The poets who write of budding trees and flocking robins as harbingers of spring’s glorious rebirth have somehow overlooked the annual springtime rite for certain collegiate mesomorphs.
It got underway Monday morning for the Washington Huskies on the shore of Lake Washington, and while it felt like blustery late October game-day, the play was as raw and unpolished as one might expect on the first day after a three-month layoff.
A couple factors warrant closer scrutiny while barely five months away from the start of the 2016 season.
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One is the elevation of expectations that led an ESPN.com story to be headlined: “Washington poised to regain national relevance.”
National relevance? That’s got to mean Top 25 contention, at least, right?
Well, it is coach Chris Peterson’s third season at UW, with the first two adding up to an erratic 14-12 record.
More specifically, with the first spring practice, it meant that a couple of freshman stars from the 2015 season are, at least in a football sense, now sophomores.
Quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskins now qualify as young veterans, and the presumption is that one of the greatest growth spurts in an athlete’s career is that between the freshman and sophomore seasons.
It was the maturation of these two freshmen that sparked the offensive surge that helped the Huskies rally from 4-6 in mid-November to a 7-6 finish.
In the Nov. 21 win over Oregon State, Browning completed 18 of 20 passes for four touchdowns. And in the Dec. 26 Heart of Dallas Bowl victory over Southern Mississippi, Gaskins raced for 181 yards and four touchdowns.
The Huskies had the best defense in the Pac-12 last season and seven starters return, so it will be the continued growth and consistency of these two young stars that dictate whether the offense can keep pace this season.
After the first workout, Peterson said Browning appears “just a lot more (in) command.”
“All the subtle things, how he operates in the pocket, throwing the ball with a little more anticipation, all the subtle things that are hard to see by just the average person,” Peterson said. “It’s one thing to be a chalkboard expert, it’s another thing to be a field commander. And that just comes with a lot of reps.”
Receiver John Ross III, who missed last season with a knee injury, said he can already see the growth of Browning. “Leadership … taking everything day by day,” Ross said. “He’s more of a leader than we expected being such a young guy.”
Gaskins finished last season in a rush, picking up more than 100 yards in seven of the last nine games, his 1,302 rushing yards being good for fifth in the Pac-12.
But he didn’t care for the team’s 7-6 finish.
“I don’t think that’s the success we wanted,” Gaskins said. “We’ve got a lot of room to grow and a lot of work to do.”
I suspected that the three-game winning streak at the end of the season would serve as a nice platform for the offseason work and this spring’s drills.
But Peterson made an interesting point when he was asked about that, saying that perhaps the most important lessons came from the struggles during the 2-5 mid-season streak than the surge of success at the end.
“That might be the strongest lessons we learned, that it takes time to build true skills,” he said. “True skills take time and it has to be consistent, persistent, and it has to be day-to-day.”
It being the first day of spring practices, and hope being eternal even among members of the media this time of year, somebody asked Peterson a long-range question that included the words “Rose Bowl.”
He quelled that talk in a hurry, reminding all that his job was to sustain the players’ drive and manage expectations, and not to talk about bowls or conference titles, but about practicing their best every day.
Rose Bowl? No, he said, he only can afford to focus on Wednesday, Day Two of spring drills.