Story by Jon Wilner
On Jan. 10, 2020, Washington coach Jimmy Lake hired an offensive coordinator whose sketchy qualifications generated immediate criticism from fans and media and utter bewilderment within coaching circles.
In a college football rarity, the John Donovan hire proved worse than even the deepest skeptics imagined.
Everybody saw this coming, except Lake himself.
“One of the worst hires in program history,” a longtime UW observer told the Hotline.
Now Lake gets another shot — for better or worse.
Donovan’s 13-game tenure in charge of Washington’s offensive offense ended Sunday. The search for his replacement won’t begin in earnest until the completion of the regular season, but there’s no need to delay entering the fray.
Three thoughts about the search and eight names for the job, courtesy of the Hotline:
1. Who makes the hire?
Lake was suspended for one game Monday following an incident Saturday in which he struck a Washington player while attempting to prevent a fight.
The Huskies determined that while Lake’s actions weren’t “intentional or deliberate”, the nature of the interaction could not go unpunished.
His future on Montlake beyond the current season is very much in doubt. But for the purposes of this exercise, we’ll assume Lake returns for 2022 and hires the coordinator of his choice.
Given the state of affairs, Lake could be considered a short-timer by many potential candidates. That’s not a deal-breaker, but no qualified play-caller would agree to work for a head coach on the hottest of seats without a multi-year contract.
In other words, Lake’s misguided decision to hire Donovan likely will result in UW making a steep contractual commitment to the next coordinator.
2. Will Lake seek advice from friends and contacts in the business, or insist on making the call himself?
The situation requires humility. It requires Lake to show growth and maturity in his management style.
Clearly, he doesn’t have the answers, especially on offense.
3. The Huskies must select an identity before they make the hire.
Are they a traditional Pro-Style offense, with fullbacks and tight ends and a quarterback who throws from the pocket?
Are they a zone-read offense (think: Oregon), which requires a mobile quarterback?
Are they an Air Raid offense, with four receivers and 50+ passing attempts per game?
That calculation cannot be separated from a decision on the starting quarterback for 2022.
The Air Raid would be optimal for Sam Huard, the five-star prospect currently sitting behind Dylan Morris, who is neither mobile nor a highly accurate pocket passer.
But Lake is not a fan of the Air Raid, having disparaged the system repeatedly when facing Washington State and its former coach, Mike Leach.
That said, the most successful programs mesh their systems with their recruiting pools. The Huskies have a track record of recruiting elite offensive linemen and tight ends, which suggests the Pro-Style or zone-read systems might be optimal.
Now, for our list of eight names to watch (alphabetically):
Jeff Grimes: One of the hottest play-callers in the country, Grimes mentored former BYU quarterback Zach Wilson and now oversees a Baylor offense that averages 36.3 points per game. Grimes is from Texas but has worked at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado.
Ryan Grubb: The Fresno State offensive coordinator has done exceptionally well with a former Washington quarterback (Jake Haener); perhaps he could maximize the talents of the current Washington quarterbacks. Originally hired in 2017 by then-Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford, who knows good coaches when he sees them.
Graham Harrell: The USC offensive coordinator could be looking for work in December, depending on the direction of the Trojans’ coaching search. He’s an Air Raid disciple whose system seemingly would work well with Huard’s skill set. We haven’t been overly impressed with USC, but it’s difficult to know how much responsibility to lay on former head coach Clay Helton and the substandard offensive line.
Mark Helfrich: The former Oregon head coach is a highly respected offensive mind who served as the coordinator in Eugene under Chip Kelly and in the NFL (Chicago). Is he interested in leaving the TV booth and jumping back into the grind of coaching? At the very least, UW should make the call.
Brian Lindgren: No offensive coordinator in the Pac-12 has been more effective this season than Lindgren, now in his fourth year at Oregon State. He’s from Walla Walla, he knows the running game — the Beavers have one of the best in the conference — and he might be available for the right price. (The Huskies have deeper pockets than OSU.) Lindgren should be near the top of Lake’s list, if not at the top.
Matt Mumme: The Nevada offensive coordinator would provide UW with a second option from the Air Raid tree. (His father, Hal, created the offense and is Leach’s mentor.) The Wolf Pack has an elite quarterback, Carson Strong, and averages 36.4 points per game.
Warren Ruggiero: An unfamiliar name in Pac-12 territory, Ruggiero calls the plays for a Wake Forest offense that averages 44.7 points per game. (That’s right: Wake Forest is scoring 40+ on a regular basis.) Ruggiero is extremely close to Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson and has spent his career in the eastern half of the country. But he’s worth a call, at the very least so Lake can pick his brain about offense.
Jeff Tedford: One of the top offensive minds on the West Coast over the past 20 years would be the ideal hire. Chances of him taking the job: 0.0001%. Tedford retired two years ago after a successful run at Fresno State and has had health problems. And after so many years as the boss, would he want to work for someone else? But we have included Tedford’s name because he should be involved in the search. Why not seek his advice? Why not ask him for a list of names? After all, Tedford was UW’s offensive analyst during the 2016 playoff run; he knows Lake and the administration. Athletic director Jen Cohen should urge Lake to lean on Tedford as a resource. If he refuses, perhaps Lake shouldn’t be leading the search.
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