Michael Penix Jr. is still in the race.
From Florida to Indiana to Washington, he’s been hardened by the hurdles.
Each of the 6-foot-3, 214-pound quarterback’s four collegiate seasons have ended with injuries — torn ACLs in 2018 and 2020, a sternoclavicular joint (connecting the clavicle to the sternum) injury in 2019, and an AC joint shoulder issue in 2021. All told, the two-time captain and 2020 All-Big Ten second-team selection completed 59.4% of his passes for 4,197 yards, 35 total touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 20 career games at Indiana.
But he never played in more than six games in a season.
Which is why Penix Jr. has plenty to prove at Washington.
To coaches. To teammates. To fans.
But not to himself.
“He knows who he is,” Penix Jr.’s father, Michael Penix Sr., told The Times on Friday. “I always told him once he finds out who he really is and he puts his all into it, he can accomplish anything.
“He’s not afraid of any task. I think he lives a life with no worries and no fears. He has endurance. He understands that the race is a long race, and everything that’s happened in the past is what makes him who he is now. The person he is now is a stronger person than he was two or three years ago.”
If anyone can see the difference, it’s Kalen DeBoer. UW’s first-year head coach spent a single season as Indiana’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2019, helping the lefty complete 68.8% of his passes — a program record — with 1,394 passing yards, 10 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
Now, Penix Jr. is hoping that partnership yields continued success, now in Pac-12 play.
“With the spread offense and getting the ball out of my hand, I felt comfortable,” Penix Jr. said of his previous success in DeBoer’s system. “Every throw I made I felt 100% comfortable with. I always knew that they were going to try to get us in the best situation. Not saying that anybody else didn’t, but I felt like this was the best opportunity.
“Coming up here on a visit and meeting some of the guys, they’re great guys. We’ve got a lot of great athletes here as well. I’m surrounded by a lot of positivity. I feel like it’s definitely going to pay off in the end.”
Which is why Penix Jr. — a Tampa product who had never been to Seattle — wound up at Washington, more than 3,000 miles from home.
“When he said he wanted to go there, we said, ‘Great.’ Because we like DeBoer as well,” Penix Sr. said. “It wasn’t any problem with us, him going that far. We’re so used to him not being around anyway, and he always makes good decisions on where he needs to go and when he needs to go. I know he prayed about it. If he believes that, then that’s where he needs to go.”
Plus, the Huskies could certainly use the help. Coming off a 4-8 season and a coaching change, sophomore Dylan Morris and redshirt freshman Sam Huard will compete with Penix Jr. for the starting quarterback spot. The trio will receive identical reps with the first-team offense in UW’s first four practices, offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said this week.
But Penix Jr.’s prior experience in the offense cannot be ignored.
“It’s continuing to focus on other things now,” Penix Jr. said of his priorities this spring. “I have the offense in my head already, so let me focus on certain protections I need to get right and blitzes and different things they do here in the Pac-12.”
Of course, Penix Jr.’s focus is also on his health — on clearing the coming hurdles.
“I think we’ve done a good job, between (strength) coach (Ron) McKeefery and Daren (Nystrom, trainer), of really trying to assess (his injury history) and go all in on what we know,” Grubb said Monday. “We treat it as a factual situation, where we have (current UW tight ends coach and former IU offensive coordinator Nick) Sheridan and coach DeBoer, who were around Michael at those particular times and try to think about, ‘All right, what is it that led to this?’
“There definitely was an element of bad luck. Injuries happen, and for Mike that absolutely has been a piece. But now all we can really do is focus on understanding the past and what has happened and work forward to figuring out, ‘OK, what is it that gives us our best chance to keep him healthy?’ I know Mike and our training staff are working hard at that.”
Friday, when asked if he’s completely healthy, Penix Jr. said, “I feel great,” with a widening grin.
The injuries, it seems, have not punctured Penix Jr.’s confidence or personal belief.
Nor have they affected the way he plays.
“He’s played quarterback since he was 6 or 7 years old. He was the only quarterback I knew at that age that would stay in the pocket,” Penix Sr. said with a booming laugh. “Because most quarterbacks would take off running at that age. It was crazy, people used to tell him to run, because he was the fastest person on the field. But he’d just stand back there and wait for his man to come open. He just had no worries and no fears in the pocket.”
Fast-forward 15 years, and Penix Jr. — once a track star at Tampa Bay Tech — has rushed for just 165 yards in four collegiate seasons. Penix Sr. added that “if you’re his receiver, you’re going to love him, because you know you’re going to get it. The way he operates on the field, you see some quarterbacks target one receiver all the time. He’ll throw the ball to the open man in any situation in the game.”
In some ways, Penix Jr. is still the same patient passer he was at 7 years old.
But the injuries, if nothing else, have provided perspective.
“He’s not a kid anymore. He’s transitioned into who he needs to be. He’s transitioned into a man now,” Penix Sr. said. “With all of these injuries and all these things that happened to him, it made him a stronger player, a smarter player. His mindset is on a different level right now.”
In a familiar system — and an unfamiliar place — it’s time for Michael Penix Jr. to finish the race.
“I expect big things from him, because I know he’s got big things in him,” Penix Sr. said of his son. “I think he’s a special talent, and he’s a talent from God. I know he’s going to do great things at Washington.”