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Washington arriving ahead of schedule, but may not be ready for prime time

There are many reasons to smirk at the "Washington Huskies are back!" narrative. Start with the obvious: The Huskies went 7-6 last year, a record they've recorded four times over the past six years and one that earned former coach Steve Sarkisian the mocking title of "Seven-win Steve/Sark" before he went 9-4 in 2013 and bolted for his ill-fated tenure with the USC Trojans.

Further, there's predictable talk of "culture change" under third-year coach Chris Petersen, a hackneyed term volunteered just about every time a college football program changes head coaches. The new coach brings in "discipline" and an "attention to detail" that was previously lacking. The new coach will create a "family atmosphere." Offseason workouts will invariably become the most challenging and best attended in the history of the game.

If you are skeptical, you are not alone. In fact, count Petersen among the doubters. Or at least count him among those annoyed by the runaway optimism that seems to be building upon itself as a matter of competing hyperbole rather than something tangible.

At Pac-12 media days, after hearing his team was projected to finish second in the North Division, behind the projected conference champion Stanford Cardinal, he compared it to "the new Pokemon game that no one knows anything about, but thinks it's really cool ... that's us."

Clearly, Petersen was taking aim at the notion that his team had arrived as a bona fide Pac-12 contender.

"In some ways this offseason has been -- I don’t know the exact word -- comical? Frustrating? Ridiculous? In terms of what we’ve actually done and what people are saying that we will do," he said, "because we’ve got a long way to go.”

Ah, but Petersen is bobbing and weaving a bit. There was a gleam in his eye and an obvious comfort while talking about his team. He knows as well as anyone that there's a formidable foundation underneath the windy rhetoric.

The rhetoric that celebrates Petersen's "culture change" taking root doesn't actually feel that windy any longer. The distinctive features he has installed come up over and over again in conversation with players and coaches. There's "Commitment Time" and "OKGs" (Our Kind of Guys) and "Real Life Wednesday." Tight end Darrell Daniels holds up his hand with thumb and index finger half an inch apart when asked to imitate Petersen.

"He does this, 'It's the little things,'" Daniels said. "He says that a lot. He tells us it's all about the details."

While it's wise not to overvalue talk of a "culture change," Petersen merits some suspension of disbelief. He went 92-12 at Boise State and built a reputation of getting more from less by, well, consistently getting more from less.

Petersen has been careful not to take shots at what he inherited from Sarkisian, but it's also pretty clear that their management styles are different. That's why he wasn't as completely embraced by the locker room in Year 1 as he was by the fan base.

"There was a lot of head-butting," senior safety Kevin King said of the transition. "There were a lot of guys that didn’t want to come along, who were so used to Sark and what he did -- fifth-year seniors -- it’s kind of hard to change up like that."

Things came to a head in November of 2014 when Petersen kicked star cornerback Marcus Peters off the team. Peters would go on to be a first-round NFL draft pick and win Defensive Rookie of the Year for the Kansas City Chiefs, so booting him was a significant act for a first-year coach.

"We were like, 'Man, he’s serious.' He really cares about the culture of this team," King said. "That kind of stuff made us buy into his system. We didn't want that to happen to us.”

Said Petersen: "Those type of things are the most difficult -- worst part of the job. But in a lot of ways those are also the most important part of the job."

Petersen's obsession with details includes players going to class on time. Cut a class or show up late and a player gets stuck with "Commitment Time," which is a punitive study session from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday night -- or Saturday night during the season. "It's basically detention," said Daniels.

Details include required "Real Life Wednesday" sessions, when guest speakers cover topics that often have little to do with football X's and O's, such as respecting women, time management, social media and personal finance.

It's mandatory study tables for freshmen four nights a week.

It's not all dour and demanding, though. Petersen mixes in recreational competitions into practice routines, such as canoe races, sumo wrestling, tug-of-war and free throw contests.

The goal is to attract and then cultivate what he terms "OKGs." Petersen's recruiting efforts are proving to be productive, if not flashy, as the Huskies appear headed toward another top-30 class.Insider

Which leads into the most important justification for Husky Hype: personnel.

The Huskies have 15 position-player starters returning, including seven from the Pac-12's best defense in 2015. The secondary, led by corner Sidney Jones and safety Budda Baker, both All-America candidates, could be among the nation's best.

On offense, true sophomore quarterback Jake Browning could be projected as a more physically talented version of Kellen Moore, who, under Petersen, became the first quarterback in FBS history to win 50 games in his career. Four of five starters and a handful of key backups are back on an offensive line that paved the way for true sophomore running back Myles Gaskin to rush for 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago.

King and Daniels are both aware of Petersen's ongoing efforts to tamp down the preseason hype for a program that won seven conference titles and one national championship from 1980 to 2000 but hasn't won much of anything since. The players know what the media is saying and, after some middling years, admit to enjoying the attention. After all, high expectations mean something good is perceived to be happening around the program.

"It’s a weird dynamic," King said. "We’re trying to get that hype, and we all hear it. The thing about it, is we believe it. But we can't let it distract us from what we are trying to do. ... We're trying to take the hype and use it in a good way. And to block it out."

College football fans -- supporters and skeptics alike -- won't have to wait long for a ruling on hype versus substance. A visit from Stanford on Sept. 30 and then a trip to Northwest rival Oregon on Oct. 8 should provide a strong indication of the Huskies' North Division fortunes.

Media may be talking the talk -- sorry, Coach -- but it's up to the Huskies to walk the walk.