By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – Steve Sarkisian looked around his newly renovated home and had two words.
Marcus Peters ran with his fellow defensive backs through a pass-defense drill in the east end zone, on the new, 90,900-square-foot, cryogenic turf with purple-and-gold graphics sewn in rather than painted on. The DBs were under the largest of nine high-definition video boards. The one at the east end is Husky Hi Def, a 31.2-foot-high, 108-foot-wide display that is 24 feet wider than the largest, main video board in CenturyLink Field. Its manufacturer states the Husky Hi-Def board can display in 281 trillion -- with a “t” -- colors.
After the Huskies began preseason training camp Monday with a 2½-hour practice among all this inside their glistening, $250 million jewel, Peters aptly summed up the vibe of Washington’s first work inside Husky Stadium since renovations began 21 months ago.
“Man, it’s wonderful,” Peters said.
“It feels good to be back home. It’s like that dog that stayed in the house too long until his dog house got finished outside.”
Yes, the new Dawg House is all but done. Workers buzzed above the stadium during the first practice as Deontae Cooper returned from yet another reconstructive knee surgery, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams ran with the first-team offense again and young players got extended time to get acclimated to the pace and fitness they will need to play at UW.
The team won’t move into its new locker room and 80,000-square-foot football operations center – complete with a players’ lounge, a two-sided fireplace in Sarkisian’s office and a patio overlooking the stadium and Lake Washington from the venue’s west end – until Aug. 17.
But the stadium unofficially opened Monday, 30 days prior to the official unveiling Aug. 31 at the opener against Boise State.
“It’s great to be home,” Sarkisian said.
The moment that made the Dawgs smile most, though, wasn’t the new turf, which is still soft and sapped some players’ legs quickly on the first day. It wasn’t the new stands, the mammoth new video board in the east end or even Keith Price’s fist pump after he fired a strike on the run to Jaydon Mickens near the sideline for a 15-yard gain, either.
It was Cooper’s first hand-off and cut into the line since he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee for the third time last preseason. That came early in practice during individual running-back drills.
“I was smiling even before I got the handoff,” Cooper said.
Asked about practicing on the new FieldTurf and inside the new stadium, the relentless Cooper grinned and said: “I’m just happy to be on a field, man. We could be on concrete and I’d be happy.”
(More on what has fueled his unyielding drive and on UW’s community-wide love for Cooper is coming Wednesday in the weekly Unleashed column here on GoHuskies.com).
Almost all Huskies coming off major surgeries and injuries — including starting guard Colin Tanigawa, defensive end Hau’oli Jamora, linebacker Travis Feeney and running backs Jesse Callier plus Cooper — practiced Monday. The lone absence from that group was except two-year starting offensive lineman Erik Kohler.
Kohler returned for spring practices in April after missing the final 10 games with a torn knee ligament and torn quadriceps. Sarkisian said Kohler, who was in line to replace Drew Schaefer at center in April, injured his foot in recent player-led workouts. He is likely out three weeks.
Mike Criste, a fill-in starter for six games at right guard and one at right tackle last season while 80 percent of UW’s line was out injured in 2012, was the first-team center Monday. Ben Riva was at left tackle, 2012 replacement starter Dexter Charles was the left guard, Tanigawa and James Atoe alternated at right guard and Micah Hatchie was at right tackle. Riva was the right tackle last season while Hatchie was on the left.
Callier had ACL surgery last summer. The speedy junior running back and kick returner will, like Cooper, be limited some to at the start of camp. Sarkisian is anxious to get those two back into a reloaded backfield headed by Bishop Sankey, who emerged as a sophomore from near nowhere to rush for 1,439 yards — third-most in UW history — last season while replacing Chris Polk, now with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Callier.
Sarkisian said the position battle he is most intrigued to watch is the search for four starting defensive backs. Greg Ducre and Peters were the first-teamers at cornerback Monday, Peters in the spot Desmond Trufant had for years – until the Atlanta Falcons drafted Trufant in the first round this spring. Sean Parker, a captain last season as a junior, and Will Shamburger were the first-team safeties.
“I’ve said this a few times now,” Sarkisian said. “I think this is the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
WILLIAMS, ASJ RETURN
Seferian-Jenkins and Williams both practiced with the first team following their alcohol-related arrests in March and May, respectively.
Seferian-Jenkins, a finalist last year for the Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end, practiced for the first time since the first spring practices of early March. Sarkisian said before practice that he has decided what punishment he will give the junior, but that “we will keep it internal.”
Williams said after practice that he got up in front of the entire team twice before his became public last month, one time each for half-team lifting groups, to apologize and to re-establish trust.
“I’d never gotten in front of the team and talked to them before – and I had to do it twice in the summer. It got me more comfortable in front of them. And they trusted more after that, believe it or not…
“They see me as more talkative now.”
The junior wide out’s message to his teammates on his citation and fine for operating a vehicle after consuming alcohol?
“It can be anybody. It can be anybody,” Williams said. “No matter safe you think you’re being or how you think you’re being, it can happen to anyone at any time. And I told them not to do it. There’s no reason to, there’s no point to.
“We have too many positive things ahead of us, and there’s no reason to risk it.”
He said those talks to his teammates were extremely difficult for him.
“It was terrible. It was really bad,” Williams said. “I never wanted to be in that situation, and I don’t ever want to be in that situation again. And I told the team that.
"It’s tough … because I’d built up an image to the public, and I worked so hard on making that image," Williams, the team’s top wide receiver, said. “I mean, my mom raised me really well, along with my dad, as well. It’s a bad reflection on them.
“But it’s over with and I definitely learned from it. I never want to be in that situation again.”
DAWG BONES: Sarkisian announced former backup QB Derrick Brown is now an H-back, or hybrid, pass-catching fullback. That move plus the practice reps breakdown Monday reinforced that redshirt freshman Cyler Miles has the current hold on the No. 2 job behind Price. Miles had an impressive play late in practice, moving to his left to avoid a pass rush and throwing 25 yards off one foot to the sidelines on a line for a catch by WR Marvin Hall. … Evan Hudson, a backup TE last season, is going to get long looks on the defensive line this month as coaches see if the 6-foot-5, 262-pound junior’s athleticism can be another asset to help energize the pass rush. … Sarkisian announced backup Cooper Pelluer, a former FB who moved to LB then had shoulder surgery and missed all of 2012, has been medically disqualified.