Almost from the day Steve Sarkisian arrived, Washington set its sights on Josh Shirley.
A football program that was needy just about everywhere but quarterback was especially thin on defense. And Shirley, at 6 feet 2 and 210 pounds, was the fast, strong, fearless linebacker-and-defensive end combo player the Huskies had to have.
They went after him like he was Dick Butkus, or at least a finalist for the high-school Butkus Award for the country’s best linebacker.
The coaches got to know him, visited his parents, were in his Fontana, Calif., living room. They liked him on and off the field, and they thought they had him.
The Huskies were so sure they had him, they delayed the start of their Signing Day news conference to wait for Shirley to make the inevitable official.
And then he dropped a bomb on Washington.
Shirley changed his mind, a recruit’s prerogative, and announced he was going to UCLA, a school he hadn’t even listed among his final four schools.
UCLA? How could that be? What last-minute machinations made him change his mind?
Shirley, however, was a Bruin only for a matter of months.
What happened after he signed with UCLA still is a matter for the legal system to decide.
He and two former UCLA teammates were arrested last month on suspicion of stealing a bag that was left in a locker near a dorm dining hall.
The case has been referred to the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, which will decide whether to file misdemeanor charges.
UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel’s punishment, however, was swift and unambiguous. All three players were tossed from the program.
Washington and Shirley got a second chance.
Thursday, almost a month to the day after his arrest, Shirley announced he was coming to the University of Washington.
“Thank God for a second chance at life,” he tweeted. “Many don’t have this opportunity.”
People have a right to be skeptical of these second chances.
Shirley’s arrival at Washington can be thought of as a typically cynical signing by a big-time football program interested only in winning.
Or it can be looked at as a coaching staff doing the right thing.
The Huskies staff did its homework. It knows Shirley well and has decided that his involvement in the alleged crime was minimal and he should be forgiven.
After the arrests, Shirley was released without having to post bail. His two ex-teammates, Paul Richardson and Shaquille Richardson, had to post $20,000 bail each.
Let’s not kid ourselves: If Shirley was projected to be nothing more than a backup ‘backer, he wouldn’t be getting this opportunity at UW. But he is a sought-after recruit at a position where Washington is desperate for help. He will contribute this season.
This isn’t some altruistic reclamation project. But Washington also isn’t choosing need over character. This isn’t a desperate program taking a blind stab at a sketchy blue-chipper.
The fact Neuheisel acted so quickly might say more about the short leash the UCLA administration has him on than it does about Shirley. Because of his history at Washington, Neuheisel is being watched intently in Westwood.
While Neuheisel quickly distanced himself from Shirley, the Washington staff still believes in Shirley and is willing to gamble that he can stay out of trouble and on the field as Washington continues to improve its football product.
So far, Sarkisian has shown very little tolerance for knuckleheads.
Last week, he dismissed a former five-star recruit, tight end Kavario Middleton. Middleton recently failed a drug test and Sarkisian was tired of his lack of discipline. Middleton wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do and he paid the price.
Sarkisian also dismissed defensive end Andru Pulu after Pulu pleaded guilty to felony second-degree assault. Pulu was a defensive lineman with great potential, something Washington treasures, but Sarkisian did the right thing by promptly dropping him.
Sarkisian isn’t looking for mercenaries, and he won’t suffer fools.
Shirley has to be told there will be no tolerance for bad behavior. There is no wiggle room, no court of appeals. The first time he screws up, he’s gone.
But he deserves this second chance. One seemingly minor indiscretion like this shouldn’t stalk him for the rest of his life.
It’s all on him, now. The coaching staff, his teammates, the school, the fans will be watching.
Monitor him closely, but give him this chance.
It could be a win for Washington and a win for Josh Shirley.
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