Think of Washington’s quarterback competition like a race.
There are three competitors: returning starter Dylan Morris, graduate transfer Patrick O’Brien and early enrollee freshman Sam Huard.
Morris — a 6-foot, 210-pound redshirt sophomore — has won this race before, albeit against a different crop of contenders.
A newcomer, the 6-5, 245-pound O’Brien, is easily the most experienced runner in the field.
As for Huard? Well, he might have the liveliest legs — and his family has won its fair share of races. But a lot will have to happen for Huard to cross the finish line first.
On Monday, following UW’s fourth practice of the spring, offensive coordinator John Donovan was asked to assess his ongoing quarterback competition.
“You’ve never arrived. The second you think you’ve arrived is the second you’re going to get lapped,” UW’s ever-enthusiastic quarterbacks coach said. “You’ve got to keep pushing at every spot. I don’t care who it is. That’s what the deal is right now (for the quarterbacks). Everybody’s got to worry about themselves and not worry about who they’re going against. Over time we’ll see who pushes who. It’s probably going to take a while to get that done.”
Yes, for now, the finish line is fluid. But Morris has earned the pole position. In four games last fall, the four-year starter at Graham-Kapowsin High School completed 61% of his passes and threw for 897 yards. He passed for four touchdowns, ran for two and threw three interceptions — helping the Huskies to a 3-1 record and a Pac-12 North Division crown. He’s the only UW quarterback with Pac-12 experience and a year in Donovan’s pro-style offense.
Through four practices, Morris has earned the entirety of the first-team reps — with O’Brien (second team) and Huard (third team) working in behind him. But don’t expect the third-year passer from Puyallup to look over his shoulder.
“He’s a tough kid. He’s a smart kid. He’s got things to work on, just like everybody else,” Donovan said of Morris. “When you’re running a race and you’re at the line, you’re running against yourself. You’re not worried about who’s next to you. So that’s what he’s doing. He’s running his own race right now, and he knows what he needs to do to improve.”
For O’Brien and Huard, the priorities are a little more pressing. They’re racing while simultaneously learning the route. But when redshirt junior Jacob Sirmon and freshman Ethan Garbers both transferred this offseason, Donovan was suddenly saddled with a single scholarship quarterback.
Which is what piqued his interest in O’Brien — a sixth-year senior with experience at Nebraska and Colorado State.
“He’s played a lot of ball. He’s smart,” Donovan said of O’Brien, who threw for 3,394 yards with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions in his last two seasons at CSU. “All of a sudden we were down to one guy, and I was like, ‘Whoa, OK.’ So we hit (the transfer portal), and I started watching a bunch of guys.
“The fact that he had some experience, and I knew a couple people who knew him and knew his character and what kind of kid he was (made him attractive). I liked what I saw on tape. When I went through with him some of the stuff that we do, he was able to grasp that. He’d done similar concepts. I could tell he’d been around and should be able to step in and learn this thing quicker than maybe a true freshman or a one-year guy off the street.”
So, speaking of true freshmen off the street: say hello to Sam Huard! But Huard, admittedly, is unlike all the others. The day before he moved into his UW dorm, the 6-2, 190-pounder set the state passing record (with 13,214 career yards) in his final prep game at Kennedy Catholic. He arrived with a five-star ranking and a renowned last name.
Now, after spending four years immersed in the Air Raid offense, Huard is diving headfirst into Donovan’s pro-style system.
“It’s like learning a new language. If I had to learn Spanish in three days, I probably wouldn’t be bilingual,” Donovan said. “So he’s learning a whole new language. It is football, so he can throw when he needs to — if he sees a guy open here or there or whatever it may be. But I tell the guys, ‘Hear the call. Know the call. Do your job.’ So first he has to hear it and say the call. It’s one thing to say it and another thing to know it, and another thing to do it. He’s done a good job initially of being able to spit out the calls.
“All things considered, he’s been pretty good here for three days, just getting out there.”
Of course, Morris, O’Brien and Huard are ultimately racing for the right to run Washington’s offense — which ranked second in the conference in third-down conversion rate (48.15%), fifth in scoring (30.3 points per game), ninth in total yards (402.8 per game) and 11th in red zone touchdown percentage (55.56%) in four games last fall.
In all, Donovan’s first season at UW was at times frustrating, intriguing — and incomplete.
“(The games) felt like a spring practice, kind of. It was like four scrimmages with nobody in the stands,” a sighing, chuckling Donovan said. “But I thought we did some good things. When you look back on it, though, I thought the guys did a good job of being able to understand the plays and run the plays to be successful. There is a lot of fine-tuning that can be done from last year — like exact alignments and where we’ve got to be outside, splits inside, landmarks. It enabled us to get a little snapshot of us doing it against somebody else.
“Now, to me, it’s about perfecting the details of it to take the next step.”
Because there’s always another race to run.