After Washington’s first football practice at fall camp Thursday, first-year coach Kalen DeBoer praised the merits of various esoteric elements of the Husky program.
Esoteric for the outside world, that is; For DeBoer, they are the core of success. Things like culture, team building, retention, buy-in, conditioning, soccer IQ, etc. These have been his focus (with recruitment) since he was hired to replace Jimmy Lake in late November.
However, most fans (and media) are more interested in the fundamental question: What will the Huskies be like in 2022? Or, put another way, can they avoid a disaster like last season, when Washington shockingly lost their 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 firing near the end of his sophomore year, and made the Huskies one of the most mysterious teams in Pac-12, if not all of college football. Lake left enough talent behind to believe a new coaching staff could potentially turn things around, maybe even a massive one; However, enough questions remain to understand that the result is far from guaranteed.
DeBoer must deal with a three-man quarterback fight during camp and revive an offense that has underperformed over the last year through an unimaginative and ineffective scheme. The defense was too easy to deal with and the side were consistently overplayed in the second half.
The encouraging thing is that DeBoer has proven to be a master of quick turnaround both as a coach at Fresno State and as an offensive coordinator at Indiana and Fresno State. This is on top of an outstanding 67-3 record as a coach at the University of Sioux Falls, an NAIA school.
After eight months with his team, including a team boat ride on Lake Washington on Wednesday and a spirited two-hour workout on Thursday, DeBoer has a grasp of his collective mindset. And he characterized it as one burning with desire to fix what broke last year.
“Different guys might have different things they say, but they end up not being happy,” DeBoer said. “They are not proud of how it ended last year. And there’s a belief … they feel like they can do 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 pulling out of the NFL draft with an ankle injury.
“I remember the first conversation [with Kirkland] in January after realizing this is the path he needs to take,” DeBoer said. “The positive was that he would have a chance to rewrite his senior year and do this thing right for this program that is so important to him.
“I think that’s probably a common thought and mindset that a lot 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 for DeBoer Thursday related to the quarterback fight, which featured Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. (impressive in first practice), acting starter Dylan Morris and former five-star recruit Sam Huard were involved. As before, DeBoer emphasized his experience in handling “nine or ten” such battles over the past 20 years.
Unlike the competition across the lake at the Seahawks camp, where Geno Smith has gotten all first-team reps so far and Drew Lock has been bogged down with the second-team, DeBoer said he got the first-team reps evenly early on will split. But he also said he wants a clear No. 1 determined two weeks before the opener against Kent State on Sept. 3 so that person can begin to claim the lead and the “juice” (DeBoer’s term) that’s for the quarterback position is required.
“The most important thing for us is to train these guys as hard as we can,” DeBoer said. “Coach Grubb (offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb) is going to do a great job with that and it’s just me helping them with that because they all want it. They all want it so bad. And you can see that. I don’t want them to push. I want them to enjoy it. I want them to push and be competitive, but I want them to just do what they do best and play their game.”
DeBoer spoke enthusiastically Thursday of the Husky team’s “connectivity,” evident in recent sessions where each position group introduced themselves to the full roster. The energy and personality flowed through the briefing room, the coach said.
“It’s a fine line,” DeBoer noted. “I want us to be super loose, I want us to be always loose. But when we have to flip the switch and get onto the football pitch, we’re tough and relentless and we’re competing at the highest possible level.
“I think the mutual support is mutual, whether it’s offense or defence, seniors or freshmen and all the different perspectives on a football team. I’m really on fire.”
Of course, all of this is a harbinger of the core question that remains unanswered: How will this all lead to wins? We will start to find out the answer in a month.