After Washington’s first football practice of fall camp Thursday, first-year coach Kalen DeBoer extolled the virtues of various esoteric elements of the Husky program.
Esoteric to the outside world, that is; to DeBoer they are the very core of success. Things such as culture, team-building, bonding, buy-in, conditioning, football IQ, etc. Those have been his focus (with recruiting) since being hired to replace Jimmy Lake in late November.
Yet most fans (and media) are more interested in the bottom-line question: How will the Huskies be in 2022? Or, put another way, can they avoid a disaster like last season, when Washington shockingly lost its opener at home to Montana and never recovered from that humiliation en route to a 4-8 season?
That (and other issues) led to Lake’s firing late in his second year, and set up the Huskies as one of the most mysterious teams in the Pac-12, if not the entirety of college football. Lake left enough talent behind to think a new coaching staff could possibly coax a turnaround, perhaps even a massive one; yet enough questions remain to understand that outcome is far from guaranteed.
DeBoer will have to sort through a three-headed quarterback battle during camp and revitalize an offense that underperformed last year via a scheme that was unimaginative and ineffective. The defense was too easy to run against, and the team was consistently outplayed in the second half.
The encouraging thing is DeBoer has proved to be a master of the quick turnaround both as coach at Fresno State and, before that, offensive coordinator at Indiana and Fresno State. That’s on top of a stellar 67-3 record as coach at the University of Sioux Falls, an NAIA school.
After eight months around his team, up to and including a team boat ride Wednesday on Lake Washington and a spirited two-hour practice Thursday, DeBoer has a sense of its collective mindset. And he characterized it as one that’s burning with a desire to fix what was broken last year.
“Different guys might have different things that they say, but in the end they’re not happy,” DeBoer said. “They’re not proud of how it ended last year. And there’s a belief … they feel like they can make it right this year.”
He pointed to offensive lineman Jaxson Kirkland, who was granted another season at UW by the NCAA — Kirkland’s sixth year in the program — after he withdrew from the NFL draft because of an ankle injury.
“I remember the first conversation [with Kirkland] back in January, after he realized that this is the route he needed to pursue,” DeBoer said. “The positive piece was that he was going to have a chance to rewrite his last year and get this thing right for this program, which is so important to him.
“So I think that’s probably a common thought and common mindset that many of these guys have. And I don’t know why it can’t happen this year, based on everything I’ve seen.”
Not surprisingly, many of the questions to DeBoer on Thursday regarded the quarterback battle involving Indiana transfer Michael Penix Jr. (impressive in the first workout), incumbent starter Dylan Morris and former five-star recruit Sam Huard. As he has done before, DeBoer stressed his experience in handling “nine or 10” such battles the past 20 years.
Unlike the competition across the lake at Seahawks camp, where so far Geno Smith has gotten all the first-team reps and Drew Lock has been mired with the second team, DeBoer said he will divide the first-team reps evenly at the start. But he also said he wants to have determined a clear-cut No. 1 two weeks before the opener against Kent State on Sept. 3 so that person can begin to assert the leadership and “juice” (DeBoer’s term) required of the quarterback position.
“The No. 1 thing from us is just coach these guys up as hard as we can,” DeBoer said. “Coach Grubb (offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb) is going to do an awesome job with that, and just me helping them through it, because they all want it. They all want it really bad. And you can see that. I don’t want them to press. I want them to enjoy it. I want them to push and be competitive, but I want them to just go do what they do best and play their game.”
DeBoer talked glowingly Thursday of the “connectivity” of the Husky team, expressed during recent sessions in which each position group conducted introductions in front of the full squad. The energy and personality rippled through the meeting room, the coach said.
“There’s a fine line,” DeBoer observed. “I’m wanting us to be super loose, I want us to be always loose. But when we have to flip the switch and get on the football field, that we’re tough, and we’re relentless, and we’re competing at the highest level we possibly can.
“I think the support for each other is mutual, whether it’s offense to defense, seniors to freshmen and all the different ways that you look at a football team. I’m really fired up.”
Of course, it’s all a precursor to the core question that remains unanswerable: How will it all translate to victories? We’ll start to find out the answer in one month.