How the loss of two players will affect UW football in 2011

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As it was reported recently on the Seattle Times, UW suffered two major losses in the backfield with the reinjury of the ACL by Deontae Cooper and the retirement of Zach Fogerson due to a concussion. Obviously, the loss of two players with so much potential seems like it would be a major blow to the rebuilding of the Washington Huskies football team, especially as the team attempts to break in a new quarterback. What impact will the loss of these two players have on the team in 2011?

Deontae Cooper was a 4-star recruit out of Perris, California who was expected by many to be the heir apparent to Chris Polk. He was the 2nd leading rusher in the entire state of California in 2009 and was one of the marquee recruits of Steve Sarkisian’s first full recruiting class. Deontae’s dedication to the program was illustrated by him graduating high school early and enrolling in winter quarter 2010 to get a head start at UW over the rest of his class both academically and in the weight room and training regimen.

He was expected to compete with Jesse Callier for the primary backup spot last year as a true freshman, but when he suffered an ACL injury in fall camp last year, he was forced to redshirt. While unfortunate, many felt it was not the worst thing that could happen since he could come back the following year with 4 years of eligibility left.

So, for him to suffer yet another ACL tear this summer in normal conditioning drills is very frustrating to both UW fans and especially for Deontae, given his hard work and dedication. Once again he’ll have to sit out the entire season while rehabbing after surgery. Steve Sarkisian indicated the surgery went well and that he should be able to return to football. We hope that all goes well and that he has an opportunity to show us the potential that he had in high school.

Even more distressing is what happened to Zach Fogerson. Zach suffered a concussion in spring ball and was held out of the rest of the spring. He never seemed to rebound and was never able to pass the necessary tests to allow him back onto the field. Finally, the decision was made for him to retire from football for good. Concussions are a major issue in football nowadays, as more and more scientific evidence is showing that even previously considered “minor dings” can cause long-lasting, cumulative, and often permanent brain damage. Studies of NFL players who have suffered multiple concussions have found that retired players suffer from a range of debilitating disorders including memory loss, cognitive decay, emotional disturbances, and sociopathologic behaviors such as drug abuse.

For the medical staff to decide that Zach Fogerson needs to retire after only one such blow (plus any others he had in high school) should be a warning to all about the dangers of today’s football. The players are just so fast, so strong, so heavy that the human body can not handle those kinds of forces, no matter what protective equipment they are wearing. While I could address the long term implications to the health of players at this level, let’s focus specifically on what this now means for UW’s backfield for 2011.

First and foremost, UW is really darn lucky that Chris Polk decided to stay for his junior season rather than enter the NFL draft. After an amazing 1415 yards his sophomore season, he very well could have gone in the 2nd round of the draft and made a lot of money in the NFL. So, his decision to return for one more year is absolutely huge for the program. He’ll now be the go-to guy to help ease in a new starting quarterback (probably Price, but maybe Montana still…) He averaged 20 carries per game last season, so look for him to up that to 25+ next year, especially if he maintains his 5+ yards per attempt he has had his first two seasons.

Backing up Chris Polk will be sophomore Jesse Callier. Callier had 477 yards on 77 carries last year (5.6 yards per attempt). He showed amazing flashes of brilliance with several long runs and 107 yards against UCLA. If there was one weakness of Callier’s game, it was that he fumbled too much. But, he was a true freshman. There is reason to believe he will work on his technique and get better holding onto the ball. Jesse has a really good opportunity to solidify his hold on this position and become the real go-to guy in the backfield his junior year after Chris Polk heads off to the NFL. In addition, there is reason for Husky fans to have a lot of confidence that even in the unfortunate event that Polk were to get injured, that Callier can handle the load in 2011.

Having this solid running back core should definitely ease the transition to a new QB. But, with such an experienced wide recieving core returning as well, there may be a case of only so many plays to go around. Defenses will need to respect the speed and experience of seniors Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar. In addition, they have experience in senior Cody Bruns and junior James Johnson. Then of course, expectations are high with in-coming Parade All-American freshman Kasen Williams arriving in Montlake.

So, while this very talented wide recieving core may actually end up taking away carries from the running back crew, it also could open up defenses allowing for some big runs. Defenses will have to move linebackers back to cover slants by the WR’s and that could open up some nice holes for Polk and the others. DB’s will not be able to cheat in as much on the corners or blitz as often or risk being caught on long balls over the top to streaking receivers. Thus, there will be more openings on the edges for the running backs as well.

Senior Johri Fogerson missed almost all of 2010 with an injury and then got himself in some legal trouble in the spring. But, if he can keep his nose clean and recover from his injury well, he has a chance to get some serious action as the third running back. If there are any issues with the health of Polk and Callier in 2011, he could be in for a lot of plays. His career at UW has been very mixed, but he does have talent and hopefully he’ll take his opportunities as a senior seriously.

Also in the backfield will be freshman Bishop Sankey. One of the highest rated recruits out of eastern Washington in some time, he originally committed to Washington State, before deciding to become a Husky. Most people expect him to redshirt this year. But, with Cooper out, there is the possibility he could be called in to play some in 2011. However, I think it is more likely that Sarkisian will try and keep him out this year and set him up to be the primary backup to Callier in 2012.

Lastly, there is Kyle Lewis, who originally committed to UCLA but has instead decided to enroll at UW this fall. He is projected as a safety/corner, but also played running back in high school and UW coaches apparently will give him a look in the backfield in the fall camp.

At the fullback position, the loss of Zach Forgerson is pretty significant. It is not the most glamorous position. Players there do not generally rack up huge stats or get famous. But, as a key blocking position, it is really important to the running game, especially on short yardage situations or on sweep plays. Without a big blocker to assist, players like Chris Polk don’t get the yards or prestige. In addition, having a fullback with great hands can be very advantageous on screens and they have to be respected by defenders when they come out of the backfield.

UW looks a little thin at the fullback spot, with only junior Jonathan Amosa and freshman Dezden Petty expected to get major playing time. But, I think it is likely Sarkisian will take a look at some of the other players on the roster, perhaps some who have been deep on the depth chart on the defensive side to see who might be able to make the switch and provide some depth at that position.

The good news in terms of the backfield, however, is that the offensive line appears to have improved and has more experience and UW has definitely upgraded at the tight end position with the addition of Austin Sefarian-Jenkins and the return of Michael Hartvigson from injury. This will provide extra blocking and more receivers to assist the tailbacks and give the new QB more targets.

I wish the best to Deontae Cooper on his rehabilitation and hope he can have the Husky career he dreamed about. I hope too that Zach Fogerson is getting away from football at the right time and can use the opportunity to learn more about the sport and possibly get into coaching. But, barring some other major injury, There is a lot of reason to be optimistic in Montlake on the offensive side of the ball, even without Jake Locker.