The Huskies’ pass-rushing end returns Friday to hometown UCLA, where he originally signed. He credits, and thanks, coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff for a second chance at football -- and at maturing for life.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – Josh Shirley has grown up so much since he was last at UCLA.
As a player. And, ultimately much more important, as a person.
Now, days before the sack creator and havoc maker on Washington’s defensive line returns to the school to which he originally signed in 2010, he wants to publically thank Steve Sarkisian and his Huskies coaching staff for mentoring him on and off the field. For aiding his profound, personal growth.
“Honestly, I’ve moved on. That’s a part of my maturation process being here and being a Husky,” Shirley told me on the edge of the Dempsey Indoor practice field Tuesday, before he and UW play a pivotal primetime game on national television Friday against UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
“Going into my fourth year here, it’s really matured me. Sark and the coaches and the program brought me in, and I grateful for that. They’ve really changed me as a person.”
Sarkisian talks often how college coaching is unlike that at any other level.
“I’ve got 105 sons between the ages of 18 and 22 years old,” the Huskies’ coach likes to say, as he did again Tuesday on the weekly Pac-12 coaches’ teleconference while talking about Shirley.
He values his role as not only a football coach but, given all the time he spends with them, mentor of young men. As a provider of opportunities to learn and grow as players and into productive young men about to enter what everyone in sports eventually discovers as “the real world.”
Josh Shirley is another example of a Husky growing inside Sarkisian’s program far beyond X’s and O’s, beyond improving sack totals and passing yards and touchdowns.
Sure, the native of Fontana, Calif., is a gifted combination of power and speed at 6 feet 3 and 232 pounds at defensive end, an offensive tackle’s menace as well as his blur. Those are the reasons UCLA, USC, Miami and Washington wanted him among so many others nationwide in 2009 and into signing day in early 2010.
But these facts are more telling: In four, transformative years Shirley has gone from squandering a first chance at a college education, team and experience to readying for a positive role in an ultimately far more important pursuit.
FROM A PUP TO A DAWG
Shirley is one of the 39 natives of southern California on the Huskies’ roster who are headed home for Friday’s game.
None of those 39 have grown up more in his time at UW or gained more from Sarkisian, defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox than him.
“Moving away from home, you have to grow up fast. You have to grow up really fast,” Shirley, the youngest of seven children, said. “And I appreciate the help that Coach Sark and his staff have given me and the guidance that they’ve given me.”
Shirley was a hometown, four-star recruit who had surprised the Southland by choosing UCLA over USC on signing day in February 2010. That summer he reported to Westwood to begin orientation and eventually preseason camp with the Bruins.
In late June, before practices began, Shirley and two Bruins teammates were arrested on suspicion of a theft of a purse from the UCLA campus. Shirley was reportedly the only one who was released without having to post bail. Six days later, then-UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel kicked Shirley, Paul Richardson and Shaquille Richardson off the team. They were released from their national letters of intent and not allowed to finish summer school at UCLA, though they could have reapplied for admission in January.
In four, transformative years Shirley has gone from squandering a first chance at a college education, team and experience to readying for a positive role in an ultimately far more important pursuit. Life.
Sarkisian had gotten to know Shirley through recruiting visits and his official visit to UW in September 2009 when he was a senior at Kaiser High School in Fontana, Calif. The coach knew his mother Florentine was a staffing nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, that his father Woodrow was a retired truck driver. Sarkisian had come to learn that Josh was the kid brother with six older siblings. That he was well-spoken, well-mannered, well-intended.
And still a teenager.
“Kids are going to make mistakes; I’m aware of that,” Sarkisian said.
In July of 2010, weeks after he left UCLA, Shirley signed a financial-aid agreement with Washington. He redshirted that fall season for the Huskies. Sarkisian wanted him to find his footing socially and academically in his first time away from home in that initial year, even though Shirley was talented enough to play immediately on a Huskies defense that really needed a pass rusher.
When I asked him Tuesday what other options he had at the time Shirley looked at me, grinned and said, “I love the Huskies. I love the Huskies.
“And I’m glad to be here.”
“When the whole thing went down, we just did our research and did our homework and really looked at the entire body of work and everything that went in,” Sarkisian said. “Sometimes we are in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people, and that's not necessarily indicative of who we are as people.”
It’s proven to be nowhere indicative of who Shirley has become.
He eventually pleaded to a violation that required 24 months of summary probation, the lightest, unsupervised form, with 80 hours of community service. But instead of that mistake ending his college career before it began, Shirley has flourished here as a sack man and as a student.
He burst into the Huskies defense in 2011 with 8½ sacks as a redshirt freshman, including three of Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III of Baylor in the Alamo Bowl. He was the Huskies’ co-leader last season with 6½ sacks. He has five more through eight games this season (he missed the California game with a calf injury). He’s second on the team behind Hau’oli Kikaha’s six even though he is in a far more limited, specialized role. Last week against Colorado he slammed into quarterback Sefo Liufau, forcing him to fumble for one of two sacks. Teammate Marcus Peters picked up the ball and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown in UW’s 59-7 win.
He is one of 23 Huskies with a cumulative grade-point average of 3.0 or better. Shirley’s is 3.10 – on a standout athletic and academic defensive line that also includes fellow end Kikaha (3.49 GPA, named last week to the District 8 all-academic team and now eligible to become UW football’s first Academic All-America since Ed Cunningham in 1991) and tackle Danny Shelton (3.4).
Sure, Sarkisian saw an explosive pass rusher suddenly available for his defense when Shirley was released from his UCLA scholarship. But he knew Shirley more deeply than just that. Those countless recruiting hours primarily focused in his native southern California paid off.
For the Huskies. And for Shirley to get a second chance.
“When a kid makes a mistake, we try to assess the error in judgment and really try to identify, ‘Is that really who he is or is that out of character?’ And I really felt the mistake Josh made at UCLA was out of character,” Sarkisian said.
“And in that time (since he arrived at UW in July 2010), and all the way up until today, he’s been amazing. He’s been a good student. He’s been great in the community. He’s been a good teammate.
“I couldn’t ask for more than what he’s brought.”
Shirley couldn’t ask for a better place for a re-do than here.
“Yes, it was good to get a fresh start. Because of the stuff that happened it was good to get a fresh start and start over,” Shirley said Tuesday.
He calls it “a brand-new beginning,” one that has the redshirt junior on track to graduate this coming June with a sociology degree, with a senior football season still to play. He has taken full advantage of summer schools and full class loads each quarter, even while in seasons, to graduate within four years.
“I’m just trying to continue that fresh start, keep it going,” he says.
"EMBRACING MY ROLE"
Shirley hasn’t played as many snaps this season as Wilcox has employed specialists more on this year’s defensive front. Shirley is behind Cory Littleton at end in base defenses on run downs.
But Shirley is liable to explode on an overwhelmed quarterback at any passing moment, as he did last week against Colorado and in the second game this season against Illinois in Chicago. The Illini tried to spread the Huskies’ defense out and throw all over the field early. Wilcox inserted Shirley as part of the Huskies’ speedy pass-rush package they call “Jetsons,” and Shirley zoomed in for three sacks in the first half alone. UW seized control and won 34-24.
“I’m just embracing my role. The coaches know what’s best. If they see me as best as a pass rusher, than that’s what I’ll do,” he said. “Whenever they call my number I’m going to be ready. Whether it’s against the run or for a pass, I’m going to be ready.
“I’m just blessed to be on the field.”
Especially the one at the bottom of the Rose Bowl on Friday night. His mom and dad, now divorced, will make 45-mile drive west to Pasadena to be there. At least five of his siblings will join them, including his oldest brother by two-plus decades, Woody. He’s coming from Montana to see his kid brother play in person for the first time. Four of his nieces and nephews will be at the UCLA game, too.
“My family will be there to support me,” he says, proudly. “My family would support me if I was 1,000 miles away.”
Funny, that’s roughly how far he really is from home while in this second chance at UW.
It’s also figuratively how far he’s grown at Washington.
“It’s always good to know where you came from, but I’m moving forward. I’m leaning forward,” he said. “I’m a Husky now.
“Know where you came from. But don’t dwell on it.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or 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.
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