This University of Washington football team is traveling more than 2,600 miles across country for maybe the biggest season opener in team history, with the No. 6 Huskies taking on No. 9 Auburn on Saturday.
But whether UW wins or loses the opening coin toss it won’t matter – its coordinators on both sides of the football will be calling the shots for the first time.
“You talk about getting your feet wet right away,” UW coach Chris Petersen said earlier this week.
He was specifically talking there about first-year offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan, who is back at Montlake after spending last season coaching quarterbacks for the Atlanta Falcons.
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The Falcons play at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where UW and Auburn are playing at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. It’s a neutral site but, let’s be real, this is basically a home game for Auburn, with its campus just over 100 miles away from the stadium.
“It was hard to get guys to Falcons games there last year,” Hamdan said. “But if Georgia, Alabama or Auburn were playing there were like 80,000 people there. It’s in their blood. They love college football, but we’re doing everything we can to represent this city.”
And on UW’s defense, Jimmy Lake will call plays for the first time after earning a promotion this past offseason from co-defensive coordinator to defensive coordinator, with now co-defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski voluntarily stepping down to allow for Lake’s promotion.
Lake, the former Eastern Washington University safety now gets to try to call plays against this Auburn offense, which features likely NFL-bound, dual-threat quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
“He’s got the NFL size and the ball comes out nice and clean and easy – and then if we’re covering everything up he’ll do a good job of moving around and he’ll try to dice you again or he’ll tuck it and run,” Lake said. “He causes a lot of issues. We got to be on our game and it’s going to be a heck of a challenge.”
Hamdan said he’s worked with the offense this week extensively on handling the expected crowd noise. He wouldn’t go into any great details, but …
“We have a plan in place for that,” he said with a smile.
“We’re ready to go. Just excited to see these guys cut loose. But anytime you travel as far across the country as we are, first and foremost is handling the crowd noise.”
Lake started coaching with Petersen in 2012 at Boise State, after spending 2006-2011 coaching defensive backs in the NFL for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions. He came back to UW in 2015 after coaching under Keith Gilbertson here in 2004.
Hamdan also arrived at UW in 2015, then as its offensive quality control coach before being promoted to wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator and then heading to the Falcons.
But it’s not like Hamdan or Lake will be instilling schemes so unfamiliar to UW fans, not with all their prior experience in this program and not with a Huskies roster so filled with seniors. They have seniors Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin in the backfield, with seniors Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary at the bookend tackles on offense, and a loaded defensive secondary that includes returning starters at both safeties (Taylor Rapp and Jojo McIntosh) and cornerbacks (Byron Murphy and Jordan Miller).
“Coach Lake, he has some new stuff in, but at the same time we still run our core defense,” Miller said. “I’m excited for the things he might dial up in this defense, but it’s still the same defense.”
And it’s not like Petersen won’t have somewhat of a hand on the wheel.
“We have our style,” Petersen said. “We’re not putting in a whole new defense. So am I super excited to see what it’s like? Not necessarily.
“The smart game planners keep things nice and tight for the game plan. I keep saying that you see these guys with these huge call sheets and things like that and we just go, ‘That’s going to confuse people.’ We keep it nice and tight.
“And as a game planner, it’s really easy to fall into, ‘Well, if that doesn’t work, then we got this. And if that doesn’t work, we got this.’ That can hurt the kids and water down how much you can practice and all those things. So much of the work is done during the week and if you’re smart and keep the game plan nice and tight for the kids it can help.”
Maybe the greater challenge is for Hamdan, especially calling plays against such a vaunted Auburn defense that’s loaded with experience on the defensive line and at linebacker.
“Against a defense like this – this is going to be tough sledding,” Petersen said. “But that’s what we love about this game. It is so competitive and so challenging and that’s how his first game is going to be. It’s going to be as challenging and competitive as it’s going to be. Bush works morning, noon and night to get this right for kids, he’s been on it pretty hard.”
And the more Hamdan works, the more he’s telling himself to not overthink the offense.
“I think playing in these games sometimes as a coach you start thinking about other things, but it comes back to the simple things,” Hamdan said. “Communication, cadence, getting off the snap at the right time and taking everything on step at a time.
“These guys will be phenomenal. It’s a great challenge. And that’s why these players came to the University of Washington is to play in games like this, and we’re excited to see what they do.”