When quarterback Jake Browning, running back Myles Gaskin, and other core players from the renaissance of Husky football walked out the door for the final time last season, Chris Petersen was understandably wistful.
But the Washington coach had an epiphany he doesn’t always get with outgoing stars.
“You hate to see them go, but you almost feel like – and I think they felt this – it was time,” Petersen related Thursday. “They’ve really done all they could do here, and they’ve graduated and all those type of things. It was time for the next thing.”
And so we stand at another crossroads in Husky football as Petersen embarks on his sixth season at Washington, beginning with today’s first practice.
Many of the core players who led the Huskies to three consecutive double-digit-win seasons, who provided a security blanket in tough times, who elevated the program back to national prominence (and yet couldn’t quite get that elusive marquee bowl-game victory), have moved on.
What’s left on Montlake is a greater air of mystery.
And that can be invigorating — within the program, and from the outside looking in.
“We have a lot of work to do, but we’ve got a lot of really good pieces to work with,” Petersen said.
What should give Husky fans the greatest measure of hope (and comfort) as they look ahead to life without the quarterback who now owns most of the school’s passing records, as well as its most prolific running back, as well as a slew of defensive players now in the NFL, is the fact that Petersen isn’t just a proven builder of programs; he’s a master sustainer as well.
That reputation, forged during eight premier seasons at Boise State that saw Petersen absorb just 12 losses in 104 games, will be tested, of course.
The WAC ain’t the Pac-12 (although you could make the case that the Pac-12 ain’t the Pac-12 these days).
One can look at these Huskies and see the building blocks of a national contender. Petersen certainly is high on their potential, not that he would ever express it so bluntly.
But being a coach, he also frets over many of the same things you do.
He has to choose, and hone, a new quarterback to replace Browning.
People love to pick holes in his game, and there certainly were weaknesses, but Browning did find a way to win more than any of his predecessors.
Jacob Eason can out-tool Browning, but can he outperform him?
Or, for that matter, Jake Haener?
Petersen gave every indication that the camp competition at quarterback will be long and drawn-out.
Can Salvon Ahmed and other running backs compensate for Gaskin’s dependability and production?
The Huskies have quantity at wide receiver, but do they have explosive quality?
Petersen hinted that they will take more chances downfield, which should be music to fans’ ears.
“We have to give them, as coaches, the chance to go make a play,” he said.
Can they rectify their woes on special teams? It’s a unit that Petersen bluntly admitted was below standards last year.
“We’ve got to get better there, and we will,” he said.
Nothing animated Petersen more at Thursday’s news conference than a question about the kicking battle between incumbent Peyton Henry and incoming freshman Tim Horn.
“There you go!” he said. “I can’t wait to go out and see that.”
Petersen and his staff also will try to conjure up a pass rush after key departures on the defensive line and at linebacker, and rebuild a secondary that always seems to be graduating members to the NFL – but always seems to have massive talent in waiting.
“I’m excited to see everybody, because we need a lot of guys that haven’t had prime time stepping up and be ready to go,” Petersen said.
The attrition will not just be felt with the spotlight players such as Browning, Gaskin, Greg Gaines, Kaleb McGary, Ben Burr-Kirven, Byron Murphy and Taylor Rapp.
Petersen pointed, for example, to the grunt work done by tight end Drew Sample, a second-round draft pick by the Bengals.
“The tight-end position isn’t this marquee position, by any stretch, in terms of the glory that can come from it, because what we ask our tight ends to do,” Petersen said.
“Drew Sample was in the trenches. All the things he did for us, and that’s why he was drafted so high, but no one else really paid that close attention to it except for us and his parents. … All those little things we’re trying to replace. He kind of set a great example, but now the next guys need to fill into those roles, and away we go.”
It’s hardly a unique dilemma in college football, of course.
It’s built into the fabric of the sport to be in perpetual flux.
But as Petersen said, “as a program, you probably love that (turnover) a little bit better when it’s spread out. But we have been through this before where some really marquee guys have moved on. It’s bittersweet.”
My hunch is that by the end of the Huskies’ season, the emphasis will be more on the sweet than the bitter.