In many ways, new University of Washington football Chris Petersen walked into a gold mine.
He inherits a Husky team teeming with elite talent on both sides of the ball, an opportune parting gift from Steve Sarkisian. He plays in the most picturesque stadium in the country, with a first-year schedule conducive to a running start.
But what Petersen doesn’t have is an established, experienced quarterback. In that, the Huskies are a distinct minority in a Pac-12 Conference loaded with elite signal-callers, from Heisman candidates Marcus Mariota at Oregon and Brett Hundley at UCLA, on down to Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, Washington State’s Connor Halliday, Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly, USC’s Cody Kessler and Oregon State’s Sean Mannion.
In fact, Washington and Arizona are the only two Pac-12 schools without a returning starter. Petersen’s success in replacing Keith Price, a three-year starter who graduated with 8,921 passing yards and a school-record 75 touchdowns, will go a long way in determining the success of his inaugural season in Montlake.
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“It’s such a huge piece of what we’re trying to do,’’ said Jonathan Smith, Petersen’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “We’ve got to get good play out of that position.”
Fall camp opened with the job wide open among three candidates: sophomores Cyler Miles and Jeff Lindquist, and redshirt freshman Troy Williams.
Complicating matters is the fact that Miles, who has the most experience of the trio, missed all of spring practice, and was suspended for the Aug. 30 opener against Hawaii for his role in two post-Super Bowl altercations. That means the mystery won’t be solved once a starter is named for the first game. As Petersen said at the outset of camp, “Everybody’s going to keep competing.”
The good news is that all three candidates have definite strengths that the Huskies hope will make the choice come down to eliminating worthy players, rather than choosing the lesser of three evils.
The better news is that Petersen has shown throughout his career a deft touch in identifying and developing young quarterback talent. His prize pupils at Boise State included Kellen Moore, who twice led the nation in passing efficiency; Ryan Dinwiddie, who finished as the NCAA’s career passing efficiency leader with a rating of 168.19; and Jared Zabransky, who had a 32-5 record as the Broncos’ starter.
To be sure, Petersen has other challenges to deal with, like molding a secondary around Marcus Peters, and finding a running back (or a committee of them) to replace All-American Bishop Sankey. But getting the quarterback decision right, and developing the winner into a poised and dynamic leader, is paramount.
“It is exciting, because it’s a new steppingstone for the University of Washington football program, and a new face for this program,’’ said junior wide receiver Jaydon Mickens. “Because the quarterback is the team; he drives the team.”
Mickens added, “Whoever steps in, we’re going to be in good hands, just like Allstate.”
I’d be surprised if Miles, who led a spirited but ultimately unsuccessful second-half comeback at UCLA after Price was injured, and then started the next week at Oregon State and produced a 69-27 victory, doesn’t eventually emerge as the man. But he has been playing catch-up this fall after missing valuable time in the spring.
When a reporter asked Petersen at the outset of camp how far behind Miles was, the coach turned the question around.
“How well do you know our offense?” he asked the reporter.
The reply was, “barely,” to which Petersen said: “Yup. That’s where Cyler is.”
Lindquist and Williams have credentials of their own. Lindquist passed for more than 6,000 yards and rushed for more than 2,500 at Mercer Island High School, while Williams was an All-State player in California coming out of Narbonne High School, where he led his team to a 14-1 record and the Los Angeles City Section Division I championship as a senior.
Quarterback controversies, of course, have unsettled many a team throughout the annals of football, but there’s no rule that every competition has to turn into a controversy. Then again, as Smith acknowledged, “We’ve got to get this right, and that’s why we’re taking our time.”
It’s Petersen’s first major challenge as Huskies coach. And perhaps his most vital.