Commitment Impact: Joel Whitford

This one came out of the blue. Washington has taken a commitment from a 2017 punter, Joel Whitford, a junior college prospect from Australia by way of Santa Barbara, Calif. 

But the Huskies already took a punter for this cycle in Olympia's Van Soderberg, so why the need to double-up on specialists? 

I'm sure that's the question at the front of every Washington fan's mind, and we'll address that shortly. 

But first: The Evaluation.

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Nathan Chapman was Whitford's punting instructor down in Australia when Whitford decided to give American football a go. For anyone that has seen any Aussie Rules before, you know the players can kick it rugby style no problem. 

If you want a sample size of Whitford's traditional punting style, click on the HUDL link below.

Joel Whitford's 2015 HUDL Film

The steps will have to be tightened up, but a few things become abundantly clear after just watching five minutes of tape:

1) Whitford has a huge leg.

2) He's not afraid of contact.

3) He has a great sense of how to rugby kick. It clearly comes naturally to him from his Aussie Rules days.

4) He can also hold, which allows for other factors to come into play (fakes).

5) He already has a great sense of the knuckling techniques involves in getting the ball to stick inside the 20 (No. 1 in CCCAA in punts downed inside the 20).

Whitford earned a scholarship from the Huskies by having a phenomenal performance at this past weekend's UW kicking camp. It's not unusual for prospects to get offered and then commit right away after getting the offer: that's how Korey Durkee ended up a Husky. 

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Fellow Australian and Santa Barbara Community College teammate Mitch Wisnowsky is doing the exact same thing Whitford plans to do - mid-year enrollment - at Utah. He will be expected to take over the punting duties from another Australian, Tom Hackett. 

In fact, the last three Ray Guy award winners are all Australian: Hackett, who won it the last two years, and Memphis's Tom Hornsey. And one of the punters for Washington's season-opening opponent, Rutgers, is also Australian. His name is Tim Gleeson. 

Simple fact is, there's carryover from the Aussie Rules game to what is expected of a college football punter: the ability to punt rugby style. It's become a staple of current special teams play.  In watching the available tape, you can see Whitford's Aussie Rules experience inform how he's able to escape the rush, evade tacklers and know exactly when he should get rid of the kick for full effect. 

The added bonus of Whitford's athleticism, size, and Aussie Rules experience means he has the potential to draw roughing penalties while getting his kicks away. He probably will briefly stop hearts at times because he'll hold onto the ball longer than anticipated or wanted, but he definitely has instincts as a player with the ball in his hands, looking to make a play. 

If you watch Hackett's substantial highlights for the Utes, you can see how he does the same - waiting until the right moment to rugby kick it, allowing his teammates maximum time to get downfield or catch the returner cheating to a side so he can directionally kick it the other way. 

Add to it the fact that Whitford is a big athlete, has experience in professional athletics (he played for the Victorian Football League, essentially the feeder league to the Australian Football League). He's 23, he's seasoned, he has a year of college under his belt, and he clearly wowed Chris Petersen, Bob Gregory, and the other UW coaches during his tryout. 

What does it mean for the Washington special teams going forward? 

That's the $64 question, isn't it? Well, from what we've been able to determine, there's no plans on having any additional attrition heading into the 2017 season, save Cameron Van Winkle's graduation, so this is how the special teams lineup should look for that playing year:

Special Teams (by year)

Placekicker 

Tristan Vizcaino (6-2, 201, Sr.)

Sebastian Valerio (5-9, 180, So.)*

Punter

Joel Whitford (6-4, 215, So.)

Van Soderberg (5-11, 199, RFr.)

Kickoff

Tristan Vizcaino (6-2, 201, Sr.)

Joel Whitford (6-4, 215, So.) OR

Van Soderberg (5-11, 199, RFr.)

* = walk-on

The main inference one can make by this commitment is that Soderberg simply isn't ready to contribute. The transition to becoming a one-step punter is taking longer than expected, so the Huskies needed to cover their bases. Special teams is just too important, and while Soderberg has become more of a project UW didn't expect, there's nothing to suggest he can't be a very, very good punter in time.  

So for the short term, expect Van Winkle to be the placekicker and Vizcaino to focus solely on punting this coming season. In 2017, Vizcaino will be asked to replace Van Winkle, which means the punting competition belongs to Whitford and Soderberg.  The kickoff chores could be a toss-up, depending on what the UW coaches ask the specialists to focus on. Vizcaino has the most experience, but they may ask the second punter to take over sole responsibility. 

What does this mean for Washington going forward in terms of landing more quality for the 2017 class?

On the outside, taking a punter for this class certainly puts a bit of an extra crimp in a 2017 class that's already going to be smaller than normal. 

But here's the rub: as a mid-year candidate, Whitford's scholarship could count back toward 2016 if Washington needed the space. Frankly it's a bit of an academic exercise, because there's plenty of room in both classes in terms of the 25 number. It's the overall 85 number of scholarship players allowed for any given year that always takes the biggest hit. 

Currently there are 71 players on scholarship. When the LEAP program begins at the end of June, up to 13 more Huskies will enroll, putting the overall number at 84. 

There are 10 graduating scholarship seniors after the 2016 season - Brandon Beaver, Shane Brostek, Darrell Daniels, Jake Eldrenkamp, Kevin King, Jeff Lindquist, Joe Mathis, Damion Turpin, Cameron Van Winkle, and Psalm Wooching. But there could be up to seven juniors that, depending on the season they have, could decide to declare for the 2017 NFL Draft: Budda Baker, Keishawn Bierria, Sidney Jones, Dante Pettis, Elijah Qualls, John Ross, and Azeem Victor. 

Even in the worst-case scenario, that would mean 18 available scholarships for 2017, assuming the Washington coaches don't use the one currently available. If they do, obviously that number would go down by one. 

This is assuming no other attrition, but as we've already seen with Isaiah Renfro for this coming year, things happen. So it's reasonable to expect probably 2-3 other players will not be on the 2017 roster for whatever reason. History suggests that it will, even if it's unexpected - like Whitford's commitment. Sometimes you just have to adjust on the fly for the fact that you're still dealing with student-athletes and things come up that alter their course. 

Going back to Whitford, since the Huskies do have plenty of room to add back mid-year players to the 2016 class, they could certainly do that - but in the end it's not going to matter which class he technically belongs to because the 2017 class will still have all sorts of cap space under the 25 that can enroll. 

The end result is the same: the overall number of 85 scholarships never budges, and that's the only one the Washington coaches will be concerned with for the foreseeable future. 


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