Different is a decision.

It’s 7:49 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 17, and this is what Ryan Grubb is telling his team — a semicircle of kneeling athletes who have already sweated through a hundred purple-and-white shirts. By this point, his Huskies have completed eight four-minute agility stations inside the Dempsey Indoor Center, position groups rotating through cone drills and tire flips and medicine-ball tosses.

By this point, the words “details” and “finish” — head strength and conditioning coach Ron McKeefery’s maxims — have already echoed off the walls, above the indecipherable hip hop humming out of sideline speakers. By this point, associate head coach JaMarcus Shephard has spent more than a half-hour emitting unfiltered enthusiasm — at one point jumping atop a huddle of Huskies, bellowing “Let’s get it!” during a brief, spontaneous crowd surf. By this point, wide receiver Jalen McMillan has won a drill, chest-bumped head coach Kalen DeBoer and shouted, “They can’t stop me!”

By this point, many programs’ daily agility training — or “mat drills” — would be considered complete.

For the Huskies, it’s halftime.

And during this portion of each winter workout, DeBoer asks a different UW assistant to address his team.

“You can’t be the same,” says Grubb, UW’s first-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, facing a group that belly-flopped to a 4-8 finish last fall. “If you want the same result — if you want the 88% (of UW football teams that have finished seasons without championships) — then just keep doing what you’ve been doing. If you’re not satisfied with where you’re at, I would start thinking about what my preparation process is and the type of player I am. Because — guess what guys — everybody has mat drills. I hate to break that to you.”

At this, DeBoer — standing at the back in a purple hoodie and hat — silently nods, before nudging cornerback Jordan Perryman to keep his eyes up.

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“We do extra at the end; that is different. That is a separating point,” Grubb continues, referencing the second agility circuit about to begin. “That is a choice coach Mac (McKeefery) has made to try to separate us. How you prepare and how you partake in the drills, that’s your difference. That’s your difference.”

McKeefery has been developing that difference for years — in stints with the University of South Florida (2001-10), the University of Tennessee (2011-12), the Cincinnati Bengals (2013-14), Eastern Michigan University (2014-16), Fresno State (2020-21) and several others. It’s why he instituted a “winter competition” at Washington — wherein players are drafted into eight separate teams, based on various sizes and ability levels.

Today, now that they’re good and tired, those teams will be put in pairs and pitted in head-to-head competition — completing four more agility stations, with each cone drill and sled push and sprint contributing to a final score.     

“Most times, when people talk mat drills or morning agilities or whatever they call it, it’s usually some sort of station work where they’re rotating specifically 6-8 times for around 3-5 minutes. That’s pretty much what most people will end the day on,” McKeefery later explains. “So for the first part of my career that’s kind of what we did.

“Then it was like: ‘OK, this is what everybody’s doing. How are we separating ourselves?’ Really, you separate yourself by competing when you’re tired. Anybody can compete when you’re fresh. But when you’re tired, that’s when the rubber meets the road.”

And positions begin to be won and lost.

Because, beyond the head-to-head team competitions, the Huskies also pit each player against a teammate with a similar size and skill level. So when you’re running a three-cone drill, or tipping a massive rubber tire across a turf finish line, you’re doing so against someone who could conceivably steal your job in the spring or fall.

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Jalen McMillan against Rome Odunze.

Giles Jackson against Ja’Lynn Polk.

Bralen Trice against Jordan Lolohea.

Caleb Berry against Jay’Veon Sunday.

Sam Huard against Dylan Morris.

The goal is for a three-cone drill in February to feel like a fourth-down dive in the fall.

“If they’re just going out there and running around cones, it’s miserable. It feels like it’s punishment,” McKeefery says. “But if you put yourself in the mindset that you’re going out there to try to win the Pac, it becomes a completely different proposition.

“In most programs you try to win jobs in spring ball. We’re trying to win jobs right now. We’re putting guys against each other that are competing for positions.”

Of course, some competitions inevitably end in ties. Today, the team tiebreaker is individual tug of war — in which two players grab handles on opposite ends of a purple plastic sphere, and pull until will power, strength and gravity settle the dispute.

Previous tiebreakers have included tire carries and obstacle courses. But it’s McKeefery’s philosophy to maintain the mystery.

If he has his way, you’ll never knows what’s next.  

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“One of my principles — one of the things I really try to do in our program — is to incorporate variety,” he says. “When you’re months away from the start of the season, things can get monotonous and boring. But if you’re guessing, ‘What’s coach Mac got for me today?’ it makes it a fun environment. You’re excited to train.

“By keeping those drills different, they can’t mentally prepare for something, either. They have to get thrown into the moment and compete and react and adapt and overcome. So it’s a fun way to create a little juice on the way out.”

In all, the workout lasts one hour and 15 minutes of the eight allotted hours McKeefery is allowed with his team each week. And while January was geared more toward strength training — “putting on armor,” he says — the focus has shifted (somewhat) to agility and conditioning work in preparation for looming April practices.

Anyone can lift weights and run around cones.

McKeefery has eight hours a week to provide, and demand, a difference.

“The guys are really buying into it,” says junior defensive lineman Ulumoo Ale, whose 6-foot-6, 345-pound frame features surprisingly little body fat. “They love it. Coach Mac is fast-paced. He sets the bar high and expects you to meet it. We don’t accept anything less than that.”

“It’s a chess match, because you’re having to stay within the rules, but you also have to prepare them for the rigors of competition,” McKeefery adds, sitting in his office attached to the Husky weight room. “That’s the art, right? There’s a lot of people that do a lot of exercises and drills and those types of things.

“But (the challenge is) fitting it all together, to where you need to be this expert in speed and power and balance and coordination and awareness and skill acquisition and all these things, and you need to fit it into this (weekly) eight-hour block. So this morning is a good example of getting a lot of stuff done in a short amount of time.”