o-Nesheim wasn't even among the four best players on the Hawaiian Islands coming out of high school in 2005. All Te'o-Nesheim did was become a third-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles last year, drafted seven spots behind Butler.

So even though no one is talking much now about Siosifa Tufunga, a find of Huskies assistant Johnny Nansen from the recruiting coordinator's alma mater of Jordan High in Long Beach, Calif., the 300-pound guard/center could become a Huskies starter. Who knows?

In 2005 some quarterback named Mark Sanchez was, like Williams, Parade's national player of the year. He ended up OK.

Like I say, it's a crapshoot.

But by signing the best inside his own state, Sarkisian has stacked the odds in his favor.

"At the end of the day, it wasn't just about the top five. It's about keeping the top 10 players in the state around playing here," the Huskies' master builder said. "That's how we're going to become great.

"To think how far we've come in two years - to go from a non-win team to third place in the Pac-10 and Holiday Bowl champs, to think back that last quarter we had the highest GPA for as long as they've kept records on ... all in all, what we're preachin' we're actually doing."


About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.

Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.

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