“We’ll be ready,” the Huskies’ new coach says of the 2014 season, which begins Aug. 30 at Hawai’i. Spring practices were inconclusive, but they helped build a foundation Petersen sees as essential to winning. “Sometimes talent can even be overrated. But unity and chemistry ... never overrated.”
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – When his first 15 practices as the new leader for Huskies football ended, Chris Petersen had his wit. And a smile.
The new coach was asked Saturday afternoon, on the field at Husky Stadium following the final practice of an expectedly inconclusive spring, to summarize this start of a new era at Washington. Oh, and please do it in one word.
“One word ... Can I use two?” Petersen asked, grinning.
“I think the kids worked hard. The coaches worked hard,” he said. “It’s hard being new. It’s hard to get lined up in stretch lines. It’s hard to figure out what end of the field we practice on offensively and defensively. Everything is just hard.
“That’s good. That’s why we are here. That’s why we came here, for that type of challenge. I think the kids responded well. Excited to go forward.”
No, sorry, his two words weren’t “quarterback found” or “all settled.” That is what many Husky fans wanted to hear already – including Hall of Famer Warren Moon. UW’s 1978 Rose Bowl MVP passer said Saturday on Pac-12 Networks while watching the final practice from the sideline and expressing excitement over the Petersen era: “Of course, we’d like to know who the starting quarterback is.”
That wasn’t going to happen. Not yet. Not with more than four months still to go before Keith Price’s eventual replacement will start the opener Aug. 30 at Hawai’i. And not with two of the four quarterbacks expected to compete for the job in fall camp – suspended heir apparent Cyler Miles and incoming freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels – not practicing this spring. That left last Saturday’s standout Jeff Lindquist and redshirt freshman Troy Williams as the only quarterbacks on the field.
"Our system’s been introduced – in everything. In terms of how we lift weights, some of the things we believe in, our philosophies, how we are going to practice. That’s all been established. And now we’ve got to get better at that. We’ve got to tighten up the details on everything we do."
By the way: No, Lindquist’s and Williams’ arms didn’t fall off after making every throw for 15 practices -- though Williams admitted his was sore last month.
Petersen says the team remains “at square one” with the QB situation. He’s also still searching for a new, primary running back and a pass-catching tight end now that Bishop Sankey and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are gone preparing for next month’s NFL draft. Deontae Cooper and Darrell Daniels made strides to be those guys, but again nothing got settled there, either.
Instead, what the new coach and his staff accomplished in spring ball was much more fundamental and basic to the entire program. That’s why hard work that was more important in these last six weeks than it’s been in at least five years at UW, since Steve Sarkisian brought in his new system. Petersen is three months and 15 practices into installing his, the one that’s gone 92-12 with two wins in the Bowl Championship Series while at Boise State the last eight seasons.
In his first three months at Washington the coach has established a foundation upon which his entire Huskies program will rise. He’s done it with tough standards, strategic rewards, suspensions, in-practice diversions and the overarching emphasis on unity and fundamentals.
“With the way Coach Sark left in rush everyone was confused and whatnot,” senior tight end Michael Hartvigson said. “But I definitely think over these last months everybody has been coming together really well.
“Coach Pete has a standard. He’s more reserved. He’s not going to get in your face. He more expects you to do it, rather than yell at you if you don’t do it. Coach Pete, he’s been coaching a while. He has an expectation of what a championship team is all about. He’s coached in some of the biggest games. He has a sure image of what he expects – which is good.”
A WHOLE NEW EVERYTHING
How much is new?
Petersen was asked early in spring ball if he had made significant changes to any of the ways the Huskies operate.
“Yes,” he said. “Every, single thing.”
Petersen has even frowned on some of what was being served at the team’s training table, as glib wide receiver Jaydon Mickens playfully rued.
“Yeah, we had some french fries but coach didn’t like that too much,” Mickens said, laughing. “Coach Pete, he didn’t like that too much.”
So, of course, the players are still adapting to all this change.
On the field, practices were often as Petersen warned at the outset they probably would be: ugly. The offense, even with its veteran line, wasn’t in synch. The coach says the offense, defense and kicking game all needs to get more “detailed and consistent.”
Again, good thing the real games don’t start for another four months.
“We did all right. It’s always hard having new coaches come in and obviously changing stuff around and whatnot,” right tackle Ben Riva, one of the team’s most respected leaders, said. “Different coaches want different things compared to the guys in the past. It takes a little time getting used to that; really, it took me all spring to finally figure out what these guys want.”
Off the field, the Huskies are still learning, too.
“From the looks of it, everybody is starting to buy into the program,” said Williams, who said he has no hard feelings that Petersen has replaced the coach and fellow Southern Californian that lured him to UW from Los Angeles two years ago.
“Coaches are still trying to get in good with the players, and it’s just a good atmosphere. I like all the coaches, and building that bond is important.”
Yet Petersen acknowledges he doesn’t have all of the 82 players that were on the spring roster bonded with his staff just yet. That process takes more than three months and 15 practices.
“Are we all in on everything? I think we have some work to do, a ways to go there,” he said. “But we’ve been pleased with their attitude. There has been nothing where they are saying, ‘Oh, we don’t want to do this.’ I think they want to win. I think they want to come together as a team. They get that. When we do that we will start making progress.”
Petersen’s suspensions of Miles and Damore’ea Stringfellow indefinitely plus two-time defensive captain John Timu for two weeks last month showed his line has a sharp edge. Allowing co-captain, sack leader and 3.53-GPA student Hau’oli Kikaha to study in the south Pacific from January into March instead of attend offseason conditioning sessions showed he also rewards anyone who exceeds his standards.
“We’ve got the structure,” Petersen said. “Our system’s been introduced – in everything. In terms of how we lift weights, some of the things we believe in, our philosophies, how we are going to practice. That’s all been established. And now we’ve got to get better at that. We’ve got to tighten up the details on everything we do.
“That’s the difference to everything; it’s the details. We are not detailed enough. So that’s where we’ve got to go moving forward.”
“UNITY AND CHEMISTRY ... NEVER OVERRATED”
Did I mention he and his staff are into unity and details?
When Jonathan Smith, the new quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, didn’t have Lindquist and Williams making every pass and hand off in practices he had his quarterbacks diving onto tackling pads and turning their shoulders away from the defense to perfect the skill of ... recovering fumbles.
At the end of each practice Petersen had the entire team running sideline-to-sideline sprints, 106 yards each. When they finished the gasping guys gathered to stand, shoulders heaving, around their head coach on the W in the middle of the field. On Petersen’s command, the players were to then clap once and take the same knee to listen to his post-practice message.
At the first practices the Huskies didn’t always get that mental-acuity-while-tired task down in total harmony. So they had to run extra sprints until they did.
"We’ve got a lot of work to do, in all phases of our program. The culture is not going to all change in two months, three months. But I think they are paying attention. It’s always a work in progress."
By last week, they looked more like a precise, disciplined military outfit at the end of their workouts. And they weren’t running extra sprints anymore.
“There’s a lot of new energy, you know?” Petersen said. “There are a lot of things that we kind of took for granted back where I came from, and here we can’t take anything for granted. We’ve got to re-coach every, single thing.
“It’s in some ways refreshing. And in some ways we have to kind of shake our heads and say, ‘That’s on us. We haven’t coached that part of it. How would they know that?’”
Inside the football operations center Petersen, his director of football operations Mike McHugh and the staff have assigned Huskies of different backgrounds to lockers next to each other. Hartvigson is from Bothell, Wash., a Seattle suburb of 33,500 people that was 79.7-percent white and 1.6-percent African-American in the 2010 U.S. Census. Hartvigson’s locker neighbor was sophomore wide receiver John Ross. He is from the urban center of Long Beach, which is second only to Los Angeles in L.A-area population with 426,000 residents. Ross went to Long Beach Jordan High School, which is 97-percent non-white.
That’s how 80 other Huskies are learning about each other’s families and backgrounds and likes while in the locker room.
That’s a glimpse of how Petersen plans to take Washington from four consecutive bowl appearances to championships.
“I think to have a really, really good team, talent is not enough. Sometimes talent can even be overrated. But unity and chemistry and those type of things: never overrated,” the only two-time winner of the Paul “Bear” Bryant Award as the national coach of the year said.
“I think we’ve all been on teams that came together, fought together – and had great experiences. I think we’ve all been on teams that had talent – and didn’t do anything. So we believe strongly in it. And we will always work on it.”
Now comes an important and often overlooked part of a football team’s year. Coaches are prohibited by NCAA rules to be on the field with players from now until fall camp starts in early August. So it’s up to Riva, Kikaha and fellow team leaders to reinforce these lessons of football fundamentals and team unity in player-led workouts for the next 3½ months.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, they know that. We can’t coach them anymore until August, so they are going to have to get a lot of things done on their own,” Petersen said. “That’s going to show what type of leadership we have here. That’s a huge component.
“I think the really good teams have a little bit of leadership to get some things done.”
So beyond the inconsistent play, what did he see this spring in a team that is returning eight starters on offense and eight on defense after it finished 9-4 last season?
“I did like their attitude. I think we do have some talent,” Petersen said. “We’ve got some good players. We’ve got some tough guys, as well. So I’m excited to work with these guys and go forward.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, in all phases of our program. The culture is not going to all change in two months, three months. But I think they are paying attention. It’s always a work in progress.
“We’ll be ready.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
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