The word coach Chris Petersen used to describe the timing of the Jake Haener drama was “awkward.”
Sometimes, awkward situations are temporary annoyances with no lingering aftereffects. They happen, everyone cringes, and then, poof, it’s forgotten.
But sometimes they fester, grow and quickly manifest beyond awkward to something truly problematic.
There are many ways to look at Haener’s decision Saturday to transfer out of the Husky football program, just two days after losing the starting-quarterback battle to Jacob Eason, and exactly one week before Washington’s season opener against Eastern Washington.
Whether this will be a short-lived, uncomfortable episode or one that could haunt the Huskies long term depends largely on one thing: the performance of Eason as the now-undisputed and un-challenged QB of a team hoping to reach new heights in 2019.
Petersen on Monday expressed the belief that Eason could benefit from the sudden clarity at quarterback. The original plan he announced Friday was that Haener had performed well enough in the competition to earn playing time against Eastern. And it wasn’t to have been a token series, apparently. Speaking to Dave Mahler on KJR-AM on Monday, Haener said he was to have received “a quarter or two” of action.
That could have been enough, hypothetically, to conjure up every coach’s worst nightmare, a quarterback controversy. Imagine if Eason had struggled, thrown a pick or two, and Haener had emulated his performance last year against North Dakota – 7 for 7 for 110 yards with a picture-perfect 12-yard fade to Ty Jones for a touchdown.
Petersen indicated last week that he wasn’t going to re-open the competition no matter what happened against Eastern. But that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t have been murmurs and speculation every time Eason faltered.
“We’ve got our guy,” Petersen had said Friday. “We’re not going to have anybody look over their shoulder, but we’ve got a plan on how we’re going to do this. It’s important to have a good plan. You over-plan, you adapt and adjust as the seasons go.”
This is a whopping re-adjustment on the fly that UW is now being forced to make. But with Petersen indicating that the new backup, redshirt freshman Jacob Sirmon, is not scheduled for a cameo Saturday, it’s a new dynamic for Eason – one without potential footsteps for him to hear.
“I think it certainly can help the whole dynamics,” Petersen said. “Things are a little bit more clear-cut, in terms of you’ve got a pecking order going forward.”
On the flip side, the Huskies’ safety net at quarterback has been trimmed substantially. It’s Eason’s job unequivocally – but if he struggles or gets hurt, the options are now two players who weren’t serious competitors for the job – Sirmon and freshman Dylan Morris. More than ever, the Huskies need Eason to soar.
In Haener, they had a player with two years in the program who presumably took Eason to the very limit in a competition that lasted the entire breadth of spring ball and preseason camp. He was beaten out solely on the basis of a “gut decision” by Petersen, who might have been swayed by nothing more than Eason’s as-yet untapped potential.
That said, I don’t begrudge Haener one second for his decision to leave. As I’ve said before, the relatively recent trend in college football of facilitating transfers via the “portal,” and the frequency with which it is being utilized, particularly by quarterbacks, is not a bad thing.
In a world where players are the unpaid labor in a billion-dollar business, and coaches can and do leave players high and dry on a whim, they deserve some freedom of choice. Particularly when programs tend to stack their depth chart with blue-chip quarterbacks and let them fight it out. If you want to play, sometimes leaving is the only option.
Yes, Haener could have stuck it out this year on the hope that something would have happened to elevate him to the starting job – the proverbial “one hit away” theory.
But the clock is always ticking on a finite college career; having lost the competition, Haener wanted to assure that he would get two years of playing time. The Huskies didn’t offer that assurance, but it looks like Fresno State might.
By all accounts, it was an amicable departure from Montlake with Haener taking the high road out of town. He and Petersen hugged after an hourlong meeting Saturday to hash things out, according to Haener’s father (as reported by Christian Caple in The Athletic). And Haener was classy in his KJR comments, expressing the belief that the quarterback competition was a fair one. He didn’t bad-mouth anyone involved.
Petersen, in his sixth year at Washington, has now had four quarterbacks transfer out – Troy Williams, K.J. Carta-Samuels, Colson Yankoff and Haener (with Sirmon backtracking on his decision to transfer after a couple of days in the portal in early May).
The coach said he would re-examine his strategy of stocking the quarterback position, but added, “You can’t have one guy. That’s not going to work for us. So there’s always going to be a handful of guys competing for that position. So what the best order is and how that works, that’s never going to be scripted out like that. That’s just not how it works. Do we need to pay attention to it and have a strategy and help the whole situation? Absolutely. What that looks like is to be determined, and we’ll obviously keep paying attention to it.”
For now, it’s Eason’s job to run with. You can make the case that he will be better for being pushed to the brink by Haener. Petersen said he was “not at all” concerned that the abrupt departure of the backup quarterback would have an adverse effect on the team so close to the opener.
“Because things are going to happen,” he elaborated. “That’s all we talk about, is everybody’s got to adjust. This is a bump in the road from how it goes — how a season goes.
“I mean, hey, you move on. That’s how it is. My guys have seen that, whether it’s players leaving injured and it’s next guy up, coaches moving on, all those things. That’s just life. So not at all.”
So far, it’s just an awkward situation for the Huskies.