SEATTLE—Washington coach Chris Petersen feels settled entering his second year on the job, and he has cherished relative anonymity in his new city and the occasional boat commute to Husky Stadium. Petersen finished 8-6 in his Huskies debut on the heels of one the most successful stints in college football history, when he went 92-12 during his eight-year tenure at Boise State. He now prepares for another season of significant transition at Washington, as the Huskies lose three defensive players who project as first-round NFL draft picks, have an impending quarterback battle and need to completely overhaul their offensive and defensive lines.
In a wide-ranging interview in his office, Petersen touched on his recruiting philosophy, his return to Boise for the 2015 season opener, his thoughts on Shaq Thompson’s ideal NFL position and much more.
SI: Living here, I’d imagine a lot more people recognize Pete Carroll than Coach Pete. I know you don’t mind. Have you found more anonymity here?
Chris Petersen: It has been the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the move that I just blend in. Literally half of the people who recognize me here are from Boise. Honest to God. That’s the truth. This weekend we took the ferry to Bainbridge Island, and someone says, “Hey coach, can we get a picture? I’m from Idaho, and my dad is a big Boise State fan.”
SI: Now that you’ve been here for a year, have you done anything that is quintessentially Seattle?
CP: Look out at the lake right behind the scoreboard. I live right across the 520 bridge. Because they’re building this new one, they’ll shut down the old one. That happened this summer. You have to go around. It’s 20 minutes instead of taking me eight minutes to get here. Jimmy Lake, our defensive backs coach, and Bob Gregory, our linebackers coach, we all live over there. Jimmy has a boat, so I would drive my car down and jump in his boat and we’d have coffee driving over in the summer. We couldn’t get over the bridge, so we legitimately had to do it. And then we’d do our summer camp and have a Pepsi on the way back over. And it’s just like, “Does this get any better? This is how we’re commuting to work.”
SI: How long are you on the water?
CP: Because he had his boat ready and was at the marina, it was too short. But it was 15 minutes. Just going very slowly across the water. We saw a bald eagle and a seal. It was really cool.
SI: Your first full recruiting class was well received by the experts. Yet if anyone isn’t a “star guy” with prospects, it’s you. What are your thoughts on your haul?
CP: I’m probably less of a “star guy” now than I ever was, seeing what some of these guys are rated and what I think they are. I mean, just going back. I was like, “I wonder what this guy was rated?” Our opinion and what other people thought were completely different. But across the board, the guys we signed, we feel really, really positive about them.
SI: Give me a sleeper from your recruiting class.
CP: I don’t know if there are sleepers. But I think that a couple of the linemen that we recruited—Trey Adams out of Wenatchee and Henry Roberts from right here (in Bellevue). What happens in this deal is that when guys don’t take a bunch of trips, or they don’t let the recruiting process go on, their value doesn’t go up. Some of these guys are some of the better players I’ve seen in a long time, yet were O.K. rated by certain people. Trey, I think, has been committed since he was like a sophomore in high school. He took no trips, but this guy is one heck of a player.
SI: Looking at the Pac-12 this year, I think USC is flying a little bit under the radar. How do you see the league this season?
CP: I think if you are in the Pac-12 you wouldn’t think that because you know who USC recruited last year and this year.
SI: What do you think of the Oregon quarterback situation? I think that’s interesting from a football standpoint.
CP: I think you probably said it right. I think it’s interesting.
SI: You open the 2015 season on Sept. 4 at Boise. It’s a place that’s special to you for a lot of reasons, both the school and the city. I know you will be asked this 6,000 times before the game, but what are your thoughts about going back?
CP: How many Division I teams are there? Around 130? There are 129 places that I could be going. That’s the last place I’d prefer to go. It’s weird how things work out, it really is. I think it’ll be great, and I think for the fans and players it will be. I know what it’s like when a Pac-12 [team] comes over and the emotion it generates. For me personally, there are a lot of different places I wish I were headed.
SI: There are three Washington players who could go in the first round of the NFL draft. Let’s start with Shaq Thompson. Where do you think he’ll play in the pros?
CP: You know, I think he’s a safety that drops down like a linebacker. That’s what I think he is. He can tackle like a linebacker. He’s pretty explosive. He’s a physical guy. I know he sees himself as a linebacker. That’s where he spent the last three years. What do I think is his best position? Running back. I know he doesn’t want to do that. He probably wants to play longer. He knows the shelf life of running backs. He’s just so unique because he’s just a football player.
SI: You have always coached creatively. What do you think about the proliferation of hybrid and two-way players?
CP: I think the guys like it. There’s numerous reasons. Even like this: We don’t use a fullback much. But we’ll bring a defensive lineman over as a fullback. The guy, the whole practice he’s bugging me, ”Is my play up? Is my play up?” I’m like, “We’ll get you.” They just like doing something different. It breaks up the monotony. We did that at Boise, and those guys when we’d put them in, they’d always execute.
SI: Defensive tackle Danny Shelton had a great year for you and is projected as a top-10 pick. I didn’t realize he was a first-team academic All-American, too. What can an NFL team expect from him?
CP: He’s the first first-team academic All-American Washington has had in 23 years. I think this has been under the radar much more than it should be. He’s a first-team football All-American and first-team academic All-American. He’s so smart and he’s tough and he’s been durable. You put all that together.
SI: Marcus Peters is an interesting case. You threw him off the team in November. He was a buzz guy at the combine. What is his talent level?
CP: He’s a talented guy. I think everyone is always trying to find corners and pass rushers. It’s all about learning from mistakes and moving forward. Hopefully Marcus has learned and will be a good pro. I always think it’s everything. It’s not just talent. So, that’s what I think, that it all fits together. I know he has the ability.
SI: We talked this summer about the importance of building team camaraderie, from hosting kayak races to placing lockers in a way to facilitate interaction between guys who normally might not. How is that coming along?
CP: I feel like we’ve made progress in all those things. I think it’s as important as anything we’ll do here. We’re not there yet. Some of the people we’ve talked to that are experts in team-building and culture really said it’s two years. Or 18 months to 24 months, depending on how far away it was from what you envisioned. We’ve made progress, but we’ve still got a ways to go.
SI: Reflecting on your first year on the job, was there anything you didn’t expect?
CP: No. I think one thing was a little bit surprising about our team. We had some really good players and some really big holes. That was surprising. We had Shaq and Danny and these guys who played for a long time. And then our secondary, nobody. We had three freshmen and a wide receiver converted (at cornerback after Peters was dismissed).
SI: That’s stunning. It’s not like teams shy away from passing in the Pac-12.
CP: Yeah. And then when you look at your roster and who you’re losing. Keith Price was a really good college player. You couple that with Bishop Sankey out of that backfield. I didn’t know how the whole thing would shake down on that. I did know how good and how much parity there is in the Pac-12. That was not surprising. That was what I thought. On any given day, anyone can beat anyone. You just look, that is what’s different. I knew that coming in. I said from the day I took the job, my football life got significantly harder. That was no different.
SI: I’d imagine a big theme of spring practice would be filling the holes on your roster. Let’s start at quarterback. You have declared it an open competition. Cyler Miles had a very good year. You brought in a blue-chipper and have two other good quarterbacks in your program. Where does the race stand?
CP: I’m anxious to see it. I can’t wait. Two of the young guys that are in here (true freshman Jake Browning and redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels) are as hungry as anyone in the program. They’re in here morning, noon and night watching tape. Those guys are in here all the time, and there’s the other kids that have been here (Miles and Jeff Lindquist). Let’s see what this competition brings out.
SI: Can you expand on Cyler a little bit? He experienced some off-field issues, but his numbers (66.6% completion rate with 17 touchdowns and four interceptions) were pretty solid last season. What’s the latest with him?
CP: So, Cyler did some really difficult things well. And some of the things that we think aren’t so difficult we have to get him to lock in and execute. I’ve always said this: I think it can be hard sometimes for a running and scrambling quarterback to really develop into a passer because they can get so much stuff done with their legs. That’s really what I saw. He got us out of a lot of trouble. But he also could have hung in there and completed some easier passes. That’s what we need to see him take the next step in.
SI: Your most pressing needs come along both of the lines. You lose four starters on the offensive line and essentially all of the defensive line. Where do you feel you are with both of those position groups?
CP: I think the offensive line we have enough guys. We have some upperclassmen who have played sporadically and started games. We have some young talent that redshirted we like. I think in the offensive line we’re going to be fine. The defensive line is a bigger concern. When you lose Danny, who is as good as anyone out there. You lose Hau’oli Kikaha, who led the nation in sacks. You lose two other seniors that played really solid football. With that being said, we have some guys who’ve been here a couple years and a couple guys that redshirted that we think have some good potential. We’re anxious to see what they’re going to do. But on that defensive line, that’s a lot of firepower that walked out of here.
SI: Looking at your 2015 recruiting class, one of the most fascinating prospects is Tevis Bartlett. He won four state wrestling titles in Wyoming, which is really impressive. Why do you like wrestlers so much?
CP: I know how tough wrestlers are. There is no hiding when you’re a wrestler. You can hide on the basketball court sometimes. You can hide on the football field. You cannot hide on the mat. I know that from experience. I’ve always had a lot of respect for the wrestlers. He’s an elite wrestler, a scholarship wrestler, if he chose to do that.