Jake Browning’s breakout performance against Arizona on Saturday underlined not only how tough he was, but how far he has come in his first season as the Washington Huskies’ quarterback.
Chris Petersen paid Jake Browning a backhanded compliment this week, but it was actually high praise from the coach.
Browning has such astute awareness on the field, Petersen said, that when he misses a read, or a receiver, the coach’s first inclination is to say, “What’s going on out there?”
Browning’s mental lapses, in other words, have become the aberration, not the norm, which is a huge sign of progress for a first-year quarterback.
“I say that as a sign of respect for that kid,’’ Petersen said. “We don’t think of him as a freshman, because I think he sees things pretty well.”
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Browning is coming of age before our eyes, and it’s a glorious sight for Washington fans. The haste of his development not only bodes extremely well for the Huskies’ future, but it’s making their present a lot of fun, too.
Browning’s progress coalesced Saturday in Washington’s 49-3 rout of Arizona. Back after missing a week to nurse a shoulder injury, he completed 16 of 24 passes for 263 yards and four touchdowns (to four different players). Browning had a superb 213.7 QB rating in the game and added a 12-yard touchdown run for good measure.
Granted, Arizona is a team on a downward spiral, but Browning’s value to the Huskies was accentuated by his absence. It’s fair to wonder if the previous two games, both losses, would have had different outcomes if he hadn’t gotten hurt late in the Oregon game. Browning missed Washington’s final possession against the Ducks, when the Huskies got the ball back at their own 20 with 1:11 to play, trailing 26-20, and then sat out the Stanford game, a 31-14 defeat in which Washington generated just 118 passing yards.
The fact that Browning nearly played against Stanford, and excelled against Arizona despite the lingering effects of the injury, provided another opportunity for Petersen to showcase his attributes.
“This guy is as tough as they come,’’ he said. “Don’t let the schoolboy looks fool you; this guy is competitive … I don’t know how many guys would have even played, and played at that level, with what he had going on. He’s got to be able to practice to play, so I don’t think practice was all that fun for him in terms of pain tolerance.”
That’s not to say Browning is a finished project, just that the growing pains — and they’ve been glaringly evident at times — should begin transforming into growing gains at a much faster pace.
“As well as he played, he still left a few things on the table there that we were trying to get him to do,’’ Petersen said after the Arizona game. “Some little things that can make a big difference. I think he’s getting more confident each week.”
But when I asked Petersen on Monday if the Arizona game emboldened him to expand Browning’s responsibilities, his answer was basically: Been there, done that already. Except for the first game, Browning’s collegiate debut against Boise State, Petersen and his staff haven’t held back the game plan on his behalf — another high compliment.
“He’s not the limiting factor in terms of what we do,’’ Petersen said. “All those guys have to work as a crew, all 11 of them. And he’s not going to slow the crew down.”
In a related development, the Huskies’ young offensive line — they start a freshman, two sophomores, a junior and a senior — turned in an encouraging performance Saturday against Arizona.
Petersen noted that the linemen’s fundamentals and knowledge of the system are growing slowly but steadily. That should go hand-in-hand with Browning’s visible progress, though both those aspects — Browning’s performance, and the protection he’s afforded — will face a far greater challenge on Saturday against Utah.
“I think the guy throws the ball really, really well,’’ Petersen said. “I’ve said it all along: As long as he can set his feet and have a chance to see things, he’s going to find people if they are open, and he’s going to throw it pretty accurate. So I keep going back to our O-line, who I think did a pretty nice job for the most part.”
Eight weeks into his inaugural season, the future looks brighter than ever for Browning, a true freshman on the horizon of a true breakout.