There may be a point this season when Washington replaces its starting quarterback.
“We are nowhere near that point right now,” UW coach Jimmy Lake said Monday, two days after a 24-17 homecoming loss to UCLA dropped the Huskies to 2-4. “We are a couple plays away from being (3-0 in the Pac-12). And I know we’re not; we’re 1-2 in conference, and that’s what our record is and that’s what we are. But if you go back to the last two games, we’re one, two plays away from being 3-0 in conference. So we’re close, and we’ve got to keep working. We’ve got to keep getting better and make sure we can change those results.
“So there’s not going to be a panic button pushed here where all of a sudden we’re just going to be rotating guys in and out at certain positions, especially an important position like quarterback.”
Maybe the Huskies really are “one, two plays away from being 3-0 in conference.”
But would Sam Huard or Patrick O’Brien have made those plays?
Would O’Brien — a 6-foot-5, 230-pound graduate transfer — have found a way to gain 1 yard on fourth down in a fourth-quarter drive against Oregon State, when Dylan Morris was stoned on a quarterback sneak? Would Huard — the most prolific prep passer in the history of the state — have connected with wide receiver Jalen McMillan over the middle for a game-tying 52-yard score against UCLA, when Morris’ underthrown offering was intercepted?
Of course, there’s no way to conclusively answer those questions. But the fact remains, through six games, Morris ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in passing offense (241 yards per game), eighth in touchdowns (8), 10th in pass efficiency rating (122.79), 10th in yards per pass attempt (6.9), 10th in completion percentage (60%) and dead last in interceptions (8).
Those are not winning numbers.
But Lake said it’s not all on No. 9, either.
“There’s a lot that goes into an interception, and I know as soon as the interception is thrown obviously all the blame is on the quarterback’s stat line,” Lake said. “But there’s a lot of different things that happen during an interception. It could be a missed protection and he’s got somebody in his face, and now his arm gets hit and now it’s an underthrown ball, or a tipped ball that should be caught by our pass catcher and all of a sudden it gets tipped and gets deflected. (There’s) just a number of things that go on.
“Now, we know we have to protect the football better. Dylan knows that. We don’t want to go out there and throw interceptions. There’s some that are squarely on his shoulders where he threw it and it was not a well-thrown ball. But there’s some other ones where it doesn’t fall on his shoulders. It’s no secret in our building: we all know we’ve got to protect the football. We’ve got to make sure we’re not turning the ball over on offense and we’re trying to get the ball back on defense. We’ll continue to coach it and make sure we get better at it.”
They just won’t get better at it by usurping the starting signal caller.
At least, not yet.
Even so, Lake acknowledged that Huard and O’Brien — who share the backup role on UW’s weekly depth chart, though Huard takes the Huskies’ pregame reps — are continuing to improve behind the scenes.
“Every single day they get better,” Lake said. “That’s part of our deal. We’re all about growing and developing. You guys saw a glimpse of Sam in the Arkansas State game, and I think if you would assess his play in those few plays there, as opposed to what you guys saw in spring football and training camp, you would probably say, ‘OK, he’s making progress.’ And every single week him and Patrick are making progress and they’re getting better.”
With that said, Lake and offensive coordinator John Donovan have four realistic options for how they could handle the quarterback position in the regular season’s final six games.
Option A: Morris remains the starter the rest of the way. This is the clear choice if Morris is indisputably UW’s best quarterback both in games and in practice (which, given his recent performances, may be difficult to digest). Lake’s hope would be, if the Huskies really are “one or two plays away,” Morris can overcome recent adversity, gain momentum as the season goes on and remain a viable starter with three seasons of eligibility remaining.
Option B: Huard becomes the starter the rest of the way. This is the clear choice if Lake decides that Huard — a true freshman and former five-star recruit — is the present and future of the program, and six starts will help him be a better quarterback in 2022 and beyond. The issue here is that, by handing Huard the reins, you’re also burning his redshirt in what is essentially an empty season. (Players maintain a redshirt year by participating in four games or less.) The Huskies might prefer to allow him to compete for a starting job next spring and fall with four full seasons of eligibility remaining.
Option C: O’Brien becomes the starter the rest of the way. This is the clear choice if Lake believes UW needs an experienced, dependable performer to stabilize his underwhelming offense. A sixth-year senior, O’Brien completed 61% of his passes in his last two seasons (and 12 starts) at Colorado State, throwing for 3,394 yards with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He has proven to be a capable, if unremarkable, FBS quarterback. This option would show the fan base Lake is willing to make changes in order to win, while allowing Huard to continue to learn and grow behind the scenes.
Option D: Morris or O’Brien start UW’s next four games, before Huard earns his first two college starts against Colorado and Washington State. This is the clear choice if the goal is to maintain Huard’s redshirt, while still giving him a pair of late-season starts to gain experience before heading into a critical offseason. This is also a more realistic option if UW is out of bowl contention by the time it travels to Colorado on Nov. 20.
To this point, Lake is sticking with Option A.
- Lake assessed the return of outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui, who produced seven pressures in 10 snaps six months after tearing his left Achilles tendon. “It’s awesome,” he said. “I would assess it with flying colors. And I probably would have said that with him just taking one rep. There’s not many people that can come back from that injury in six months and go out there and play in a college football game at that level. So he played, he had 10 reps, had a bunch of quarterback hurries, was effective in rushing the quarterback. Maybe (he wasn’t) showing up in the stat line, but if you watch the film and you watch the clips that he was in, the quarterback was hurried. So he came out of the game healthy and I would expect him to have more plays this Friday (against Arizona).”