The unquestioned leader of the team is more at ease speaking up and also has become more diligent about his diet and workouts as the Huskies begin fall camp.
There isn’t much to nitpick when reflecting on Jake Browning’s 2016 season. Not when he broke seven Washington passing records, finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting and led the Huskies to their first outright conference championship in 25 years.
But Browning has heard some of the critics this offseason who point to his underwhelming performances in UW’s two losses last season, to USC and Alabama. They were the only blemishes in an otherwise charmed season for Browning and the Huskies.
“I hear all the ‘big game’ stuff,” Browning said. “But, first of all, what do you qualify as a big game? Because, for me personally, Wazzu was a pretty big game. Stanford was a big game. Pretty much every game is a big game. So if you want to make a story out of something, it’s always there. I’m not spending much time thinking about it.
“I’m thinking play by play, how can I get better?”
Against USC, Browning had his lowest-rated game of the regular season (105.7), throwing one touchdown and two interceptions in the 26-13 loss at Husky Stadium.
In the national semifinal against Alabama, he had a quarterback rating of 83.9 — by far his lowest of the season — against what coach Chris Petersen has said is the best college defense he’s ever seen. Alabama’s defensive front had its way with UW’s offensive line, and Browning played that game with a busted throwing shoulder that would require surgery a couple of weeks later.
“A lot of those games, especially when you’re playing good teams like that, you’ve got three to five plays that change the whole game,” Browning said. “If you convert those, well, then (the criticism) is something else. There’s always something you’re not doing right. That’s just what happens when you’re the guy in the spotlight.”
By all accounts, Browning has grown more comfortable in that spotlight. As one of two player representatives from UW at Pac-12 media days last week in Hollywood, Browning sat upright at a stage and spoke with confidence. During interviews in the past, he often sat with his shoulders slumped and mumbled through hesitant answers, fearing he might say something he shouldn’t.
He’s more comfortable speaking up in the locker room now, too. Entering his third year as the starting QB, he is the unquestioned leader of the offense.
“He’s at a place now where he can truly be a leader of this team,” Petersen said. “It’s really hard to be a leader when (as a young player) you’re really just trying to figure your own thing out. … Even as a sophomore, there’s just so much pressure on him. So he’s on the next thing. He’s been through the process, been through the grind, and he understands how it goes.”
Browning says he is 100 percent healed from January shoulder surgery — the first surgery of his life. He admits he has been a bit annoyed at the attention given his shoulder.
“It’s not like I had some major surgery. If it was my left shoulder, no one would care,” he said. “Since it was my right, even I’m focused on it a little more, but it’s just more to make sure I get back to where I need to be and be even better than it used to be.”
Petersen and head trainer Robert Scheidegger this season implemented a new throwing program for Browning and the rest of the quarterbacks. Petersen said the new routine is less a reaction to Browning’s surgery and more about the program’s search for constant improvement. (In the same vein, Petersen pointed to strength and conditioning coach Tim Socha, who even after last year’s success “totally revamped” the team’s offseason workout program.)
Browning, who has been accepted into UW’s Foster School of Business and will study finance, has added a few pounds, up to 210, since resuming full workouts this spring. Watching former teammates such as Budda Baker prepare for the NFL draft made Browning realize he needed to be more dedicated and more diligent about his diet and his workouts.
“Before, I just ate and was like, ‘Whatever, I don’t care.’ I’d eat whatever was easiest and cheap,” he said. “But I’m more committed to it. You push yourself more.
“Half of it is nutrition. The way I started looking at it was, I was doing all this work — waking up at 5:30 a.m. to go work out — and then I’d get done with my workout and waste half of that workout by going and eating a bunch of fast food. You’ve got to eat a little bit healthier, some chicken and rice. It’s not that hard. It’s just putting in the effort.”
Browning continues to have high expectations of himself, and his team. He won’t detail those publicly, instead following Petersen’s credo to talk less and do more.
“Those guys coming in and saying, ‘I want to win this (award), I want to do this, I want, I want, I want …’ But you’re not doing anything if the team doesn’t do well, I don’t care who you are,” Browning said. “Especially the quarterback. You have so much influence. … Someone asked me, ‘Well, don’t you wish you won the Heisman? Don’t you want to be a Heisman finalist?’ Man, if I’m a Heisman finalist, we’re going to have a good season. And in order for us to have a good season, I’ve got to play well.”