The Washington Huskies found themselves in a position they've never found themselves before on the opening weekend of the 2015 football season - starting a true freshman at quarterback. Instead of the soft landing you'd hope for in that situation, the Dawgs instead were on the road against Boise State in a nationally televised game versus a team with a tremendous homefield advantage. Whether you believe that Jake Browning started that game based on merit, or if it was due to an injury to Jeff Lindquist late in fall camp, doesn't really matter; Browning was The Man on the Blue that evening, and every game for which he was healthy throughout the 2015 season.
The storybook ending for that game didn't materialize, as the offense struggled to move the ball all night. The running game was almost entirely absent, and Browning wasn't able to link together plays in the passing game in order to get the Huskies in scoring position. But he was at his best with the game on the line, and even though his own costly mistake was the final nail in the failed game-tying drive at the end, Jake Browning showed that he was ready to take on football's glamour position at least a year earlier than the majority of Huskies fans would've guessed. And probably hoped.
If fans want to use the qualifier "for a true freshman" in describing Browning's year in 2015, then it was very good. Especially when you consider the rest of the Husky offense around him. Myles Gaskin was superlative at running back, and there's no discounting how much his effectiveness aided Browning's success and development throughout the last three quarters of the season, but outside of him, the only other "plus" player on the offense heading into the season may have been tight end Josh Perkins. The receiving corps and the offensive line were mostly young and unproven, and lacking in star power to begin with.
Objectively, Jake Browning was solid in 2015. He wasn't good enough to pull out victories in winnable games against Cal, Utah, or Arizona State (not to mention Boise State again), and his own struggles were key components in the losses. He was more "key cog" than "star" in wins against Arizona, Oregon State, WSU, and the bowl win over Southern Miss. But even in the history of quarterback play at the University of Washington, Browning's season - from an individual statistics standpoint - measures up favorably. His 2,955 yards are fifth most all-time at the UW, and he has the freshman record by nearly 1,000 yards. His 405 yards against Arizona State is the sixth-best single passing game from a yardage standpoint. He averaged 246.3 yards per game, which is fourth-best all time for a season. His 8.03 yards per attempt for the year is eighth-best in school history. He completed 63.3% of his passes, which is fifth best, and his 19.4 completions per game ties him for fourth best. His game against Oregon State (18-20 passing, 90.0% complete) is the second-best effort all-time at the UW. And his passer rating for the season of 139.7 is eighth best.
That's not a bad season for anybody. And when you add that qualifier....
Better. The only questions are how much, and in what ways.
It's not likely that any quarterback in Chris Petersen's offense is going to put up the video game-esque numbers a top-flight QB in an Air Raid attack might. Kellen Moore never broke 4,000 yards at Boise State, for example. Browning isn't going to do it in 2016. But he should show a significant increase in the number of touchdown passes, and a reduction in the percentage of interceptions thrown, which at 2.72% in 2015 was actually one of the better seasons in UW history. Of the single-season records he's most likely to threaten in 2016, Keith Price's passing efficiency record of 161.9 and yards per attempt (which has a very strong correlation with winning) of 8.46 seem the most likely.
A QB's success is most closely tied with winning in fans' minds, and if the Huskies don't show improvement in that regard in 2016, none of Jake Browning's individual success is going to matter. But that team success is more likely where Browning's real growth is going to manifest itself regardless; efficiency stats like points per play, redzone TD percentage, 3rd down conversion percentage, and improvement in advanced statitistics like offensive FEI and S&P are going to come as a direct result of Jake Browning's growth as a QB. Like Chris Petersen's offense in general, Browning's efficiency is at a premium over his explosiveness; the latter is a function of the former.
Even though Jeff Lindquist has moved to tight end, the Huskies don't actually "lose" anybody at the position in 2016. K.J. Carta-Samuels took every meaningful snap at the position when Browning wasn't available. As he's a year further along in his development, and has had some meaningful experience, he should be improved as Browning's primary backup. The rest of the depth is also a year further integrated into Petersen's system, and should be all the more capable to step in either for or ahead of Carta-Samuels as circumstances necessitate.
The biggest jump of Browning's career at the UW should come between 2015 and 2016. With a dominant defense and a very dependable running game, Browning's growth is the reason that this team shows improvement in the win column in 2016.