University of Washington

Coaching carousel helped Darren Gardenhire get to UW, where he could start at cornerback as a sophomore

VIDEO: UW defensive line/special teams coach Jeff Choate after practice

Jeff Choate, the University of Washington defensive line coach and special teams coordinator, chats with reporters after UW football practice on Aug. 24, 2015.
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Jeff Choate, the University of Washington defensive line coach and special teams coordinator, chats with reporters after UW football practice on Aug. 24, 2015.

The series of events that led to Darren Gardenhire’s eventual arrival at the University of Washington began, in a domino-effect kind of way, with USC.

If the Trojans hadn’t fired coach Lane Kiffin midway through the 2013 season, they wouldn’t have needed to replace him. And if they hadn’t decided to replace him with former Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian, then UW wouldn’t have needed to replace Sarkisian with Chris Petersen, who had spent the previous eight seasons as coach at Boise State.

What does any of that have to do with Gardenhire, now a sophomore cornerback for the Huskies who could make his first career start when UW begins the season Sept. 4 at Boise State?

A lot, actually.

Gardenhire said he always liked UW, and while in high school in Long Beach, California, he visited the UW campus — Huskies tailback Dwayne Washington is his cousin, and he knew some other players, too — and came away wowed by how “different” it looked.

“You never see anything like this coming from L.A,” Gardenhire said after UW’s Monday practice. “You don’t see stuff like this, how clean it is out here, and the campus, what it looked like, and the atmosphere.”

But Sarkisian and his staff hadn’t shown much interest in the three-star defensive back. Petersen, however, liked him plenty, and Boise State was one of the first schools to offer him a scholarship.

Gardenhire, though, had offers from two other Pac-12 schools — Washington State and Utah — and eventually committed to the Cougars on Nov. 24, 2013, nine days before Sarkisian left UW for USC, and 12 days before Petersen agreed to leave Boise State for UW.

That could not have been better news for Gardenhire. He liked Petersen and his staff, but said he didn’t think the scholarship numbers at Boise State would work in his favor.

If Petersen still wanted him at UW, though?

“I told them if they come here, I’ll commit here,” Gardenhire said, “because I always wanted to come here anyway.”

UW defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said Gardenhire was one of his top recruiting priorities upon accompanying Petersen to Washington — “we loved his length, loved his competitiveness,” Lake said — and it didn’t take much urging to get him on board. Gardenhire decommitted from WSU the day the Huskies offered him a scholarship.

“Once we got the job here,” Lake said, “I think he knew right away he was going to take the commitment and be a Husky.”

With their secondary thinned by graduation, Gardenhire became one of four true freshmen defensive backs to play for the Huskies in 2014, though he mostly contributed on special teams and rarely saw the field as a defensive player.

After a senior season at Cabrillo High School in which he played receiver, safety and returned kicks and punts, adjusting to the college game as a cornerback wasn’t easy.

“All I was thinking about was playing. I just wanted to play,” Gardenhire said. “And I got out there and saw how fast everything was moving and I was like, ‘Do I do this? Do I do that?’ And there’s 70,000 people here. I’m just like, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ It was kind of tough to get used to, just the speed of the game, knowing your assignment.”

He spent the offseason working individually with now-former graduate assistant Gerald Alexander, “just going over everything so I can understand the whole defense — not just my job, but understanding why I’m doing what I’m doing and why I have to be where I am.”

The extra effort seems to have paid off. Gardenhire has been a fixture since spring at the starting cornerback spot opposite fellow sophomore Sidney Jones. That duo has taken nearly all of the first-team repetitions throughout training camp, too, and though junior Kevin King is also an intriguing corner option for the Huskies, Gardenhire seems the favorite to start.

Lake praises Gardenhire’s ball skills, which were on display when the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder intercepted a pass and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown during UW’s “spring preview” in April. He’s snagged a handful of interceptions throughout camp, too.

So after a freshman season in which he admits “I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Gardenhire suddenly has the opportunity to be a Day 1 starter as a sophomore.

“I pay attention more to the defense and just know what I’m supposed to do,” Gardenhire said, “and understanding my technique and everything that I’m looking for in the defense and just settling down, instead of going out there and being so shaky.”

Said Lake, “We saw Darren as an athletic guy that had great ball skills, long, good speed, that could play corner. And right now he’s showing he’s doing a good job of it.”