Washington coach Kalen DeBoer on Tuesday described a quarterback battle that was won by Michael Penix Jr., not lost by the two odd men out, Dylan Morris and Sam Huard. In fact, DeBoer stressed that Husky fans should throw out any preconceived notions they have of Morris and Huard, because they are completely different quarterbacks now, vastly improved.
Hold that thought, because the stark reality is that either of those two still may be called upon this season, given Penix’s injury history.
Yet the crowning of Penix, conveyed to the vying QBs on Monday and to the media Tuesday, should just add to the excitement building for the start of the Husky season in 10 days against Kent State. It was the expected result from the day Penix announced via Instagram on Dec. 14 that he was transferring to Washington after four seasons at Indiana. But his official ascension to the starting job gives their fans something tangible to dream on after last year’s 4-8 all-around debacle.
There’s always a sense of anticipation for a new season, of course, and that’s multiplied when accompanied by a new coaching staff. DeBoer has been impressive in helping the Huskies move past the disarray left over from Jimmy Lake’s late-season ouster.
Yet DeBoer’s mark will be made, as with all coaches, by the results on the field. Now in Penix, the Huskies have a quarterback who has shown that when healthy he can play at the highest level against the most elite competition.
Furthermore, Penix has specifically thrived under DeBoer, who has been something of a quarterback whisperer in his career. In 2019, when DeBoer was offensive coordinator at Indiana, the Hoosiers produced the No. 3 offense in the Big Ten, and Penix, before suffering a sternoclavicular joint injury, dazzled with a school record 68.8 completion percentage in six games, which yielded 1,394 passing yards, 10 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
It’s no secret that the Huskies’ offense the past two seasons was stymied by the unimaginative play-calling of offensive coordinator John Donovan. One gets the distinct feeling that Morris, designated by DeBoer as the No. 2 quarterback, has far more to offer than what he put forth under the old regime. That goes as well for Huard, who had four interceptions in his lone Husky start in the Apple Cup but was described by DeBoer as having made a “hard charge” for the starting job.
Penix, though, is the one who gives the Huskies the best chance to soar. Anyone who can put up 491 passing yards and five touchdowns against an Ohio State team in 2020 that was third-ranked when they played and made it all the way to the NCAA title game is clearly oozing with upside.
From the outside, it looked like the Huskies offense in 2021 was less than the sum of its parts. Their highly touted offensive line never coalesced. They seemed to have had a slew of dynamic skill-position players who never made the impact that their tools indicated was possible.
Under new offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, the Huskies will have a more aggressive, big-strike attack, one that should be more adeptly schemed up and adaptable than that of the past two years. Asked how good the Husky offense could be in 2022, Penix replied, “I feel like we’re going to make a lot of special things happen here.”
To hear DeBoer and Grubb talk Tuesday, the junior Penix, 6 foot 3 and 213 pounds, has all the tools to fulfill that goal. They raved about his leadership, knowledge of the offense, decision-making, poor talent and toughness. The fact that DeBoer has seen it all in the heat of action in the Big Ten no doubt was a huge factor in weighing the competition in his favor (although the coach insisted that his showing in Husky camp was the clincher).
“He’s taking care of the football; that’s how I know him,” DeBoer said. “I know there’s been a season where he had a few more interceptions and stuff, but I know him as a guy that takes extremely good care of the football. That’s what he did for me. And that’s what he’s done ever since he’s been here this spring and in the fall.”
Penix walked into a situation where, as a transfer, he had to forge relationships with new teammates who already had them established, and prove to them he was a player to rally around. Penix set to work immediately after arriving on campus to do just that.
“I had to come out here and work to get the trust of this team, being a new guy here coming in January,” he said. “So just countless hours, being with these guys, and for the coaches to trust me to be in that position I feel I feel very blessed. It was a long process, and I feel like it was a lot of sweat, blood and tears I put into it.”
DeBoer said he didn’t necessarily want any applause for Penix when he informed the team Tuesday of the outcome of the quarterback battle. He would prefer everyone to remain focused on their own jobs rather than obsessing over who’s going to be leading the huddle. But it would stand to reason that it was both a mental relief and galvanizing event for Penix to be officially anointed.
“I think they’re all super-confident in Michael and his ability and what he’s done all camp,” DeBoer said. “And he came out here today — and whether it’s added pressure because now he’s that guy or less pressure because now that competition is behind him and it’s about playing ball and getting ready to beat Kent State — he came out and performed extremely well [in Tuesday’s practice]. That was just an added bonus for the confidence level of everyone.”
Call it the Penix Effect — and now we’ll see if it has staying power.