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Sports >  UW football

Commentary: Kalen DeBoer, UW Huskies enter spring football facing a new challenge

March 4, 2023 Updated Sat., March 4, 2023 at 9:23 p.m.

Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer reacts during a Nov. 19 Pac-12 game against Colorado at Husky Stadium in Seattle.  (Tribune News Service)
Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer reacts during a Nov. 19 Pac-12 game against Colorado at Husky Stadium in Seattle. (Tribune News Service)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – When the Washington Huskies headed into spring football a year ago, they had a first-year coach with an impressive resume but real questions about his ability to execute a quick turnaround.

And coming off a 4-8 season, there was a lot to have to turn around. For Kalen DeBoer, it was a big step up in degree of difficulty from Fresno State.

They had a transfer quarterback from Indiana who couldn’t stay healthy (and was no guarantee to win the starting job) and a roster dotted with players who had been part of the disastrous 2021 season.

The expectations were muted, at best. If DeBoer could change the culture, get his players to buy into his program and navigate the Huskies above .500, it probably would have been considered a positive start to his tenure.

Instead, of course, they did vastly better than that, going 11-2, closing with seven consecutive victories and a triumph over Texas in the Alamo Bowl. Only a stumble against UCLA and an ill-timed letdown against Arizona State in consecutive weeks kept Washington out of the Pac-12 title game and a possible route to the College Football Playoff.

Now as DeBoer’s second version of spring football dawns Monday, the dynamics have changed dramatically – and so have the expectations. Whereas last year Washington was a team of deep mystery, this year they will be regarded from the outset as a legitimate national contender – and the quarterback, Michael Penix Jr., as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.

Mind you, the coach was delighted when Penix announced his intention to forgo the draft and return to Washington, a decision that was matched by numerous talented teammates. But he also knew he had a new challenge to address – keeping the Huskies grounded as their acclaim grows. For DeBoer, that has become a huge focal point as they enter spring ball.

“We’ve talked about that a lot,” he said Friday. “We talked about it yesterday in a team meeting we had. And it’s a fun situation, right? I mean, it’s fun to have the attention and that, but along with that comes not just the talk, but the walk.

“We’ve got to realize that everyone’s breaking down our film a little bit more than in the past. They were kind of probably waiting to see who we were, especially if we were Week 4 or 5 or a further game on the schedule.

“Now they’re actually looking at some things and trying to figure out, ‘OK, what are we going to do when these guys come?’ I don’t want to get a big head about it, but they might even be devoting a day during spring ball or fall camp to some of the things that we’re doing.”

It’s a classic manifestation of the cliché about going from the hunter to the hunted. The Huskies might have enough raw talent to avoid the pitfalls of such a situation. But considering their ultimate goal – a national championship – DeBoer knows they can’t have the same sort of stumble a they did last year. And so at least as important to him as X’s and O’s is forging the attitude in his players to forget about the high national rankings and inevitable gushing by the pundits.

“For our guys, it’s still about us,” he said. “It’s still about just being focused and remember how we got there. Last year in everything we did, there was urgency, there was an intensity about it. The thing I’m just so proud of our guys is, I think that urgency and intensity is even higher. I really do. They’re not taking anything for granted. They’re enjoying the moment; they enjoy the work. They realize that work is what got them there last year, and they’re not shy. They’re not afraid to do it.”

Still, DeBoer keeps preaching to his players that replicating success is not something that happens by accident, and it’s certainly not something that carries over just by osmosis. In a 15-minute monologue to start his first spring football news conference Friday, DeBoer raved about the way his team responded to the six-week winter workout phase that preceded spring ball.

“I think what you see is they believe in the process that we have,” he said. “I think what we’ve done is, the things that were hard before are now … not to say easy, but we’ve kind of redefined what hard is.”

As an illustration, DeBoer pointed to a drill that involves an eight-station circuit – “and then we do four more just because we do more than most teams do.”

DeBoer said the expectation is for players to sprint to their next station, but last year they weren’t always able to do so.

“A lot of times, it was just survival mode,” he said. “Their bodies weren’t equipped with that endurance, that stamina. Now there’s not a survival mode piece; they’re all running. And there’s a piece mentally and one physically where it’s like, ‘This is how we do it.’

“I challenged them to take that now to spring ball. And not just be these workout warriors, but also be guys that this mindset translates to doing that on the football field, and the urgency to go from drill to drill, or the urgency to pursue until the play is absolutely over.”

It might not be as picturesque as, say, a 50-yard strike from Penix to Rome Odunze. But in DeBoer’s world, forging that mindset in spring is a key building block to what he hopes will be a fall and winter in which the lofty expectations for Washington don’t get sidetracked.

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