One by one, Husky football stalwarts announced their decision to return in 2023, rather than take advantage of the lure of an immediate career. At this time of year, when defections through early exits or transfer portal moorings wreak havoc on many projects, it’s another early sign that 2023 could be a special year for Montlake.
First, of course, was quarterback Michael Penix’s dramatic and somewhat unexpected revelation at the Washington Football Banquet. Since then, defensive lineman Tuli Letuligasenoa, wingers Zion Tupuola-Fetui and Bralen Trice, and offensive lineman Troy Fautanu – the team leader – have all announced that they too will return next season.
They each use some version of the same phrase to explain their decision: unfinished business. But Fautanu may be closer to the real cause when he describes his football version of FOMO – the fear of missing out. That prompted him to forget about possible high picks — possibly the second or third round, though some even had him late in the first round.
“For me, it’s like, I don’t want to be left out of what’s going to happen here next year,” Fatanu said. “I assure you, something big is about to happen.”
The Huskies have managed to avoid too much portal trauma so far, with far more players in than out — though that’s always going to change. The two main contributors, 1,000-yard receivers Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan, have yet to say whether they will enter the NFL draft or return to the Huskies for another season.
But now, the momentum in the UW program is all moving in the right direction. The Huskies are 10-2 in coach Kalen DeBoer’s first season and will face Texas in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 12. 29. There’s enough disappointment in their stellar record of barely missing a berth in the Pac-12 championship game to motivate them to try again for the league title and any potential glory. The two losses that kept the Huskies out of the national playoffs (to UCLA and Arizona State) are still weighing on them.
“This is the second Pac-12 tournament I was supposed to be in, but I had to watch it from the couch,” Tupuola-Fetuy said. “So, yeah, there’s some unfinished business. I definitely feel like we’re the best team in the Pac this year. If I’m being selfish, so be it.”
Penix was the Husky University Piper for over a year. None of the players who subsequently returned said they did so directly because of Penix, but it certainly had a positive impact, and there’s an overall feeling that the UW program is headed in the right direction.
“I think it’s just a testament to everything that DeBoer has put into this project, all the energy that we have,” Tupuola-Fetui said. “I mean, it meant a lot to keep Mike. It just started the domino effect of everybody saying, ‘Okay, let’s start over.'”
Turning out to be a package deal, Tupuola-Fetui and Trice announced their decision together in a video released Sunday. When asked if they were always headed in the same direction – career or university – ZTF replied:
“You know, once we started talking, we never really talked about leaving. So it was more like we just wanted to make sure we did it together, I guess. But I’m glad he wasn’t really thinking about leaving because I wasn’t really thinking about it either. Get out. So if he said, ‘No man, I’m getting out of here,’ I don’t know what I’d do right now. So thank God for Bralen Trice.”
Trice said he saw an opportunity to improve the nuances of his game (“I can lead the country there now”) while helping Washington to another success.
“Come back and play with these guys that I know are staying and these my brothers, and I just want to enjoy another year of college football with them,” he said. “Take your time and appreciate everything around me, especially the coach here. We’re going to be a great team next season. I’m excited about where we are.”
As for his work with ZTF, “There were a lot of conversations between me and him and our coaches and other teammates. And I think we kind of decided together that we should stay and finish this thing and go and win championships. That’s the goal.”
It is unclear what role NIL (name, image and likeness) and possible financial incentives played in the various decisions to stay. ZTF said that in extensive discussions with DeBoer and other coaches, he got the “assurance” he needed to feel comfortable returning.
Asked to elaborate on whether that meant NIL, ZTF said: “Yes, NIL was one of the guarantees I got from the coach. But that wasn’t at the forefront of my thinking at all. It was more like we had a conversation , was eventually brought up, but I was thinking about it more from a football perspective. I’m sure no one would say no to a big sum of money, but it’s not like, ‘If they don’t pay me, I won’t. Will be back.’ It was never like that. So, yeah, I’m happy with my decision.”
Now, with a new batch of UW recruiting and transfers set to be announced on Wednesday, the Huskies eagerly await a decision from McMillan and Odenze on their 2023 status. If they follow the trend of their teammates and both return, that would be another huge boost for the Huskies. But it’s also possible that they increased their NFL draft stock so much in 2022 that they were pulled in that direction.
“I’m not going to comment on that because it’s not my decision,” Tupoola-Fetui said. “Two thousand-yard receivers, their quarterback stays; I don’t see why they don’t put it back. But that was a beautiful season they just recorded, so there’s nothing to blame either way.”
That’s one unfinished business for the Huskies in 2022 that could bode well for 2023.