Jedd Fisch’s 'unique' Washington rebuild: A Big Ten mentality and four groups of athletes

Jedd Fisch wasn’t thinking about getting a new coaching job, but he was playing out future scenarios. Almost all of them were about sustainability. And that was on his mind when, not quite 24 hours after Kalen DeBoer vacated the Washington head-coaching job for Alabama’s in the wake of Nick Saban’s retirement, Troy Dannen called. The then-Washington athletic director was in the market for a new coach, just four days removed from the Huskies’ appearance in the national championship.

Fisch had assumed Washington would promote from within, elevating offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb. So he was surprised — and intrigued. Fisch, who’d spent two seasons on Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Michigan, loved the idea of coaching in the Big Ten.

“The entire college football world was being focused on the Big Ten, SEC,” Fisch pointed out. “That’s all you keep hearing about.”

Arizona was leaving behind the carnage of the Pac-12 collapse for the Big 12. Additionally, the school had been making news with its financial shortfall.

“(Arizona) has a really good team but within that, though, you have to be able to have the ability to sustain success year in and year out and have the ability to support that success,” Fisch said. “If I was to turn down the job, that means I was taking that job for the next five years to stay at Arizona.

“But what was that going to look like three years from now? Five? What did the college football landscape look like? Where were we (Arizona) going to be financially? There were a lot of things coming out in the news. I didn’t have a new deal signed. I couldn’t get a deal approved to even stay. We put a deal in front of them (in November) and it went back and forth. On Jan. 9, it was not approved.

“It was concerning to me. We had the highest GPA ever and had just went 10-3. They couldn’t get me an extension, couldn’t get our coaches extensions or raises.”

And so after his call with Dannen, Fisch looked up Washington’s schedule. He saw games against Michigan, trips to Iowa, Penn State and Oregon alongside home games against USC and UCLA.

“How awesome is that?” he thought. “This is what it’s supposed to be in college football.”

And when Dannen called Fisch again late that same evening, he offered him the job. Fisch had done wonders transforming a dismal Arizona squad that was riding a 12-game losing streak when he took over; by year three in 2023, the Wildcats were 10-3. Several of his Arizona staffers described that loaded group as the closest team they’ve ever been part of.

But there’s one thing the great rebuilder didn’t do before accepting the job: look under the hook and study the Huskies’ projected depth chart for 2024.

A unique roster rebuild

Every starter from last year’s most explosive offense in college football — led by quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and wideout Rome Odunze — is gone. Only two starters from the national title game remain, one linebacker and one cornerback. The other 20 left for either the NFL or the transfer portal.

Dannen realized the new coach would have a sizable rebuild. He offered Fisch a seven-year deal.

“They made a really good offer to come there,” Fisch said. “They understood that it was a little bit of a rebuild. It wasn’t just the traditional five-year deal, and because of that, it was too good of an opportunity not to go to the Big Ten.”

Fisch undertook a massive rebuild in Tucson of a program that had lost its last game before he arrived 70-7 at home to a mediocre Arizona State team. Washington was coming off of playing in the national title game, but it was also a team with many holdovers who had committed to play for Chris Petersen and ultimately stayed for two other head coaches in Jimmy Lake and DeBoer. It was a vulnerable team.

Nine Washington players who had entered the portal, though, ultimately withdrew from it.

“We had to work very hard to build back their trust,” Fisch said.

Fisch believed it was critical to keep corner Elijah Jackson and linebacker Alphonzo Tuputala, the two remaining starters; linebacker Carson Bruener; and safeties Kam Fabiculanan and Makell Esteen. All are fifth-year seniors. “That’s the group that I couldn’t afford to lose. I needed those fifth-year players. I needed those guys to rally around our coaching staff.”

Some of Fisch’s players in Arizona followed him to Seattle, including Jonah Coleman, the Wildcats’ leading rusher; Ephesians Prysock, an honorable mention All-Pac-12 cornerback; and quarterback Demond Williams and running back Jordan Washington, the Wildcats’ two highest-rated signees in 2024.

“This rebuild is so unique. We have to figure out a way to expedite relationships that did not exist,” Fisch said. “We have 15 players that were at Arizona or committed there (who) are now here; 38 players that were on this roster prior; and another set of 19 freshmen; and another 15 transfers outside of Arizona transfers. We have to get these four sets of players to play as one team ready for Aug. 31.”

Bruener, Washington’s third-leading tackler in 2023 despite only one start, is one of the players who had committed to play for Petersen. The 6-foot-2, 226-pounder is a local guy. His dad played on the 1991 Washington national title team. His mom was a Huskies cheerleader. He didn’t want to be anywhere else but said this latest transition was still very hard.

“Even though people can say s— really hit the fan here, I don’t really think it did,” Bruener said. “We had 10 draft picks and three in the first round. That’s something we should be celebrating. But a lot of people’s focuses will be going to next year: ‘Oh, we’re doomed!’ But we’re not. We still have a lot of talent, and this coaching staff knows what they’re doing. I feel like we’re in good hands.”

Bruener was part of a group that called a players’ only meeting this offseason. They noted that they have 47 new scholarship players. They discussed how vital it is this team must get close.

“We can either go one way or the other,” they said. They organized more team-bonding activities. Some of the new players, like Coleman, emerged as vocal leaders.

“The 4-8 season (in 2021) was tough,” Bruener said. “That was something we brought up in our players’ only meeting. The people at Arizona knew what it felt like to lose, but we knew what it felt like to lose, too. That’s a feeling I never want to relive.”

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“I feel like we’re in good hands,” fifth-year senior Carson Bruener said. (Steven Bisig / USA Today)

The summer study sessions

Will Rogers, one of those nine Huskies who went into the portal after DeBoer left but opted to return, sat 8 feet in front of the 110-inch screen in Fisch’s office. The second-most prolific passer in SEC history, and Washington’s presumed starter entering the season, has come by for a film session the first Monday in June. The curriculum: the 2023 Arizona-USC game. The matchup, in which Fisch’s team led 17-0 before losing 43-41 in triple overtime, is as a fascinating window into the Huskies’ new system.

On the Wildcats’ first offensive play of the game, Fisch lined up his best wideout, Tetairoa McMillan, as the Z receiver at the top of the screen in a 3-by-1 formation. The other receivers on the top side run short routes while McMillan streaks upfield, running past the USC cornerback who creeps up to try and cover the No. 2 receiver. Quarterback Noah Fifita sets his feet on a short drop and fires the ball 25 yards downfield. He connects with McMillan in the hole in the coverage away from the safety who then misses the tackle. The Wildcats gained 30 yards.

“We did that because we were trying to hit a hole shot against the 2-trap (coverage) of USC,” Fisch said. “I wanted a tall receiver in the hole. We knew this was coming. We got the 2-trap we wanted. They loved starting the game with that coverage. … The biggest thing for you: You’re gonna have to not want to throw the stick here.”

The coach pointed his laser pointer on the tight end.

“Yeah, I know,” Rogers said. “That’s like the game plan thing, first play of the game, they’re gonna be in 2-trap and we want to throw this hole shot.”

“Correct,” Fisch said. “You gotta have that mentality. You gotta understand, sure, there’s the old argument that you never go broke taking a profit, right? But if you threw to the tight end here, you do not want to see my face. You only get so many shots to be able to hit the 25-, 30-yarders. What we’ll talk all week long is the Play Caller Purpose —what’s the PCP of this call? On all your tips on every read, you’ll get a PCP sheet. In this case, the purpose was to hit the hole shot or we wouldn’t have put T-Mac out there. That make sense?”

Rogers hummed his understanding. The son of a Mississippi high school coach, Rogers hummed more than a dozen acknowledgments in the hour, but the fifth-year senior was far from zoned out. At times, Rogers sounded as though he was front and center in a coaching clinic, peppering the coach with things that have worked for him in the past. “Have you ever done the tight end delay out of four verts?”

“We haven’t in a long time,” Fisch said. “I think the last time we did it I was at Minnesota (in 2009 as the Gophers offensive coordinator). Maybe at UCLA (in 2017) with Caleb Wilson (now a Washington analyst).”

“It’s a great play,” Rogers replied.

“This has become more of what we run,” Fisch said, showing a clip of another favorite play with a different route by the back. “We probably run this 8, 10 times a year.”

The ongoing conversation centers on the checks Rogers can and should make, as well as the split-second decisions that a quarterback in Fisch’s system will face on every snap. For Fisch, that’s extremely important, given the program has Rogers’ stability, experience and leadership.

“Throw the bubble or hand it off?” Fisch asked, freezing the screen to assess the matchups on a red zone play. While the bubble screen looks open, Fisch pointed out that the Wildcats would need to win on both their blocks on the perimeter for the receiver to have a path at scoring.

As the USC game unfolded on screen, Fisch weaved in the amazing story of Arizona’s rise in the backdrop of it giving USC, a 21-point favorite, all it could handle. Fisch had back-to-back top-10 passing attacks at Arizona. This film session, however, also underscores how much he loves physical football.

There’s been a lot of talk about how the Pac-12 programs will have to recruit different types of players now that they’re moving to the Big Ten.

“We don’t,” Fisch said, “because that’s how we built our team in Arizona. We wanted to get big. We wanted to look big.”

Fisch is proud to say that the Wildcats just produced an offensive lineman who went in the first round, Jordan Morgan; tight end Tanner McLachlan also got drafted.

“Big Jonah (Savaiinaea), our right tackle, is projected to go in the first round, and Wendell Moe, the right guard, is projected to go in the second,” he said.

“How often has the offensive line at Arizona had so many players considered NFL players? We have to build that here because we cannot recruit an offensive line that is smaller. We cannot recruit a bunch of athletes that are 275 pounds and say we’re gonna run spread because we’re not. We have to go to match Michigan and Ohio State’s offensive line mentality, and to do that, we’re going to have to scour the nation both over the Pacific to Hawaii but also into the middle part of the country and bring our brand to Pennsylvania and Ohio and Michigan and Iowa, where there are big offensive linemen that want to see another part of the country.”

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Will Rogers opted to stay at Washington after Jedd Fisch took over for Kalen DeBoer. His experience and leadership are boons for a rebuilding roster. (Petre Thomas / USA Today)

CFB’s unique architect

Fisch is unique by coaching standards. He never played football. He was a standout tennis player in New Jersey. But as a student at Florida, he wanted to learn from one of football’s more iconic coaches, Steve Spurrier. And from there, he studied under even more unique personalities in all levels of football: Spurrier, Pete Carroll, Harbaugh and Bill Belichick. All have their own quotes etched in bronze that are mounted on the wall to the left of that giant screen in his office where Rogers studied film.

But when Fisch first tried to join Spurrier’s staff, he wasn’t accepted as one of 11 student equipment managers. So he took a job coaching football at a local high school. He made $500 his first year as a receivers coach. The following season, he worked with the defense, and all the while, he never gave up trying to get in with Spurrier. He left notes on the windshield of Spurrier’s blue Buick in the stadium parking lot, offering to volunteer on his staff, anything. Fisch left a note on the coach’s car for about 400 days, he said.

During summers, Fisch road-tripped working college football camps to better learn the game and make connections. Eventually, the Gators agreed to bring on Fisch as a student assistant his senior year. He was the only student assistant Spurrier had at a time when coaching staffs were much smaller.

The year Fisch graduated, he took an unpaid summer job as an assistant with the Arena League’s New Jersey Red Dogs. Fisch got his master’s degree at Florida while also working as a graduate assistant for the Gators. At 23, Fisch landed a quality control job in the NFL after Spurrier recommended him to Dom Capers, the head coach of the expansion Houston Texans in 2001.

“I’ve always been me, which has been unique in this profession because of how I grew up and what I did, and how I didn’t play, and how I got to certain opportunities because of hard work and because of relationships,” he said.

Being a college head coach requires a different skill set now than it did back in Spurrier’s days; name, image and likeness and the transfer portal have changed things. Fisch isn’t fazed.

“It’s a different job with regards to some of the external requirements that are needed,” he said. “I’m very comfortable in it. I feel like I’ve been prepared for this my whole life. My dad ran a law firm, so there were conversations in my life talking about how to be a leader, how to handle all aspects of getting clients and producing. That, to me, is recruiting.

“But I do love the football aspect of it!”

His favorite part of the job is still being play caller. You can hear it as he went back and forth with Rogers during that film study. It also gets at why he made the most fascinating assistant coaching hire of the year after he got to Seattle.

After his defensive coordinator at Arizona, Johnny Nansen, left for Texas, Fisch wanted to hire a DC who had NFL experience because he saw the success guys who had just come from the NFL had running college defenses. At Michigan, former NFL assistants Mike Macdonald and then Jesse Minter shined as play callers, leading top-10 defenses. As did former Bengals linebackers coach Al Golden at Notre Dame and former Ravens safeties coach D’Anton Lynn at UCLA.

Fisch had interviewed five NFL assistants, all linebacker and DB coaches, but after Steve Belichick, whom he’d worked with in New England, told him he was interested in the job, the new Washington coach immediately flew Belichick and his wife out to Seattle.

The 37-year-old Belichick never had the DC title, but he did call the defense the past four seasons. He spent 12 seasons on his father’s staff. He saw what Fisch did at Arizona and wanted to be a part of what he was doing at Washington.

“Jedd is really good with people,” Belichick said. “He has a good vision of what he wants things to be like. He’s obviously different than my dad, but different isn’t a bad thing.”

Fisch also figured there would be an added bonus to the hire: Bill Belichick would also be involved. And sure enough, when the former Patriots coach visited Seattle this spring, he went to work. Other Washington staffers were blown away by how locked in the 72-year-old was that week. Belichick spoke to the team. He spent all day with the defensive staff for the seven days he visited. On a Sunday evening, Fisch popped into the office and found the Belichicks watching film of their scrimmage for the third straight time. Fisch ended up staying until well into the evening when the six-time Super Bowl-winning coach knocked on his door and asked him if he wanted to get sliders.

“He is fully invested in our program,” Fisch said. “When we were at Arizona, I would get emails or calls from Bill and he would give me things that he saw in our film. He watched our film every week. He would give me a whole rundown of certain things to look at and think about, which was just incredible. Now he has a little more investment, got grandkids here, too, which is more of an advantage. It’s not just his own son. Everyone likes grandkids better.”

And Fisch knows when you’re leading a team with only two returning starters, you’re going to need every advantage you can get.

(Top photo of Jedd Fisch, right: Scott Eklund / Red Box Pictures courtesy of the University of Washington)

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