University of Washington

Huskies pass-protection wall slowly forming in front of freshman quarterback Browning

Washington quarterback Jake Browning (3) carries the ball as Arizona defensive lineman Luca Bruno (60) tackles him in the first half an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, in Seattle.
Washington quarterback Jake Browning (3) carries the ball as Arizona defensive lineman Luca Bruno (60) tackles him in the first half an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, in Seattle. AP

As wise-beyond-his-years freshman quarterback Jake Browning appears for the Washington Huskies, there is one thing coaches don’t want him to do.

Dance.

However, when you put a young signal caller behind an offensive line starting two sophomores (right tackle Andrew Kirkland and right guard Coleman Shelton) and a freshman left tackle (Trey Adams), pass protection issues are bound to crop up.

But coaches are seeing slow progress.

“A little bit here and there,” Huskies offensive line coach Chris Strausser said. “It’s never perfect, and it’s not where we want to be, I know that much. We’re getting better at it.”

The Huskies (4-4, 2-3 Pac-12) have given up 19 sacks, which ranks right in the middle of the Pac-12 rankings at No. 6.

Browning has taken the brunt of the hits, absorbing three sacks against Sacramento State, five sacks against California and four sacks against Oregon. Oddly enough, all of those games were at home.

And in the first month, it was easy to see why Browning ended up on his backside: The UW offensive-line rotation was unsettled, and Browning, at times, was holding onto the football too long on pass plays.

Both parties have shown improvement — and need to heading into Saturday against 13th-ranked Utah (7-1, 4-1), which has one of the top pass rushers in the conference in defensive end Pita Taumoepenu, whose six sacks are second-most in the Pac-12 behind UW linebacker Travis Feeney (6 1/2 sacks).

“I think we’re making incremental steps,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “Everyone is kind of worried about their job. I think the (offensive) line is all worried about their guys protecting him. I don’t think Jake really worries about the (offensive) line; I think (what) he worries about is, ‘Are his feet right? Is his drop right? Is his read right?’

“We all know we’ve got a ways to go to improve this thing, but his whole focus is on himself. As coaches, we see the big picture. When the (offensive) line is right, it’s going to make Jake’s game, and our running backs’ game, a lot better.”

KEEPING PLAYS SECRET

With the hot topic this week around the Pac-12 being certain teams stealing play-call signs, Petersen said it is something he and his coaching staff do pay attention to.

“We have a couple signalers going, but I think certain teams are pretty smart in terms of picking off what’s what after a while,” Petersen said. “I think the no-huddle has really led to that on defensive guys picking off offensive signals.”

Is it cheating? Petersen isn’t so sure.

“In some ways, I guess it’s like baseball, you know,” Petersen said. “You’ve got signals, and people are going to try and pick your signals off.

“I think it’s probably something everybody needs to talk about after the season and say, ‘Hey, are we good to go — or is there an ethical thing?’ It’s probably a discussion for after the season.”

EXTRA POINTS

In preparation for facing Utah punter Tom Hackett, who leads the conference in punting average at 47.8 yards per punt, Huskies returners Dante Pettis and Chico McClatcher have lined up eight yards deeper than normal during practices, Petersen said. “We’ve never lined anybody up this deep as a punt returner — never, ever,” Petersen said. Across the board, the Utes’ special teams are the best in the conference, Petersen noted. ... No definitive word on the status of nose tackle Elijah Qualls (leg) for Saturday. All Petersen confirmed after practice Thursday was that the sophomore is “making progress.”

Saturday: No. 13 Utah at Washington, 4:30 p.m., Fox-13, 97.7-FM, 1000-AM

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