Letter a solid first step

SEATTLE - Jake Heaps has modest wants for Christmas. Like any other high school kid, he wants to get some things for his car - in this case a a pre-owned 2002 Mercedes - and maybe some new clothes. The junior quarterback from Skyline High in Issaquah is growing out of his 6-foot-2 frame. He'd also like Mike Leach to be Washington's new head football coach.

I'm kidding. He didn't mention Leach. But Heaps, arguably the top quarterback prospect for the class of 2010, would love to see some gas put back in the Huskies' tank - preferably high-octane.

"Of course I'd like to see a guy come in that has a plan for a good offense," Heaps told Dawgman.com Thursday night after mentioning that he just received his 17th offer a little earlier from LSU. With offers from schools like UW, BYU, UCLA, Oregon State, Notre Dame, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina in hand, word of a new ride trips off Heaps' tongue as easily as a play call in the Spartans' huddle.

"As a quarterback I'd love to see a passing offense and a great offensive mind."

Memo to Scott Woodward: I'd listen to what Mr. Heaps has to say.

From all appearances, it looks like he is.

After firing current head coach Tyrone Willingham on October 27, Woodward's mission was clear; find a new coach that could bring Washington football back. Now.

In fact, I think you could see that exact message plastered on buttons worn by frustrated Husky fans weekly as each game of the 2008 season has taken on a funereal pall never seen before at Husky Stadium. "I had high hopes for coach Willingham and his staff, but it didn't happen," Heaps said. "Sitting and waiting and seeing where the program is headed is tough. I'm just as anxious as anybody."

The timing for the firing seemed curious at first. Why do it in the middle of the season? At the time, Woodward talked about the timing allowing him to get a 'head start' on the process of finding a replacement. It also allowed him to get a head start on making sure recruits for the 2009 class and beyond had some direction when it came to their thoughts on Washington and its football program.

And as of last week, the Huskies have officially reached out.

Woodward let the media know last week that the AD had crafted letters to every Washington prospect with a scholarship offer, reassuring them and their families that those offers would be honored. According to the Scout.com database, that would be 49 prospects in total, including three for the class of 2010 and two for the class of 2011, the last five all from the state of Washington. Also according to Scout, 16 of the offers tendered for the class of 2009 are to prospects verbally committed to other programs.

"If you don't do that, you don't have a prayer," Willingham said this week about the letters. "Some are going to like the University of Washington regardless, but everyone needs a little attention."

"I barely read the thing, but it's nice to know that they are trying to keep the recruits." That was the reaction of Andru Pulu, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound LB/DL from Federal Way who verbally committed to Washington a little over a month ago. "I just want to stay home."

Aaron Grymes, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound athlete from West Seattle who is also verbally committed to the Huskies, hasn't seen a letter at all. But he is aware of it. He got confirmation of his scholarship from UW Recruiting Coordinator Chris Tormey. "It (letter) makes me want to meet him (Woodward), to see what kind of guy he is," Grymes said.

With a lame duck coach still roaming the halls and the 2009 recruiting process cryogenically sealed, it was incumbent on Woodward to let the outside world know that the body still had a pulse. " We wanted to make sure something was sent to all the recruits, all the signees, all the guys that are pending for January enrollment," Willingham said of the letter. "But it had to come from the next acting person that could verify scholarships and commitments. And since there isn't a head coach right now, it had to be our AD."

Part of it read like this:

"I encourage you to be open-minded about your college choice. Even if you have previously decided to remove Washington from your list, I want to be certain that before you finalize your decision you know of our resolve to return Husky football to its accustomed place among the nation's elite."

Big words that need to be backed up with a bigger deed: finding the right coach to bring back the bite. In the past week Woodward has told at least a couple of parents that he expects to announce the hire within the next month, and possibly sooner. He's also talking splash factor, as in cannonball.

But in talking to knowledgeable recruits, like Heaps - there's an expectation that the hire won't be done at the expense of the 2009 class. Even though he is only a junior, don't think for one second he isn't paying attention to how this next class of Huskies shapes out. "It's great to see that he cares and understands that there are recruits who are anxiously waiting to see what happens," Heaps said. "You can tell he wants to get this program turned around and find the right guy for the job."

For Heaps, who wants to get his list trimmed down to 10 schools sometime in January, he's not only curious about the impending hire; he's curious about that hire's hires. Think about it: UW is the only school currently recruiting Heaps that doesn't have a full-time quarterbacks coach. And while the Huskies flounder around in recruiting limbo, schools like North Carolina are making sure their strength coach is sending missives to Heaps about how they'll make him bigger, stronger and faster as a Tar Heel.

In fact, the daily stack of recruiting mail Heaps receives has gotten so out of hand that correspondence from UW and WSU - unless it's hand-written - goes straight into the circular file. But the Woodward letter caught them off guard. Washington's athletic department had never sent them anything before. In fact after reading it, the Heaps were moved to reciprocate interest.

For uncommitted players in the 2009 class - like offensive line prospect Grant Cisneros from Sumner - the letter was also welcome news. "I'm glad they are holding their scholarships," the 6-foot-5, 285-pound Cisneros told Dawgman.com. "That helps me out a little bit." Grant added that he basically has his mind set on committing to Washington, but Willingham's firing means taking a little extra time with a very important decision.

"I kind of have a connection with the staff now, so I'll have to start all over," Cisneros said. "But honoring the scholarships, that was the big thing for me."

In the letter, Woodward also gave out his private information and welcomed correspondence. For some of the prospects and their families, that was a huge first step. Up to that point, everything having to do with recruiting was taken care of by the football office. This directly contrasts some of the more inclusive efforts seen on other campuses, where the whole athletic department and university at large were used as implements to further their recruiting agenda.

With the clock ticking and voice mails piling up, Woodward would do well to utilize the university's vast resources and man-power to resurrect the Huskies' recruiting class. With only four firm commitments, Washington currently ranks last in the Pac-10 and 82nd overall in recruiting rankings, according to Scout.com. The letter has been viewed by many as a strong first step.

"It was a good start, and we hope there are follow-ups to make sure those young men understand exactly where they are (in the process)," Willingham said. Heaps, who has never met Woodward to date, would like to arrange a meeting. But it's a busy schedule that finds the Skyline QB up by 5:30 in the morning to go to seminary and off to bed late after a ritual that includes school, practice, dinner, homework and calls with coaches and media. "It's a busy day, every day," Heaps said, noting that it continues to get busier the further the Spartans go in the 4A playoffs.

Zach Fogerson, younger brother of current Washington safety Johri and a UW commit for the class of 2010, is a player that welcomed Woodward's letter. Fogerson remains committed to the Huskies despite Willingham's firing, but admitted to Dawgman.com this week that he was looking around a little bit after the news hit.

"After I heard that coach (Willingham) was getting fired, I started weighing my options," Fogerson said. The 6-foot, 205-pound fullback took unofficial visits to USC and UCLA when the Huskies played the Trojans a few weeks back. "I liked UCLA more than USC because I liked the location and school, everything about it," he added. "But the letter reassured me. The best thing about it is that he told me I can contact him as many times as I want to see how things are going and where they are in finding a new head coach."

Fogerson and Woodward are old pals now, especially after the new AD singled out Fogerson at a junior day during the Notre Dame weekend. "He's from the south, he's a big football guy," he said of Woodward. "He likes to win, but at the same time he want the players to be good people too."

Fogerson also put in a call to his big brother to talk about the letter. "He told me to give the guy (Woodward) a chance," said Zach. "He's going to get us back."

That seems to be a prevalent thought among those looking for a sign from a program that has been rendered mute by a letter of termination. How can the current staff do anything else but say 'hang tight' when they are coaching on the one hand and conducting their own job searches on the other?

"I tip my hat to the Husky coaching staff, and how they are handling themselves with the recruiting letters," Heaps said.

"What we've tried to do is keep the recruiting lines open as much as possible, to communicate to those young people to keep an open mind, because that's all you really basically tell them," Willingham added.

"It's not an easy job for anyone to do right now. But the goal is to give the new head coach every opportunity to get his job done the best he can do it."

If that happens - and that's a big if at the moment - more than a few families will be enjoying the holidays with a little extra in their stockings.

The letter was a great start.

"I'm sure they'll pick a good coach," said Heaps. "I'm also a Husky fan, so whether I go there or not I definitely want what's good for the Husky nation. I would love nothing more than to see the Huskies get turned around and go in the right direction."

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