It was hard enough for Folsom High School co-coach Troy Taylor to watch his former star quarterback, Jake Browning, make his collegiate debut last week for the Washington Huskies.
Taylor said he was “a nervous wreck” before UW’s game last Friday night against Boise State, experiencing what he described as a “helpless” feeling, knowing there was nothing more he could do for the kid who threw 229 touchdown passes at Folsom the past three seasons.
“I was probably more nervous than Jake was, just watching the game,” Taylor said with a laugh after a recent Folsom football practice.
Imagine what he might feel like this week, then, when two of his quarterback pupils will play in the same game.
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Browning didn’t just play high-school ball for Taylor (who, by the way, is the California Golden Bears’ all-time leading passer). He also learned from him as a youngster while attending “The Passing Academy,” the popular quarterback skills camp in northern California that Taylor helped co-found.
Among his former students there: Daniel Kniffin, who won Sacramento State’s starting quarterback job this season as a third-year sophomore. He leads the Hornets into Saturday’s 11 a.m. game against UW at Husky Stadium.
Which means Taylor will have a personal interest in nearly every snap.
“You get so accustomed to being around the guys, you start rooting for them like you would a friend,” he said. “I hope they both play well. It’s hard to watch, I tell you.”
Kniffin, a Rocklin (California) High School alum, said he isn’t particularly close with Browning, who is two years behind him in school. But he does know him, and said they were in the same throwing group when Kniffin was a high-school junior.
“We knew each other and threw together all the time,” Kniffin said from Sacramento this week. “And I definitely plan on talking to him when we go up there.”
He’s also not surprised that Browning won UW’s starting job as a true freshman.
“I don’t know how many people know,” Kniffin said, “but the kid he beat out when he was a sophomore (at Folsom) was getting recruited to quite a few colleges.”
Kniffin’s path to become a Division-I starting quarterback was more circuitous. He was “too skinny” in high school, he said, though a few schools recruited him before a third-degree separation of his throwing shoulder forced him to play the final few games of his senior season as a receiver.
Sacramento State, among other schools, still liked him as an athlete and offered him a preferred walk-on spot. Division II Humboldt State did offer him a scholarship the night before signing day, Kniffin said, but he had already settled on Sac State.
After redshirting in 2013, Kniffin spent the 2014 season as the backup to star quarterback Garrett Safron, himself a former walk-on. And after Safron graduated and three other Hornets quarterbacks departed at season’s end, Kniffin, now a third-year sophomore, won the job — and, also, a scholarship.
He’s up to 200 pounds from the 160 he carried in high school, he says, and completed 22 of 34 passes for 282 yards and two touchdowns in Sac State’s season-opening, 41-20 victory over Eastern Oregon.
Kniffin credits Taylor with refining his skills as a passer.
“Troy Taylor is awesome,” Kniffin said. “He really upped my mechanics. I had always played baseball and had a real long throw. He really shortened my throwing motion, helped my feet tremendously. Jake’s lucky that he was his high school coach, because (Taylor) was a great offensive coordinator too.”
Taylor admires the route Kniffin took to his role as the Hornets’ starter, particularly because of the way his high-school career ended.
“The road he took, that’s the thing that served him well,” Taylor said. “I think a lot of guys probably would have quit — being hurt, not starting the last few games of his senior year. (Walking on) is a very hard road to take. There just aren’t a lot of reps to prove yourself. Most people quit. He persevered. I’m really happy for him. Not surprised at all, though.”
As for Browning’s 20-for-35, 150-yard performance against Boise State?
“I was really proud of how he played,” Taylor said. “Very poised. He threw the one pick but didn’t seem affected by it. He’s pretty much the same guy that I saw for so many years, able to keep his focus and not be affected one play to the other.”
The same might not be said for Taylor when he sits in front of his TV on Saturday morning.
SATURDAY: Sacramento State (1-0) at UW (0-1), 11 a.m., Pac-12 Network, 1000-AM, 97.7-FM