At some point, UW coach Chris Petersen is going to hand the keys to the program to Jake Browning, the prep phenom. But it’s the Huskies’ present that is wide open – and tilting in the direction of Jeff Lindquist.
The future of Washington football was on display Saturday in front of the sparse crowd at Husky Stadium watching the spring-practice finale.
Baby-faced but wise beyond his years, freshman Jake Browning showed flashes of the form that made him the most prolific touchdown thrower in high-school history (229 at Folsom High in California).
Enough flashes to envision him running through the tunnel on a cool fall afternoon when the stands are full, and mull the possibilities. Eight completions in eight attempts during two series of a 7-on-7 drill, including a strike down the seam to Max Richmond. A pinpoint 25-yard completion to walk-on tight end James Boker. A sensational 15-yard hookup with tight end David Ajamu, who snared it with one hand a la Odell Beckham Jr.
At some point, almost certainly, UW coach Chris Petersen is going to hand the keys to the program to Browning, the prep phenom that junior quarterback Jeff Lindquist called “Mr. Protégé” without a hint of sarcasm.
But it’s the Huskies’ present that is wide open – and tilting in Lindquist’s direction. While Browning and redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels were displaying the inevitable downside of youth during the intermittent scrimmages on Saturday, Lindquist stood out with his maturity and decision-making.
Lindquist, who completed 13 of 16 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns with one interception, looks like a new man. His accuracy is noticeably sharper. Offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said Lindquist is throwing with much more touch rather than just muscling the ball in to his receivers.
On Saturday, throwing off his back foot while scrambling, Lindquist threaded the needle for a 37-yard touchdown strike to Jaydon Mickens. He also lofted a 71-yard TD pass to Dante Pettis.
“Jeff has taken a step forward, he really has,’’ Petersen said.
With 2014 starter Cyler Miles seemingly out of the picture after taking a leave of absence from the program, the Huskies once again have an open quarterback competition heading into fall. Lindquist won last year’s – but started just one game, a lackluster showing in the opener at Hawaii, before Miles returned from his suspension.
“I think everybody would love – wants to have a returning starting quarterback, pecking order set,’’ Petersen said. “I don’t think we’re any different in that, but that’s not even kind of how it is. So people keep asking. We’ll figure this out as we go.”
Some Husky fans no doubt would love to see Browning, with his immense potential, thrown immediately into the fire. But that seems risky and ill-advised for what shapes up, realistically, as a transition year for a Huskies team that lost the heart of its defense and must rebuild its offensive line.
Petersen has never started a true-freshman quarterback – not even Kellen Moore, who led Boise State to a 50-3 record in four seasons as a starter. It would be a major upset if he breaks that trend with Browning, despite – or actually because of – his upside. Better to let him soak up knowledge from the sideline next season, and unleash him down the road when the learning curve will be accelerated and the youthful missteps minimized.
It’s no disgrace that Browning is displaying some inconsistency. By all rights, he should be preparing for his senior prom right about now. Instead, he graduated high school early and enrolled at Washington in time for spring ball. Everything he does this spring is thus a bonus.
“Jake just got here,’’ Petersen said, “and so every practice is huge. You can see him doing some really, really good things, just instinctual, and when he gets more dialed into the whole thing, he’s going to take a huge step.”
Lindquist, who is all of 21, said he took the role of “Papa Bear’’ around Browning, anticipating a need to tutor him on every detail of the quarterback job.
“But he’s really sharp,’’ he said. “I’ve been very impressed with how well Jake has transitioned to college and gotten used to our new playbook. The speed of the game is a lot different than high school, and he’s done a really, really good job with that.”
Karta-Samuels, highly touted himself out of high school, is the wild card in this equation. After running the scout team last year, he is also a neophyte in the Huskies’ offense, one who showed a deft touch on intermediate passes on Saturday. He completed 11 of 12 for 123 yards with one interception.
At this moment, it looks like Lindquist is the decided front-runner, though Petersen made it clear that nothing is etched in stone when it comes to the quarterback job.
Asked if he expected the competition to go down to the final week, or if he could envision a two-QB system, Petersen replied: “I don’t know, and I don’t know. We’ll just keep evaluating day by day until we figure it out. We’re a long way from any of that.”
I’d expect they’re at least a year away from the dawning of the age of Browning. Long-term, he looks like the best answer for the Huskies; they should do what they can to protect and maximize that asset.