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Petersen learning the ropes as head coach

During his first week of practice as the head coach at Boise State, Chris Petersen learned as much as any of his players.

Like how to cheer an interception by his defense.

The Broncos' former offensive coordinator, however, still has plenty to figure out about the finer points of being a head coach.

Like what to do with his whistle.

It was that kind of week for Petersen, who took over in January after Dan Hawkins' departure for Colorado.

"Every day is kind of new. I was kind of like a fish out of water, not having my own group to coach," Petersen said. "That will take some getting used to, not only my comfort level, but getting good at evaluating how practice is being run."

So far, so good. The Broncos' initial practices have been crisp, well-run affairs with solid pace and limited mistakes.

Instead of being tethered to a specific position, which Petersen has been at various coaching stops since 1989, his role now is to oversee the entire operation. You can tell he's feeling his way around the new freedom.

He spent much of Thursday's practice roaming between position groups and offense and defense. Only occasionally did he offer insight, stepping in during a wide receiver drill to illustrate a route.

But Petersen is wary of overreaching.

"That's one thing we've done so well here. The coaches have had tremendous ownership, and I want to keep that going," he said. "I want to direct traffic a little bit. But coaches have got to coach. They can't have someone stepping on their toes."

So Petersen wanders.

Instead of stopping practice to interject, he jots down notes on his practice plan. Questions, concerns, suggestions, tips — anything Petersen sees or thinks during the two-hour practice — he writes down.

And then there are the things he's picked up instinctively, from a life spent on the practice field.

Like his sudden lack of absolute hatred for all interceptions.

"Before if there was an interception, I was the maddest guy in the stadium. Now I'm looking at it like our defense made an interception.

I'm jumping on the side of the good stuff that happens," Petersen said.

That doesn't mean he's got it all figured out. Petersen carries a whistle. For what, he's not sure. He never used one as the offensive coordinator and he barely touches it as head coach.

Some old habits die hard.

And some don't.

The hardest thing for Petersen to give up is the teaching. Divorcing himself from the hands-on, day-to-day interaction with the players in meetings and on the field, the work that Petersen calls "the fun part, even more than the games," is proving difficult.

So Petersen is coaching the Broncos' punt and kickoff returners. His goal is to become special teams coach Jeff Choate's "right-hand man."

Petersen worked with the return game during his stint at Oregon, and he's going back and evaluating the schemes he used with the Ducks. He's calling coaches that he worked with then for advice.

It's invigorating work for Petersen, whose new role is much more principal than teacher.

Instead of conducting his own class, Petersen pops in on different meetings, evaluating how his coaching staff is performing.

"It's very apparent to me going to meeting to meeting — and it doesn't matter if it's math or chemistry or football — the guys that really teach well, it comes out loud and clear," he said. "It's no different than the second grade teacher. You can just see the whole class responds differently. This person has it."

His coaches, Petersen feels, have it. One indication: the lack of screaming and yelling at a typical practice.

"There's a lot of teaching going on out there, especially in the spring. When our guys are doing a good job, there's not a lot of reason to be yelling and screaming. When there is a lot of yelling and screaming, it means there's not as much teaching going on," Petersen said.

The coaches, not completely unlike teachers, have a stake in whether or not their students pass the test. However, there are some differences.

"We don't draw a bell-shaped curve," Petersen said. "When those guys fail on Saturday nights, we fail as well."

Petersen doesn't plan to fail. Preliminary indications are he won't.

Unless, of course, whistle use is on the final exam.