SEATTLE – On Jan. 18, Jimmy Lake stood on the purple “W” at midcourt inside Alaska Airlines Arena. He held a microphone and wore a white pullover jacket. He addressed 9,268 fans during a timeout in the Husky hoops game against Oregon.
“I need your help,” said Lake, who had been announced as UW’s head football coach less than two months earlier. “We have a couple things to remember here. On April 25, we are trying to have the highest attended spring game in the country right here. And on Sept. 5, there’s this team from the Big Ten that’s coming across here, and we need to send them back to Ann Arbor with a big L. Go Dawgs!”
Lake waved a purple towel like a helicopter blade over his bald head, as the arena erupted in woofs and applause from the near-capacity crowd. There wasn’t 6 feet of social distancing anywhere in the seats. A public address announcer bellowed, “We’ll see you April 25!”
Nearly seven months later, Lake’s schedule has changed.
The spring game and the home opener against Michigan were canceled as the coronavirus pandemic persists. And on Tuesday, the Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences each postponed competitions through the end of the year. In a statement, Lake said that “we will continue to train and prepare and, when the medical experts determine the season can begin, the University of Washington Football Team will be ready to compete.”
But when will that happen?
And who will take the field when it does?
At this point, the answer to the first question is anyone’s guess. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott acknowledged in a media webinar Tuesday that a spring football season may not even be feasible. On Wednesday, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day suggested teams play an eight-game season that starts the first week of January. Coaches and administrators are unlikely to OK two full seasons in the same calendar year or a schedule that lingers too late into the spring, to preserve the previously scheduled fall 2021 season.
But ultimately, as the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Board noted this week, the community prevalence of COVID-19 and point-of-care testing capacity will determine whether football is played.
But, for a moment, let’s accept – let’s allow ourselves to hope – that Husky football is played in January, or February, or March, or whenever. It’s unclear what Washington’s actual roster will look like when it does.
Two players – defensive back Elijah Molden and defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike – spurned the NFL to return for their senior seasons this fall, but it’s unlikely they’ll make the same decision again in the spring if they’re forced to bypass the 2021 draft. If the NFL chooses to delay both the draft and the scouting combine, it’s possible UW’s pro prospects could play and then jump right to the next level. But would they be willing to risk injury – or infection – for what amounts to an unprecedented eight-game sprint?
The same question should be asked of several juniors. With a strong 2020 season, outside linebacker Joe Tryon, tight end Cade Otton and offensive lineman Jaxson Kirkland each could have conceivably declared for the NFL draft. In light of recent events, would they consider sitting out the spring and taking their chances without a junior season?
It’s also important to note that the Pac-12 stated in an official release Tuesday that the conference “strongly encourages that the NCAA grant students who opt out of competition this academic year an additional year of eligibility.” On Wednesday, the NCAA Division I Council recommended to the Division I Board of Directors that any player who opts out or plays 50% or less than the maximum games in a spring season should have their eligibility preserved.
In which case, how many Huskies would prefer to opt out, enjoy a more traditional offseason and prepare for a full season next fall? And if that happens, how would scholarship limits be affected?
If some of UW’s 13 scholarship seniors – like Keith Taylor or Josiah Bronson or Ryan Bowman or Luke Wattenberg or Kevin Thomson – return for an extra and previously unexpected season, would Washington still be required to cap its roster at 85 scholarships? Or, more likely, would temporary scholarship extensions be granted to allow Pac-12 programs to sign a more complete recruiting class?
To this point, Washington has 14 oral commits in a 2021 class ranked 25th nationally by 247Sports.com. With 13 scholarship seniors and other inevitable attrition, the Huskies are expected to sign 20 or 21 prospects in the upcoming class. The headliner is five-star Kennedy Catholic quarterback Sam Huard, who previously said he will play his senior high school season next spring and join the Huskies in the summer.
But what if early enrollee freshmen are immediately eligible to participate in a spring Pac-12 season? That might be enough to make Huard, and many others, change their minds. It might also serve as an intriguing recruiting wrinkle for local five-star prospects J.T. Tuimoloau and Emeka Egbuka.
For now, the questions are numerous and the answers are elusive. Without a set spring game or season opener to prepare for, the Huskies are permitted to continue with 20 weekly hours of meetings, drills and no-contact walk-throughs. He’s permitted to prepare for a spring season that may never arrive.
Since Lake’s address to nearly 10,000 fans on Jan. 18, so much more than the schedule has changed. It has been, and continues to be, Lake’s job to adapt and propel his program forward – to pull his team together as his season falls apart.
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