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Fall Camp Preview: Quarterbacks

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Penn State v Washington Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It was about this time in 2015 that most Husky fans figured Jake Browning (Sr., 6-2, 206) was headed to a redshirt season, as the buttoned-down Chris Petersen seemed overwhelmingly likely to favor age (even if inexperienced) over the true freshman—even one as decorated as Browning, and even though Browning had impressed coaches and teammates with his knowledge of the offense and his preparation since enrolling the previous January. Ultimately, Petersen zigged while most expected him to zag, and we prepare to enter the fall of 2018 with a quarterback that has started 39 of the last 40 Washington Husky football games.

The more years a quarterback starts at his school, the more polarizing he’s going to become, because “familiarity breeds contempt” among fans; the longer we see a quarterback play, the more opportunity we have to see (and then dwell on) his weaknesses, and see him fail. This is all the more so with a player like Jake Browning who has come very close to reaching his ceiling, and did so early on in his career.

Opinions about Browning aside, there’s no disputing that he’s firmly entrenched as the starter. With the departures of senior-to-be K.J. Carta-Samuels and redshirt sophomore Daniel Bridge-Gadd in the offseason, there was some concern about how the depth chart would shake out in the spring and beyond. Both Jacob Sirmon (tFr., 6-5, 223) and Colson Yankoff (tFr., 6-4, 211) were highly regarded members of the class of 2018, and both enrolled in time for spring practices. However, Jake Haener (rFr., 6-0, 196) was the presumptive #2 heading into spring, and only seemed to strengthen his hold on the spot by the break. Haener probably doesn’t (yet) inspire the confidence in the backup position the way that Carta-Samuels did, should Browning have gone down with an injury in 2016 or 2017; he has yet to see the field as a Husky, and at 6’ tall, he doesn’t fit the prototype fans want to see. But he can definitely throw the ball, and by most accounts, had the second-strongest arm of any of the quarterbacks during the spring. While he certainly didn’t garner as much attention during his recruiting as did any of the other quarterbacks, fans tend to forget that Haener was an Elite 11 finalist in 2016. Losing Jake Browning might lower the ceiling of Washington’s realistic goals as a team in 2018, but the depth isn’t as tenuous as it might appear.

The new rules regarding redshirting players could end up having an impact for the Huskies. If one or both of the true freshmen start to “get it” and make a push for the backup job in the second half of the season, Petersen and Bush Hamdan have the luxury of giving one or both snaps in up to four games at any point in the season. It isn’t likely to happen, because Haener will need all the snaps he can get in the early part of the season, but the option exists. While Sirmon and Yankoff both looked the part of “overwhelmed true freshmen” during the spring, they are each big, tall athletes with tremendous potential.

One member of the QB group not mentioned is redshirt sophomore-to-be Jacob Eason, the prodigal son returned this past winter from Georgia. Eason has to sit out the season as a transfer, so there’s no point putting him on the depth chart. But Eason showed flashes of his tremendous arm talent during the spring. If nothing else, Washington’s defense will get to work against one of the best scout team quarterbacks in the country in 2018. Hopefully Eason can embrace that role, and then be ready to engage in what will be an incredibly hot quarterback battle at Washington heading into 2019.

But the future is now for this Husky team, and Washington finds itself in that tier of teams right behind the absolute cream of the crop. Not an obvious playoff entrant like Alabama, but one of the next group of eight or so teams with talent and a clear path to the title, albeit with obvious flaws that they’ll need to overcome along the way. Getting there means a healthy Jake Browning, a luxury the team lacked for sure in the last half of 2016, and probably not again last season (even if it wasn’t due to something as obvious as the rotator cuff injury the year prior). At least as importantly, it means health in the receiving corps. That was most definitely something the Huskies lacked in 2017, as injuries hurt the playmakers in the passing game early (Andre Baccellia, Chico McClatcher) and often (Quinten Pounds, Drew Sample, Hunter Bryant, Dante Pettis).

It’s likely no quarterback could’ve overcome those losses last season on his own, given the overall state of the rest of the receiving corps, but that definitely isn’t Browning’s game. Browning is a facilitator and a distributor for the offense more than he is a playmaker in his own right. He’s less the engine that drives the offense than he is a barometer of its overall health. While that sounds somewhat like a slight of Browning’s abilities, it’s really not. Browning isn’t a “carry a team on his back” guy; he’s someone that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. It’s very rare to find both of those traits in the same package in a quarterback. But in terms of quarterbacks whose effectiveness is designed around efficiency of play, nobody has been better at Washington. Browning will almost undoubtedly leave with a host of career and season records for the Huskies, and not just those based on his longevity. Assuming a “normal” season for him in 2018, he’ll leave as the career leader in passing efficiency, and all four of his seasons will be in the top 10 all-time at Washington. He’ll have the highest career completion percentage, and again all four of his seasons will be in the top 10. He’ll have the second-highest career Yards per Pass Attempt, and will have the single-season record, quite possibly the top two single seasons, and all four years will be in the top 11. He currently has the lowest career interception percentage. He already has the career lead in TD passes, and the single-season record. He’ll probably leave as the career leader in passing yards, and each of his four seasons will be top 10 all-time.

For all the hand-wringing about Jake Browning’s play in 2017, he was actually a very similar quarterback to 2016. It was largely the lack of big plays last season that made his “totals” stats look so pedestrian by comparison to his sophomore year. Browning was actually a more efficient quarterback on third down last season, took better care of the ball, and while no one likes the long, loopy scrambles to which he has been prone throughout his career when pressured, Browning actually did an excellent job of avoiding putting the team behind the chains early in drives (and really, of avoiding sacks in general): of the 19 sacks he took in 2017, only five came on the 258 pass attempts he made on first and second downs. 14 obviously then came on third down (feel free to check the math), and nine of those came with more than six yards to go. That suggests that when Browning took sacks, most of the time it was when any other alternative other than taking the risk to make a play meant punting the ball. Whether the team punts on 4th and 4 or 4th and 14 isn’t of tremendous consequence (but that really isn’t to excuse the sacks).

Jake Browning likely won’t equal the 43 touchdowns he threw in 2016, but a successful season in 2018 will look something like this: Healthy throughout, obviously. 3,500 yards at 9.0 yards per attempt, with 35 TDs and 5 (or fewer) INTs. Maybe another five TDs on the ground (fun but useless fact: if you took the 11 seasons of Browning’s, Jake Locker’s, and Marques Tuiasosopo’s careers, the seven rushing TDs Browning had in 2017 would be in a tie for the second-most of any of those years). Those numbers won’t win him the Heisman, but they probably win the Huskies the Pac 12, and a spot in the playoffs. At that point, anything can happen.