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15 in ’15: The Future of Washington Football is Here, and Its Name is Jake Browning

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Chris Petersen’s second season was marked by many bold decisions, perhaps none more important than starting the first true freshman quarterback in a season opener in program history.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The months separating September 2011 and July 2012 were not good ones for the leadership of Yahoo Inc., to put it mildly.

The company began that period by firing CEO Carol Bartz, whose tenure is best remembered for the time she told a tech journalist to "f*** off" at a live event; subsequently, the board of directors brought in two other CEOs, Scott Thompson and Ross Levinsohn, whose combined tenures lasted a paltry seven months. With stock prices hovering around $12, down significantly from the $30 price that had been the company's norm just a few years prior, it became abundantly clear that Yahoo was in sore need of quality leadership.

In such a scenario, conventional decisionmaking would decree that the board recruit an elder statesman-style CEO with a proven track record of turning companies around and instilling a positive culture while creating new and innovative products. After all, the instinct to play it safe and stick with what you know following a period of underperformance can be overwhelming for leaders in any organization, be it a multinational corporation or, say, a Power Five college football program.

The instinct to play it safe and stick with what you know following a period of underperformance can be overwhelming.

But that's not what Yahoo did. Instead, the company's board gambled on Google's 37-year-old rising phenom Marissa Mayer, who refocused Yahoo's business model on boosting revenue from mobile advertisements by correctly anticipating the increasing market share that phone and tablet viewing play in modern media consumption. In short, Yahoo's board of directors decided that Mayer's youthful perspective and leadership would bring the company into a bold new direction, and presented a greater opportunity for future success than would be possible by sticking to the tried-and-true practices of what they already knew. And though her leadership has come under attack in recent months, it's difficult to argue that Mayer's time as CEO hasn't been successful when Yahoo's stock has tripled its value since the time of her arrival.

Likewise,  entering the 2015 season, Chris Petersen faced a similar dilemma as the Yahoo board did before making that fateful hiring in 2012. On the heels of a disappointing 2014 campaign in which Cyler Miles led an offensive attack that ranked a pitiful 10th in the conference and 77th in the country, Petersen was suddenly faced with the prospect of breaking in a new starting quarterback for the second consecutive year following Miles' unexpected medical retirement. Waiting in the wings were a pair of acclaimed replacement candidates: Specifically, former four-star Elite 11 prospects K.J. Carta-Samuels and Jeff Lindquist. Many observers—€”myself included—€”expected Lindquist to earn the job while Coach Petersen's lauded 2015 quarterback signee took the opportunity to redshirt, adjust to the speed of the college game, and take the offense's reins sometime in the next few years.

That, of course, is not what came to pass. Instead of giving the nod to either of his more seasoned players, Chris Petersen rolled the dice by making Jake Browning the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener in Husky football's 126-year history.

(It's worth noting here that while many would describe Petersen's selection of Browning as surprising, few would call it shocking. After all, as a high school senior, Browning threw 90 touchdowns, a national record, against seven interceptions in 16 games for 5,790 yards. That level of production earned him back-to-back Gatorade California State Player of the Year honors as a junior and senior, and his career totals of 1,191 completions in 1,708 attempts for 16,775 yards and 229 touchdowns are all California state high school records.)

Browning's first start, on the road against the Boise State Broncos whose rise to prominence is Petersen's claim to fame, went about as well as you would expect for a 19-year-old freshman playing his first 60 minutes of college football, and away from his home turf at that. The Huskies produced just 179 total yards and zero points on offense, and Browning threw for a miserable 4.3 yards per attempt and an interception. His early season struggles hit their nadir in Washington's 24-30 home loss to Cal, in which Browning threw for 5.4 yards per attempt and two picks in what was arguably his worst game of the season.

After sitting out the Stanford game with an injury, though, Browning's game began to click. In the final six games of the season, Browning threw 11 touchdowns against five interceptions while leading the Huskies to four wins and two losses, including a 49-3 shellacking of the Arizona Wildcats, a 52-7 romp over the Oregon State Beavers, and a 45-10 thrashing of the Washington State Cougars.

Largely on the strength of that impressive finish to the end of the season, the Huskies seem to be the favorite team of many in the media to elevate their station and make a credible run toward the Pac-12 championship; in particular, SB Nation's Bill Connelly expects them to finish as the 10th-best team in the nation. Considering that Washington returns most of its starters from a championship-level defense as well as nearly all key pieces of its 2015 offense, it's finally plausible to believe that the pieces for such a move are in place.

Unsurprisingly, a huge factor in that projection is the return of Jake Browning at quarterback. It's a futile exercise to guess how the Huskies would have finished 2015, or how they would be positioned entering 2016, if Browning had spent the season redshirting while Lindquist or Carta-Samuels started. What we do know, however, is that Chris Petersen took a gamble in 2015 by starting Jake Browning, his own young rising phenom, and that it is a gamble positioned as well as any in the sport to pay off.