College football players don’t get many days off, whether they’re in season or not. But when Washington’s football team gets a break, the JetBlue gate at Long Beach Airport is jammed with Huskies returning home from Seattle.
“We’re about 30 deep on that plane,” starting quarterback Keith Price says, laughing. “Whenever they say ‘free weekend,’ those flights are booked.”
Washington Coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff have carved a niche that draws heavily from Compton, Long Beach and other cities in the corridor near the 91, 105, 710 and 605 freeways, as well as Los Angeles.
Price, who played at Bellflower St. John Bosco High, is one of five Huskies from Compton. Four teammates are from Long Beach, two from Lakewood and others from Cerritos, Downey and Norwalk.
“It’s a big area,” Sarkisian says, “but a relatively tight community. Those families know one another. ... They’re connected.”
The Huskies team that will face No. 11 USC in a Pac-12 Conference game Saturday at CenturyLink Field in Seattle includes 33 players from Southland high schools.
Five players are from Los Angeles. Two are from Dorsey High and one each from Crenshaw, Harbor City Narbonne and Playa del Rey St. Bernard.
The player from Narbonne is Sean Parker, a captain of the defense and a starter at safety. The other safety is Will Shamburger, who was a teammate of Price’s at St. John Bosco.
Parker is second on the Huskies in tackles. Linebacker John Timu, a Long Beach Jordan graduate, is also a captain and is fourth in tackles.
“You’ve got a lot of teammates that relate to you,” Price says. “It’s almost like a brotherhood.”
If it were up to USC and UCLA, the most talented high school football players in the Southland would never leave the area to play for other schools, especially those in the Pac-12.
Last week, when Washington was one of six Pac-12 teams in the Associated Press top 25 media poll, USC Coach Lane Kiffin credited new coaches in the league but added, “I think that’s a result of us just not nailing recruiting over the last five years — players getting away in this conference.
“That’s been our goal, to stop that.”
Says Sarkisian: “They can’t take everybody. I don’t know if they missed on them or not. Those kids are going to go somewhere.”
Southland players have flocked to Washington in increasing numbers since Sarkisian was hired to succeed Tyrone Willingham in December 2008.
The Compton-Long Beach area has been particularly fertile recruiting ground. “I know the coaches and have known them for a long time,” Sarkisian says. “I like that brand and style of play and the kids that are raised there are tough kids.”
High school coaches say Sarkisian’s Southern California background has paid dividends on the recruiting trail. Sarkisian, 38, was a quarterback at West Torrance High and El Camino College before completing his college career at Brigham Young. He coached and recruited as an assistant at USC.
Sarkisian also made a key choice when he hired recruiting coordinator Johnny Nansen, a former player at Long Beach Jordan High and Washington State.
Nansen is a familiar face in a community he knows well.
“He’ll see a kid probably in Pop Warner, just by coming home,” says Compton Dominguez co-Coach Keith Donerson. “Later on, he’ll know exactly who that kid is.”
Lakewood Coach Vince Lobendahn says Washington’s coach “follows the pulse” of the area through Nansen.
“He knows our Moore League very well,” Lobendahn says of Nansen. “When he comes here, he’s locked and loaded on our players.”
Washington had a relationship with Dorsey long before Sarkisian arrived in Seattle. Safety Charles Mincy and running back Beno Bryant, for example, are among former Dons who played key roles for the Huskies in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
“That was kind of the time when maybe USC wasn’t hitting it as hard around here,” Dorsey Coach Paul Knox says. “We’ve always had the connection with Washington, so kids are familiar with them and the coaches.
“It’s an easy thing for them to look at as a place that they know, and where they can maybe fit in.”
Price, a fourth-year junior, says he hopes other players from his hometown will follow the example he and others have set and will venture to the Northwest.
“When you’re getting recruited and guys are talking about the 91 Freeway,” he says, “it makes you feel like you’re at home.”