Before Steve Sarkisian met with the media Wednesday, there were any number of the 30 players Washington signed this year who could have been considered the most intriguing member of the class.
After it was over, there was really just one — offensive lineman James Atoe of The Dalles, Ore.
Atoe, listed by UW at 6-6, 339, would have been real intriguing anyway, an almost completely unknown player until just a few days before signing day, visiting the last weekend and then committing quickly.
But his status as one to watch grew markedly after Sarkisian’s comments about him Wednesday. Namely, when he said that “this guy is a potential top five NFL draft pick,” a comment that raised more than a few eyebrows given Atoe’s previous anonymity.
I called Atoe’s high school coach, Andy Codding, this morning and asked him what he thought of Sarkisian’s assessment of Atoe’s potential.
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” said Codding, who played at Oregon for a year. “He’s got all the tools and he’s got a great work ethic. He’s a smart, big, powerful lineman with much better feet than you would expect of a 320-pound kid. He needs to improve his strength but when he does that, I don’t know what the knock on him would be.”
Atoe hadn’t shown up on any of the web sites as a possible UW recruit until shortly before his visit, and Sarkisian said Wednesday that’s just how he wanted it. Sarkisian said the Huskies got their first real look at Atoe at their camp last summer and that he improved enough that by the end of it, they thought about offering him a scholarship. They didn’t at the time, but kept in contact, and Sarkisian said one reason to lay low on Atoe was to not tip off other schools, the thinking being that if other schools knew UW was offering, they might jump in the fray, as well.
Codding said UW offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who handles Oregon recruiting for the Huskies, “has been down here 7-8 times over the past year, so we’ve been in pretty close contact.”
However, it’s not completely accurate to say no other schools knew anything about Atoe.
Oregon State has had a couple of players from The Dalles — located along HIghway 84 on the Washington-Oregon border — in recent years, including Bryant Cornell, a starting MLB a couple years ago and knew about Atoe. (The Dalles, by the way, may be out of the way, but The Dalles-Wahtonka high school has about 900 students and plays in 5A, the second largest classification in Oregon).
The Oregon Ducks had also taken a look, Codding said. But neither ultimately pulled the trigger on a scholarship.
“Oregon State just had zero scholarships available,” Codding said. “They wanted him to come down as a grayshirt and he wasn’t too into going there on a grayshirt. Oregon talked to him a bunch last year, then this year when their (scholarship numbers) came out they just decided they didn’t have one for him. It was looking like the Huskies were going to be really interested about a year ago with the class they had, they knew they were going to have up to seven spots for offensive linemen, and this was kind of the direction that James was looking forward to. I wasn’t worried about. I knew they were going to put something together.”
UW”s attempt to keep its interest in Atoe quiet may have worked mostly to keep other schools out of the way. Codding says Atoe never really got much interest from out of state schools saying that he “we still haven’t heard anything from Washington State.” Atoe did have offers from the likes of Portland State, Eastern Washington and Weber State, but all along had been holding out for something bigger if he could get it.
“This is what he was looking for,” Codding said.
Sarkisian said at his press conference Wednesday that John Timu was the only player sure to grayshirt this year. But sounds as if the option is still there for Atoe to do so, as well.
“It’s still unknown,” Codding said. “He may. It just depends on how things shake up. James is open to whatever is best for the team.”
Atoe played both ways for The Dalles, which won eight games last fall in its best season in years, and also handled long snapping, something that could make him a candidate to handle duty for the Huskies, as well.
“He’s got a good skill, there,” Codding said.
His family relocated to The Dalles a few years ago from Alaska. His older brother, Ryan Atoe, played at Idaho and also was on NFL rosters for a couple years, playing mostly in NFL Europe.
James Atoe also plays basketball for The Dalles and does weight events in track. Sarkisian mentioned his basketball skill on signing day, and Codding said he is averaging a double-double.
“He was second-team all-league last year and he’s doing much better this year,” Codding said. “He’s a team leader and they are a game out of first place right now, exceeding expectations. He moves up and down the court real well. He has a huge burst. It’s kind of a sign of how athletic he is on the football field.”