Not fun. That’s how California’s Jared Goff described his experience two years ago playing as a true freshman quarterback in the Pac-12.
Can you blame him? Goff was buried, bruised and beaten in just about every way imaginable while soldiering through the Bears’ 1-11 season in 2013. Yes, he rode his strong right arm to a school record of 3,508 passing yards in a season, but he didn’t win a single conference game and he was knocked out of the last game on a hit that separated his throwing shoulder, an injury that required surgery.
So, no, not fun.
As he looks back two years later, though, Goff also says he’s glad he went through all that, calling 2013 “the best worst experience of my life.” It appears the growing pains are paying off: He enters his junior season as a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate, and some have him pegged as a future first-round NFL draft choice.
“I know I wouldn’t be where I’m at today -- mentally, physically, accuracy, everything -- without it,” he said.
Goff’s experience then is relevant now because it provides a bit of a blueprint for the conundrum facing the Washington Huskies this fall: What should they do with touted true freshman QB Jake Browning?
Chris Petersen, entering his 10th season as a head coach, has never played a true freshman quarterback, and the Huskies have had only one true freshman ever start a game at quarterback -- Marques Tuiasosopo in 1997. Rare is the freshman who can survive, much less thrive, as a quarterback in the Pac-12.
A unique situation?
What makes Browning’s situation different? And, for a young team that isn’t expected to be a serious contender in the Pac-12 North for perhaps another year or two, what are the advantages of playing a true freshman at QB?
Entering the start of fall-camp practices Saturday, Petersen said Browning is “definitely” in the mix for the starting job, along with junior Jeff Lindquist and redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels. Browning, Petersen said, is a viable candidate because he graduated from high school early (as did Goff), then arrived at UW in January and participated in the Huskies’ 15 spring practices.
“I think that’s a huge difference,” Petersen said.
And yet, even with Browning’s early arrival, Petersen said he would prefer for the freshman to redshirt this season. “I think that’s always better.”
Troy Taylor, Browning’s coach at Folsom (Calif.) High School, said he believes Browning is better prepared than most quarterbacks coming into college. And he said Browning’s preparation goes further than the quarterback’s record-shattering numbers from high school, among them: 229 career touchdowns passes, a national prep record, and 16,775 passing yards, a California record.
“Jake’s beyond-his-years mature,” Taylor said. “He knows how to manage his time and he’s really good at eliminating distractions, which I think are really going to help him there. He’s basically been doing the college football thing for three years, with as much time as he put into it (while at Folsom).”
Petersen noted that Folsom ran a complex spread offense that should benefit Browning at UW.
“His level of education coming in is different. It’s very different,” Petersen said. “So you take those two things (Browning’s early arrival and his experience in the spread) and I think it’s ... interesting.”
Taylor was a QB at Cal in the late 1980s -- he still holds the Bears’ record with 8,126 career passing yards, a mark Goff is poised to shatter soon -- and has been working with Browning since Browning was 10 years old.
“I do believe there’s special gifts that he’s developed,” Taylor said. “But he’s driving a faster car now. Where he was at 80 mph, now he’s driving at 130 mph. He’s going to have to adjust. ...
“When will that come? When will he adjust to the Pac-12 level? I don’t know. Maybe it will be the first week of fall camp. Maybe it will be Week 3. But I do know it will.”
First, Browning must beat out Lindquist and Carta-Samuels, and that’s no sure thing. Lindquist was the most consistent of the three in the spring; that is, he made the fewest mistakes, which could be the tipping point in an offense that was rather conservative last season. UW, for example, ran the ball more often than anyone else in the Pac-12; improving a passing game that ranked 11th in the conference is a top priority this year.
Petersen and offensive coordinator/QB coach Jonathan Smith are demanding of the quarterbacks. Every practice pass will be analyzed later on film. If a receiver drops a pass, coaches might actually blame the QB for throwing the ball to the receiver’s shoulder and not his chest. Ideally, Petersen explained, he wants a quarterback who is so accurate that he practically makes the catch for the receiver.
“Now, not a lot of college guys can (do that) and I get that,” Petersen said, “but it’s got to be that type of mentality.”
All three UW quarterbacks have to be better this fall than they were in the spring, he said.
“They’re going to have to be strong -- strong in the mind and strong-willed and competitive where they don’t get discouraged with setbacks,” Petersen said.
Questions abound for the quarterbacks, and Petersen poses a few of his own for them: “Are we living in the present? Do we have a good attitude? Are we improving? Did I bring my best on that practice field?” he said. “That’s what we need to focus on. If we focus on other stuff, we’re going to drive ourselves crazy.”
Let the competition begin.