Pac-12 teams with new coaches and quarterbacks face a special challenge

Jon Wilner
Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

There is no historical comparison to the challenges facing Pac-12 teams as they prepare for the delayed, shortened and possibly disrupted football season that begins Saturday. 

But three teams have next-level hurdles to clear. Three teams — Washington, Washington State and Colorado — have competitive disadvantages to overcome. 

They have new head coaches, they have new offensive coordinators, they have new starting quarterbacks. And they had no spring practice. 

The only three teams with new head coaches were the only three that didn’t get started before college sports stopped in the middle of March. Those coaches, Washington’s Jimmy Lake, Washington State’s Nick Rolovich and Colorado’s Karl Dorrell, addressed their teams on the practice field for the first time after the Pac-12 presidents voted to restart the season.

Jimmy Lake spent four years as the University of Washington's defensive coordinator before replacing retired Chris Peterson as coach last winter.

Not only is there no manual for this in a dusty filing cabinet tucked away in a cluttered storage room, there is no storage room.

“The new guys are at huge disadvantage in that they didn’t have a chance to get with their guys (in the spring) and get culture established,” said former Washington coach Keith Gilbertson. “Zoom is a wonderful technology, but it’s not the same.” 

Gilbertson knows a thing or 10 about unusual circumstances. In June 2003, he was named Washington’s interim head coach following Rick Neuheisel’s sudden dismissal for participating in an NCAA Tournament office pool.

“My situation was different because of the investigation — everybody was investigating us, the NCAA, Washington, the Pac-10, the state of Washington,” he said. “The coaching part was fine. I’d spend the morning with attorneys, then put the offense in.” 

At least Gilbertson had been on the UW staff, as offensive coordinator, at the time of the transition. To that end, his closest parallel to the trio of new coaches is Lake, who was Washington’s defensive coordinator for four years before taking over for Chris Petersen last winter.

In contrast, Washington State hired Rolovich away from Hawaii in January, after Mike Leach sailed off to Mississippi State. And Colorado hired Dorrell in late February, from his spot on the Miami Dolphins’ staff, following Mel Tucker’s cash grab at Michigan State.

“It’s a real stressful thing, but they’re all a little different,” said Gilbertson, who lives in Idaho and is part of the Washington radio broadcasts. “Jimmy has been with Chris Petersen for so many years, I don’t see the culture of the program changing a lot. Some of it is business as usual, but there will be some newness.”

The bigger challenge, Gilbertson said, will be at Washington State because of the sea change in approach — “It will be a different culture (with Rolovich) than it was under Leach, a real challenge,” he said — and at Colorado because of Dorrell’s late hiring.

Karl Dorrell was hired as Colorado coach in late February.

“He’s a real knowledgeable guy, but it’s crazy after he took over so late,” Gilbertson said. “The big thing is the players learning how you want to practice, the toughness you want. That takes a while.”

Now add the complicating factors presented by turnover at the most important position.

Colorado’s new quarterback, Sam Noyer, is a career backup who spent the 2019 season playing safety. Washington State just named Jayden de Laura, a true freshman, as its starter. Washington has an ongoing four-man competition.

Even the double whammy of a new quarterback and no spring practice would be daunting. Add the new coach component, and the Huskies, Cougars and Buffaloes are navigating challenges an order-of-magnitude more difficult than their peers.

Sam Noyer (15) played safety for Colorado last season but may be the Buffaloes' starting quarterback this season.

“The greatest disadvantage for those teams actually isn’t the Xs and Os; it’s not what the system is,” said Nigel Burton, a Pac-12 Network analyst and former UW safety who spent five years as the head coach at Portland State. “It’s how you do it all. How do you handle the discipline? How do you handle the going to class? How do you handle the relationships between players and coaches?

“How you get lined up on the field — that's the easy part. But what happens when the star linebacker skips class? How do you handle that?”

All three teams have challenges, Burton added, but Dorrell may face the biggest.

“He’s not Mel. He’s not fire and brimstone,” Burton said. “The players are on their third coach in three years. It’s like, ‘What the hell?’ ”