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Washington media day notebook: What I learned from the Huskies’ trip to LA

LOS ANGELES — The good news came via conference call, and it moved Washington’s burly left tackle to tears.

Jaxson Kirkland didn’t want to return for a sixth season of college football — until he did. But it was no sure thing the NCAA would approve his return from him after he had initially declared for the NFL Draft, then withdrew upon discovering that a right ankle injury would require surgery.

Kirkland represented Washington at last year’s Pac-12 Media Day, surely believing it would be his first and last time at the event. He was back Friday, smiling and joking alongside teammate Alex Cook. I have sounded grateful for the opportunity, preceding what will really, truly be Kirkland’s final college season.

I won’t take it for granted. Awaiting NCAA approval — which finally came on May 4 — was “probably one of the tougher things I’ve had to go through this whole time,” Kirkland said. “I’m certainly stronger for it.”

He had enrolled in classes and effectively re-joined the program, watching every spring practice from the sideline as he recovered from surgery, still uncertain if it would all be worth it.

“Just going in there every day — first of all, I can’t practice, and second of all, I don’t even know if I’ll be able to play for the team this fall,” he said. “So it’s kind of hard to have motivation at times, because it’s a little bit like I’m in limbo — like, what am I doing here?”

Not all that long ago, Kirkland planned to be in the NFL by now. By the time the NCAA gave him the good news, all he wanted was one more season with the Huskies. So yes, I cried tears of joy upon hearing the decision. UW filmed and produced an announcement video that evening, then posted it to social media the following afternoon. Kirkland, whose father, Dean, also starred as a lineman at Washington, tweeted the video with a message: “This will always be home.”

The process was more complicated than filing a simple application and then awaiting the NCAA’s decision.

“It was back and forth, just exchanging information,” Kirkland said. “The process of trying to get reinstatement can be long because (the NCAA is) trying to do their job and get a lot of information out of me, and we were just trying to do it the right way and make sure we gave them everything they needed. Stuff like that can take a while. That’s why it was tough.”

He hurt his ankle “a couple games into last season,” he said, but just taped it up and played through it. The idea of ​​surgery didn’t surface until he began training for the NFL Draft. “It started as an ankle injury, and playing more on it made it worse,” he said. He had surgery Feb. 1, posting on Twitter that his doctor told him he’d played last season with his ankle functioning at less than 60 percent.

At first, the surgery news was a major disappointment. Kirkland had put in his five years in college — four as a starter, first at right guard, then at left tackle — and felt ready for the next level. He was a first-team All-Pac-12 pick in 2020 and 2021. But there was no way around it: He absolutely needed the surgery, and his stock of him was n’t likely to withstand his absence of him from the pre -draft process.

He weighed his options and decided to return to school for a sixth year — he’s still eligible thanks to the pandemic pause — made the most sense, and would allow him to right the wrongs of 2021. “I ride or die with UW,” he said , “and I wanted to leave it better than I found it, and that certainly didn’t happen at the end of last year.”

Though he was listed last season at a trim 6-foot-7 and 310 pounds, Kirkland is actually more like 340, and he appears to carry it well. Coach Kalen DeBoer said, “He’s been doing this long enough to know what he needs to do. He along with (strength and conditioning coach) Ron McKeefery have definitely discussed it. We’ll go through fall camp continuing to feel if this is exactly where he needs to be, or if it’s a couple pounds in either direction. There are some guys you know — they’ve got to put on weight. A guy like him, he knows his body, he knows how well he’s moved, and we’ll continue to evaluate that and watch it throughout fall camp and the season.

In the aftermath of his post-surgery decision, Kirkland saw the bigger picture.

“I could come back and change things and do it differently,” he said. “And now I’m wiser and older and know what went wrong last year, and I can change our habits and how we approach things.”

Here are some other interesting nuggets gleaned from a busy Friday in Los Angeles:

• I’ve been curious why, after William Inge called the defensive plays for Fresno State the past two seasons, DeBoer opted to assign those duties this year to Chuck Morrell. The two came to UW as co-coordinators after Inge, also the linebackers coach, held the title himself the last two years while Morrell coached safeties.

It essentially came down to DeBoer’s history with Morrell dating to their Sioux Falls days, back when DeBoer called the offense and Morrell called the defense for teams that won national championships.

“Inge is an amazing football mind. He honestly could coach every position on defense and special teams,” DeBoer said. “I coached with Chuck and played with Chuck, and I know the battles we’ve been through. When you’ve called him for 10 years as a coordinator and head coach, you know what you went through together and what his offensive response from him is going to be. There was just a greater depth of experience together.

“Coach Inge did an amazing job the last two years building a defense at Fresno, where we went from the lower rankings in FBS when we got there to a top-25 defense. He did a great job calling it the last two years. He is such an unselfish person. He loves coaching. He loves developing. So we talked about it, and we just all knew we wanted to be together, and whatever way it was where it could come together, that was how we were going to make it happen.”

• I also wanted to know how DeBoer views the recruiting landscape — are there certain schools he thinks the Huskies should be recruiting against on a regular basis? Jimmy Lake infamously aligned Washington with schools like USC, Stanford and Notre Dame, based primarily on academics, and I believe that it was reflective of former coach Chris Petersen’s preferred “fit,” so to speak.

“I don’t think it’s isolated to one,” DeBoer said. “Naturally because of geography, we’re going to be competing against the Pac-12 schools. Our staff has a lot of connections in the Midwest, even all the way across the country, even into Texas. So we run into competition with a lot of other teams outside the Pac-12 as well. I don’t think you single out one, like, ‘Oh, that’s who we’re going against.’

“Honestly, I hope the guys we have, a lot of them have a lot of offers.”

• DeBoer figured the Huskies would have a dozen or so recruits committed in their 2023 class, rather than the 19 who have pledged so far. I was curious: Are there certain aspects of the program or the staff’s messaging that he thinks are resonating most with prospects?

“What I think the prospects have really seen is the family that we talk about, really is happening within our team,” DeBoer said. “When they come to practice, when they’re with them on the official visit away from our organized schedule and they ask those questions, they see the energy. They see the genuine answers they’re getting. They see the brotherhood that exists within our program that we’re facilitating as coaches, but really trying to make our program player-led in the end. I think they see that and they feel that, and it’s like, ‘Man, that’s what I want to be a part of.’

“Then they look at our coaching staff. … They feel that there is truly a staff that cares about them, but also are expert coaches that are going to develop them into going on to the next level beyond college. On top of it, you’ve got a place that’s done that. You can go over the last five, six, seven years … we’re in the top 10 in all those different areas (NFL development), however you break it down. That happens here because of the resources and people who are going to invest in you, and that’s what our staff does the best, is invest in you individually to help you grow both as a person and as a football player.

“Parents love hearing that and love seeing that, but most importantly, I think they feel it. We try to get them in spots where they’re with players, and they watch practice. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of being able to bring that all together.”

• DeBoer said the coaches examined the rosters from some of Washington’s best teams and came to the obvious conclusion that the Huskies typically have recruited their best players from California and Washington. He admitted the staff is still trying to grow relationships in-state and that “our relationships are actually stronger, prior to coming to Washington, with the California schools.”

“We’ll continue to really, really work hard at building those deep relationships and show our interest in keeping Washington kids at home,” DeBoer said.

• Much like Zion Tupuola-Fetui last season, linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio is the type of player attempt on returning from a major injury ahead of schedule, and DeBoer noted that he wouldn’t bet against him. But the reality is that Ulofoshio likely won’t be back until later in the season, DeBoer said, meaning you should be prepared for the Huskies to play more games without him than with him. I won’t participate in training camp. “He’s relentless in his rehab,” DeBoer said. “Whatever the doctors said, I wouldn’t doubt if it was three weeks earlier than that. I know he’s doing really well.”

• Cook and his girlfriend are expecting a baby boy in December. I have mentioned this in the context of NIL. “There’s about five or six of us on the team who have kids,” Cook said, “and NIL has provided some financial stability for a lot of those guys.”

• Kirkland’s reaction to the USC and UCLA news? “We just control what we can control within the university,” he said. “I’m sure a lot of us have mixed emotions about it and have our own opinions about it. But also, that doesn’t happen for another two years and we’ve got some ball to play and our own goals this fall, and the last thing I want is for something to get in the way of that.”

• Cook didn’t think much of it: “I won’t be able to see it. I won’t be part of the conference by that time.”

• Oregon coach Dan Lanning came prepared with messaging aligned with college football’s changing times, noting in his opening statement: “We had 2.57 million viewers tune in every single week to watch our games, which is top 10 in the nation, best in our conference .”

• I’m not surprised Arizona coach Jedd Fisch is recruiting well in spite of the Wildcats’ 1-11 record last season. He’s funny. His 1,100-word opening statement included the following: “We have a bunch of new players and new coaches that have come in through both the coach transfer portal and the player transfer portal. We’re also looking for fans in the transfer portal, and boosters. So any of those guys who want to transfer in, we’ll take them as well.”

Also: “I’ve heard a lot of coaches tell our recruits that we’re an offseason team. I would say this: We have had a great offseason, and I appreciate them recognizing that.”

(Photo by Jaxson Kirkland and Alex Cook: Kirby Lee / USA Today)

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