The Washington football team concluded its spring practice season on Saturday with something called a “spring preview.”
A ball was used. It was a prolate spheroid with laces. The marching band showed up and performed Husky songbook standards familiar to the cheerleaders dancing in the end zone. Half of the team wore purple jerseys with white numbers, and the other half wore white jerseys with purple numbers.
The scrimmage phase of the event more or less looked like the sport we know as football, with offensive players engaging in contact and defensive players occasionally applying something a resembling tackle.
Once upon a time, spring practice for the Huskies concluded with an intrasquad contest that pitted the first team defense against the second team offense, and vice versa. A score was kept, and statistics were recorded.
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Between 1961 and 1976, the spring game found the Huskies taking on former Huskies. The idea of dozens of retired guys gathering for maybe one practice before taking the field against college athletes in their prime sounds crazy today — it was crazy then — but the “alumni game” was a staple of the April sports calendar in Seattle, drawing as many as 30,000 fans to Husky Stadium.
About 29,000 fewer fans were on hand Saturday for an event as low key as the head coach who designed it. Paranoid might be an overstated way of describing Chris Petersen’s fear of, well, just about anything related to the publicizing of his football team, but it’s in the discussion.
Defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake explained the transformation of the Huskies 15th and final spring practice from “game” to “preview.”
“The last few years, we’ve watched our first opponent’s spring game from start to finish and had it completely cut up,” Lake said. “I know other people probably do that as well. We’re very guarded. If you follow our program, you know we’re guarded about a lot of things.
“Since we’ve been here, we haven’t faced the opponent we’re opening against,” continued Lake, referring to the Auburn Tigers. “We don’t want to give them anything. For us to have a full-on spring game and share all of our plays and all of our schemes with them, it doesn’t do us any service.”
Other programs aren’t quite as vigilant about minimizing exposure. Nebraska, for instance, schedules a spring game that approximates a typical autumn Saturday in Lincoln. A crowd of 86,818 recently showed up.
Florida State drew 60,934 to its spring game, which isn’t so much a game as a weekend festival replete with pop music acts. South Carolina played its spring game after Gamecock alums participated in a flag-football contest.
There’s ways to dress the spring game up, and ways to dumb it down. The Huskies prefer the latter approach.
“We had about 1,000 team reps during the first 14 practices, so we weren’t trying to have a long, drawn-out scrimmage,” said Lake. “Just give them live snaps in front of some fans, get the juices flowing a little bit.”
Football being football, and college athletes being college athletes, getting the juices flowing can pose, as Lake admitted “a delicate balance.
“With a live scrimmage, you sure don’t want to take anybody out, the way you might with a different opponent in a different colored jersey. I’m not saying we try to take opponents out, but it might be a touch more physical with some hits across the middle and those kinds of things.
“What we wanted to do today,” continued Lake, “is play at a high level and play fast. If everybody’s playing fast and playing at the same tempo, we shouldn’t get a lot of guys injured. It’s when you slow down — when some guys are playing faster than others — that guys get tripped up and get injured.”
As a further safeguard, the scrimmage largely was devoted to securing playing time for the second and third-team reserves.
“We talk about the next-man-up, carry-the-flag kind of mentality all the time,” said linebacker Tevis Bartlett. “You’re not going to make through the whole season with everybody healthy — that’s just not how football works. You have to have expectations for guys who are younger and three-deep on the depth chart, because everybody’s going to be counting on them at some point in the season.”
Although there wasn’t an abundance of electricity in Husky Stadium, the players clearly had fun during an offense-vs.-defense scrimmage that awarded points to the defense for various accomplishments. The final snap came down to a goal-line plunge stopped by the defense, whose teammates charged the field in celebration.
Lake wasn’t sure what happened.
“I saw our side cheering,” he said, “so I thought I should cheer, too.”
Next up for the Huskies: Auburn, on Sept. 1, in Atlanta. It will be real football, and then some.