University of Washington

How great can Jake Browning be? Former Huskies QBs evaluate UW’s leader

Quarterback Jake Browning takes the field before the Washington Huskies played the Washington State Cougars in the Apple Cup at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash., on Friday, November 25, 2016.
Quarterback Jake Browning takes the field before the Washington Huskies played the Washington State Cougars in the Apple Cup at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash., on Friday, November 25, 2016. jbessex@gateline.com

Rutgers University, located in Piscataway, New Jersey, is about 40 miles from New York City. The Huskies begin their 2017 season there on Friday, and if all goes well, UW quarterback Jake Browning could find himself back in the area come December.

In Times Square. At the Heisman Trophy presentation.

Teammates, coaches and national college football experts believe Browning could have the same kind of season as he did in 2016 when he threw for 3,430 yards and a school-record 43 touchdowns in claiming Pac-12 offensive player of the year honors. Doing that again – or something close to it or better – would likely put Browning in contention for the sport’s biggest award.

“He’s confident,” Huskies co-offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said. “The other thing is that he’s in the best shape of his life ... The guy is put together. He is running well. There are no issues throwing the ball.”

In just two seasons, Browning has put his name in the Huskies’ record books top 10 for single-game, single-season and career passing marks 26 times.

He ranks No. 1 in season (167.5, set in 2016) and career passing efficiency (154.0); single-game (six, set twice in 2016) and season touchdown passes (43); and season passing yards per attempt (8.97 yards per pass, set in 2016).

Even with an average season, Browning — who has 59 career touchdown passes — should eclipse Keith Price’s career record of 75, set from 2010-13.

But even more is expected from the California product than before. Just ask him. Also, ask co-offensive coordinator Matt Lubick. Heck, even ask coach Chris Petersen.

“I think you have to keep growing, keep getting better at the things you want to improve on,” Browning said. “It’s like the more hours you put into anything ... like for someone who plays chess. They are going to keep getting better because they are doing it more and more.”

If you look at some of the recent careers of great quarterbacks under Petersen at Boise State (Kellen Moore, Ryan Dinwiddie, Jared Zabransky) — or even the former Heiseman Trophy-winning quarterback Lubick had as an assistant at Oregon (Marcus Mariota) in 2014 — they all took significant jumps in overall passing efficiency in their third season.

“In year No. 2, you get a lot of confidence. I know Mariota got some confidence. Then you feel yourself and what you can do, and you start pushing the envelope,” Lubick said. “You know the system better. And as coaches, you can put more on them because they are in the third year in the system.”

Petersen said it takes a special type of quarterback to take yet another substantial jump in his level of play in a third season.

“That next step takes so much work,” Petersen said. “It’s a step to the next, next elite level with subtle things.”

Petersen listed them off: Anticipating routes, throwing passes sooner, throwing more catchable passes, being a little more accurate, using your footwork to bide more time in the pocket, and getting an offense in and out of certain plays at the line of scrimmage.

“We challenge them hard in year (No.) 3,” Petersen said. “Sometimes it might not even show up in the numbers.”

What is next for Browning? We asked three former UW quarterbacks their thoughts about the quarterback’s career so far, and what the future might hold.

The panel:

Tim Cowan (1980-82), who led the team to an Aloha Bowl victory in 1982. He also won a Grey Cup title in the CFL with the BC Lions. He is the founder of Seattle-based TK Marketing Solutions.

Damon Huard (1992-95), who was the school’s all-time passing leader (5,692 yards) by the time he was finished. The 14-year NFL veteran is now the Huskies’ radio color commentator.

Johnny DuRocher (2005-06), who played in seven games for UW. He is now one of the Northwest’s premier quarterback coaches for Rise Football Academy.

Q: Whether it was seeing him throw a pass, or meeting him off the field, what were your first impressions about Browning?

Cowan: “He seemed a little guarded. He was just a kid, He was a little shy. He showed up here as a young kid, leaving school early. I’ve only met him a handful of times. I enjoy watching him and the things he does, and even the progress he’s made, the maturity he’s made to be a real leader of the entire team.”

Huard: “I met him, I want to say, going into his senior year (at Folsom). He came up here with his dad. … and we went and had lunch at the HUB with Tui (Marques Tuiasosopo). He was one of those kids right away came across as, ‘This means a lot to him.’ He was very beyond his years with the questions he was asking about the offense – the schemes, and the protections and the route concepts. So right away, you knew this guy was the ultimate gym rat. He was very mature. Obviously he wasn’t the biggest of guys, but he had a real calm demeanor about him, and just seemed like a really good kid who loved football.”

DuRocher: “I think the first time I saw him was one of the first games he played as a freshman. The thing that stood out was his demeanor. He had that good quarterback demeanor — the highs weren’t too high, and the lows weren’t too low.”

Q: Browning has played 26 games in two seasons at the UW. Is there any part of his skill set right now that you would rank as good, or better than anybody you’ve ever seen play quarterback for the Huskies?

Cowan: “I would say his football IQ. ... I worked with Jeff (Lindquist) when he was in high school. When Jake showed up early out of high school, I asked Jeff about him, and he goes, ‘His football IQ was off the charts.’ Even the other quarterbacks could see it. What makes him so great is his decision-making skills — he makes really good decisions, for the most part.

“And when he doesn’t, and this is the one that jumps out at me: Against Arizona State last year, it was the first play of second quarter … and he throws a pick. And this guy (the defender) has a free ride to the end zone to score. I see Jake hustling down the field, and I am thinking to myself, ‘There is no way he is going to catch the guy, but I love his effort.’ And I am watching what he is doing, and he hustles down there and gets in front of an ASU player who flips him. Jake goes to the ground, the defensive back scores his touchdown, but a flag is thrown for clipping, which negates the touchdown. … I am thinking, ‘My God, the kid had enough insight to take a charge, like a basketball player.’ Two plays later, Kevin King makes that great interception.”

Huard: “I would say his pocket feel might be better than anybody who has ever played here. He has an incredible ability to stand in the pocket until the last second to make that throw. He really has this unbelievably underrated ability to scramble throw, meaning when he scrambles, he’s not trying to run for first downs. He is scrambling to buy time to throw the ball down the field, and he does a great job of keeping his eyes up and making plays when the play breaks down. You could argue his pocket feel, and pocket presence is better than anybody who’s ever played here.”

DuRocher: “When I go to practice, the thing that keeps coming back to me is his work ethic. He has that gym rat mentality, and I don’t remember hearing that about anybody in the past from UW football.”

Q: Is there an underrated or under-appreciated part of Browning’s game that he doesn’t seem to get much credit?

Cowan: “I don’t know if there is an under-appreciated part of him, but I would say to this point in his career, he has been successful under the radar. The kid from USC (Sam Darnold) had a great finish (in 2016), and he looks like somebody to be aware of. I just think (Browning) has been one of these guys, I don’t think he needs or wants all of the attention. I think he is growing up to understand that the attention comes with success.”

Huard: “It is that ability to extend the play. He is not the fastest guy, obviously, but he, in a weird way, just makes plays with his feet buying time outside the pocket — knowing when to pull it down and when to throw it. He has been really, really good at that. Is that underrated? I don’t know. It is starting to get noticed more. It is what the good (quarterbacks) do, and he is pretty doggone good at it. When you compare him to Husky quarterbacks … he is kind of unique in that way.”

DuRocher: “Two things. No. 1, he makes really good decisions. When you hear about these (NFL-bound) quarterbacks, it is all about the physical stuff. But that is an underrated part of his game. The other thing that we saw in the Oregon game last year, he has a little bit of an edge to him. That Oregon game was the first time we saw that. All great quarterbacks have to have that.”

Q: In what area should Browning show the most growth as a third-year starter?

Cowan: “I would expect him this season to be able to elevate himself personally, elevate himself as a teammate, and elevate himself as a leader because of the experiences that they’ve had in the last couple of years. One of the things I’ve really thought highly about him in that people were questioning late last season, ‘What about his arm? Is he hurt? How come, how come?’ And he kept his mouth shut about his shoulder, and he fought through it.”

Huard: “It is leadership, it is confidence, it’s body language — it’s all that stuff. The players love him. He is the leader of this football team, and certainly now as an upperclassman it is a lot easier to do that than when you are a freshman or a sophomore. He threw 43 touchdowns a year ago, and we all know he wasn’t real healthy down the stretch. If he can play at the same level he did a year ago, I think Husky fans will certainly be good with that. I think it’s just maintaining. Sometimes you get to a level, and it’s harder to stay there than it was on the climb up there.”

DuRocher: “One thing you are going to hear about is his arm strength. That was one of the things people have talked about. He has taken a lot of precautionary measures to help with that. If he is healthy, those passes will look better.”

Q: How do you project Browning fitting in with professional football, possibly the NFL?

Cowan: “I remember his freshman year and I am watching practice. I looked at him and I said, ‘He reminds me of Joe Montana.’ I don’t know if there is going to ever be another Montana, but he seems to be that kind of quarterback who can compete at the highest level. I think a lot goes back to understanding the game. The great ones do.”

Huard: “I think he definitely has a chance (in the NFL). It is all about accuracy and decision-making, and I think what people will see as he plays even more football for the Dawgs is just how competitive he is. This guy is extremely competitive. We do these ‘Husky Olympics’ here and we have eight events over the course of training camp … and every single year he’s been here, his team has been at the top. He just hates to lose. I’ve been around a few of those guys — Tom Brady, Dan Marino — and his competitive nature and spirit in everything he does, you cannot put a big enough value on.

“That will take him far at the next level.”

DuRocher: “I think he is going to have to get a little thicker, find some more zip on the ball. But at that level, it is accuracy, anticipation and decision-making, and he does all of those three things well. His mind is there already.”

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