Transfer Impact - Josh Shirley

With the news of Josh Shirley's move from UCLA to Washington, it was met with more questions than answers. Could he play right away? Will the UW coaches allow him to play right away? How would his pending legal matter affect his plans to enroll at UW? And if he cleared those legal hurdles, where would he play? And depending on where he started out, could he make an impact this fall?

Let's start from the beginning. Shirley, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound athlete from Kaiser High School in Fontana, Calif., signed with UCLA over Washington and USC in February. At the time of his signing, he was considered the No. 12 outside linebacker prospect in the country. He picked the Bruins over offers from Arizona, California, Miami (FL), Notre Dame, Tennessee, USC and Washington - among others.

From Washington's perspective, they had made up a lot of ground since he had taken his official visit during the Huskies' 16-13 win over USC. Per Scout's last update before signing day, they were in his final four. UCLA wasn't even mentioned.

Then on Signing Day, the Bruins arguably pulled off the biggest coup of the day - even bigger than the Huskies' landing Sean Parker. Rumors were swirling that the Huskies had made up enough ground that Shirley had called the USC coaches at 9 am that morning to tell them he was signing with Washington. Further rumors were swirling around campus that UW Head Coach Steve Sarkisian might have to push back his scheduled Signing Day press conference because they wanted to make sure he could talk about Shirley and they wanted to make sure he had sent in his letter of intent by then.

That fax never showed. It took a left at Pismo Beach, headed south and ended up coming out in Westwood, to the joy of Bruin Nation. It had been an unbelievable day for UCLA; Rick Neuheisel had landed Jordan Zumwalt, Dietrich Riley, Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Anthony Jefferson as well - but Shirley's commit came out of nowhere.

Fast forward six months, and things couldn't be more different for Shirley. After enrolling in summer school, he was arrested by UCLA police, along with teammates Paul Richardson and Shaquille Richardson, on suspicion of stealing a purse. The three faced felony theft charges, but this week the LA District Attorney dropped the charges.

The City Attorney, however, has yet to decide whether they will file misdemeanor charges against the three. Neuheisel didn't wait for the law to make his own determination, releasing the three from their letters of intent - essentially allowing them a get-out-of-jail-free card - but kept a window open for them to return if they met certain requirements set by the Bruin head coach, apparently chief among them their behavior.

Shirley never let the process get that far. With word coming down around USC that their administration would not allow first-year head coach Lane Kiffin the opportunity to pursue Shirley, the only other school of his three finalists was Washington., the official website of the University of Washington's athletic department, announced on July 22nd that Shirley had signed a financial aid agreement with the school and he would be joining the rest of the Husky football players the beginning of fall camp August 8th as a true freshman with five years to play four.

The upside to Shirley enrolling at UCLA during the summer is that it didn't affect his eligibility clock. And as far as his pending possible misdemeanor charges, it's doubtful the City Attorney would find enough to continue with filing charges if the District Attorney didn't - which ended up being the case. And worst case, even if Shirley had to plead out to a misdemeanor charge, it's highly doubtful that it would have any impact on his time at Washington, as long as he remained in good standing per the requirements of whatever probation that would most likely be handed down.

When Thursday's news came down the pike, it wasn't completely out of the blue. But the timing of it was a bit peculiar, especially given Sarkisian's dismissal of junior tight end Kavario Middleton for a 'violation of team rules' - the same phrase Neuheisel used when he sent Shirley and the Richardsons packing.

This is where the questions keep coming; has Sarkisian set a double-standard in booting Middleton while apparently giving Shirley a second chance? Has Sarkisian vouched for the wrong guy? What happens if Shirley faces the same problems he had when he was at UCLA?

All good questions, and Sarkisian is the only one that could give you clear-cut answers. But from the outside looking in and putting the pieces together, I think certain conclusions can be drawn from the two events: 1) Sarkisian is a player's coach, and he will go to the mat for you if he feels it is warranted; 2) Sarkisian went to the mat for Middleton and Middleton wasn't able to take advantage of the opportunities given him; 3) Sarkisian and his staff have put in enough blood, sweat and tears with Shirley and his family throughout the recruiting process that the UW staff feels comfortable with this decision.

Reading between the lines on Signing Day, it was clear the staff was devastated to not land Shirley's signature at the time. They had invested too much to not yield the proper return. They clearly felt like this is a student-athlete they wanted in their program from the very beginning. So all that being said, could they rationalize or justify Shirley's behavior during the time when Neuheisel dismissed him from UCLA?

Apparently so. In the same way UCLA fans are adamant that Neuheisel did his due diligence and understood the situation clearly enough to make the right decision, Washington fans are going to be just as adamant that their coach has also done his homework and is satisfied that Shirley is not the player portrayed by the events of June 23. He said as much in his statement released on Thursday.

"We are very aware of the circumstances surrounding Josh," said Sarkisian. "We have done our due diligence and truly feel that this is not indicative of his true character or the way that he was raised. We are excited about the opportunity Josh has to excel on the football field, in the classroom and in his personal life in our environment, around our people at the University of Washington."

So it appears that the biggest impact issue off the field for Shirley will be to keep his nose clean, go to class, hit the gym and get along with his teammates. In other words, just be a model student-athlete. Again, from the outside looking in one would have to assume that Shirley comes to Montlake on a shorter leash than most, even if all the charges are dropped by the LA City Attorney.

Sarkisian, heading into his second year at Washington, has not shied away from clearing out the dead wood and taking swift disciplinary action when required - his latest move on Middleton proof of his intent to keep his team on the straight and narrow.

But just like with Marcus Davis and Oregon, Sarkisian and the Huskies could suffer a massive public-relations hit if Shirley is involved in another major off-field incident. It's clearly a chance Sarkisian is willing to take, and he believes the incident at UCLA is not indicative of who Shirley is as a person.

Shirley's off-field questions appear to be pretty straightforward; where he will play, how he will be used and his immediate impact are questions that could be answered a number of ways. Being an outside linebacker, Shirley could immediately move into the SAM/LEO conversation with Victor Aiyewa, Alvin Logan and Matt Houston. But in watching his junior film again, he was a devastating defensive end - racking up 123 tackles and 17 sacks that year. He just seems to have a nose for the ball and the closer he is to it the more havoc he creates.

Depending on Nick Holt's desires, Shirley could play a speed end in a 4-3 or as a SAM in in odd front. With teams like Oregon and Arizona trying hard to spread the field and turn the game into a track meet, athletes of Shirley's size and speed are coveted. You could even see the Huskies go into a 3-3-5 stack, something some defenses have tried to use against spread attacks because it allows the defense to put more speed of their own out there to balance out the speed of the offense. And for the players up front, the stack allows the DC to disguise a lot of blitz packages, which would be right in Shirley's wheelhouse.

The downside to all of this is an inherent knowledge of UW defense, which Shirley doesn't have. That doesn't mean he can't pick up the terminology and schemes in due time, but would it be fair to rush him out there with only a rudimentary understanding, also understanding that this would cause him to not play as fast and probably read and react a lot more than you'd like? They had to go down this road last year with Talia Crichton and Andru Pulu, and many times we saw the result of what happens when you are thinking at the line of scrimmage, as opposed to understanding it well and playing as fast as possible as a result.

It wasn't Crichton's fault or Pulu's fault - it was a function of numbers. The coaches would have loved the option of not playing the freshmen, but had little choice. So do the coaches throw caution to the wind and put Shirley out there knowing he could suffer the same growing pains? Or do you allow him to ease into life at another school - which will certainly be rife with its own challenges?

Tough questions to answer, and only Sarkisian and his staff will have the proper information to make those decisions. As it stands, they just added an exciting - yet troubled - piece to their defensive puzzle that could end up being a massive boon for UW or a colossal disaster.

Sarkisian thinks enough of Shirley to stake his young, yet untarnished reputation as a Division-1 head coach on his future, and that speaks volumes. Sarkisian has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt in this case. The sooner Shirley can conquer the issues that surround him off the field, the quicker he can have the impact that UW fans hope for - and frankly expect from such a highly-coveted football player.

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