The Huskies’ focus must pivot from proving they’re for real (though some of that obviously remains) to showing they can withstand the new barrage of attention that is hurtling their way as something of a national darling.
In recalling the wooing of Jake Browning, Washington coach Chris Petersen admits he’s not sure whether to say the remarkably accomplished high-school quarterback “flew above or below the recruiting radar.”
That is to say, everyone wanted a piece of him as a phenom at Folsom High School, but Browning wanted no part of the recruiting hustle. He didn’t attend the elite quarterback camps, as so many prep stars do to flaunt their profile.
“He wasn’t into that,’’ Petersen recalled. “It was unique from a star in terms of all that kind of stuff. Jake is who he is. He doesn’t get too high or low. He’s not in this thing for headlines. He proved that in high school, and he’s continued that since he’s been here.”
And here Browning is, once again, flying above or below the radar, depending on how you look at it. Suddenly, Browning is the “it” quarterback in college football, zooming onto everyone’s Heisman Trophy watch lists after yet another devastatingly efficient performance in Washington’s 70-21 rout of Oregon.
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At halftime of the Oregon game, Fox analyst Matt Leinart, a former Heisman winner at USC, told viewers he had Browning No. 2 on his ballot. So do Fox’s Stewart Mandel and Bruce Feldman, as they revealed later in the week. Sports Illustrated and USA Today have Browning third on their watch list. And CBS’s Dennis Dodd put him atop the list — his No. 1 Heisman choice, one spot ahead of Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers and two spots ahead of the presumptive favorite, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson.
We haven’t had a chance to talk to Browning this week. But my hunch is he’ll strongly deflect such talk, with the same gusto he used to (highly uncharacteristically) finger-taunt an Oregon defender as he raced into the end zone with the first of 10 Washington touchdowns on Saturday in Eugene, Ore.
As Petersen said, Browning just isn’t into that hoopla stuff, doing his level best to fly below the radar, even while everyone has him squarely in their focus. He doesn’t like to watch himself on television, eschews social media and says he doesn’t read any of the growing hype surrounding the fifth-ranked Huskies and himself. (But, somehow, Browning does seem to know the media talking points each week and isn’t above pointing out how the Huskies conquered whatever doubt dominated that week’s chatter.)
That task of “blocking out the noise,” to use the phrase of choice in the sports world, is getting tougher for Browning and rest of the Huskies, however. That’s what happens when you blow out team after team (Arizona excepted) and ascend to No. 5 in the rankings. That’s what happens when you suddenly insert yourself into the national championship conversation, as the Huskies, with their 6-0 record entering this week’s bye, have done.
You can’t hide in relative obscurity any longer. You can’t pretend the hype is overblown and premature, as Petersen steadfastly maintained throughout the offseason and early season.
At this point, the team’s focus must pivot from proving they’re for real (though some of that obviously remains) to showing they can withstand the new barrage of attention that is hurtling their way as something of a national darling.
Someone who knows something about that (and wishes he still faced that challenge) is Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, whose Ducks used to reside among college football’s elite (ah, nostalgia). Now Oregon is reeling — to be charitable — after four consecutive losses, but Helfrich on Tuesday recalled the challenges of having a target on your back.
Petersen has said the Huskies won’t alter their focus, and Helfrich agreed: “It really shouldn’t, and it really doesn’t (change). But you’re always managing some outside news — ‘Heisman this, greatest that.’ Everyone is the greatest, greatest, greatest. It’s not where you want your focus.
“We’re the opposite; that’s not where you want your focus, either. You have to have a constant approach of improving and getting better as a team.”
Music to Petersen’s one-game-at-a-time ears. He already is on record saying it’s too early to start speculating on Browning’s Heisman chances, pointing out correctly that the narrative will shift numerous times before the season ends. And Petersen advocated, as WSU coach Mike Leach did last year, for delaying the vote for all awards, including the Heisman, until after the bowl games, which makes a lot of sense but doesn’t seem to be on the NCAA’s radar.
Petersen said it’s no longer necessary for a school or its coach to promote awards candidates with a hard sell, as was the case in the olden days — we’ll call those roughly “pre-Twitter” — when programs felt compelled to point out to the media all the wonderful statistics their stud was piling up.
“That’s so long over,’’ Petersen said. “If you’re doing that, we’re living in 20 years ago. The old days, when you had to send stuff out (to the media) and you’d go, ‘Oh, did you know this guy’s stats were so good?’ There’s no promoting that at all. You guys promote it.”
The cacophony is building, for the Huskies and Browning. But for now, Browning will continue to live contentedly in his exalted bubble, both above and below the tumult, which his sensational play has engendered, and which he’s trying very hard to block out.