After Washington finished 4-8 last season, Michael Penix Jr. was asked Tuesday what statement they’d like to make against Kent State on Sept. 3.
“This isn’t that same team,” the fifth-year junior said with a smile.
That might be most apparent under center, where Penix — a two-time captain at Indiana — was named UW’s starting quarterback Tuesday, over sophomore Dylan Morris and redshirt freshman Sam Huard. In 20 career games in Bloomington, Ind., the 2020 All-Big Ten second-team selection completed 59.4% of his passes for 4,197 yards, with 35 total touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
But what can Husky fans expect from their transfer starters?
“My experience is he’ll stand right in the pocket and make those throws that he needs to make when people are bearing down on him and you’ve got to get rid of the ball and you’re holding onto it one second longer while routes open up and converting,” said UW coach Kalen DeBoer, Penix’s offensive coordinator at IU in 2019. “He converted today (in practice) on some stuff when the pocket collapsed on him a little bit, and he’s got that arm talent. He can throw from different slots and with different movements. He’s been consistent.”
Of course, that wasn’t always the case at IU — where Penix completed 68.8% of his passes (a program record) with 1,394 passing yards, 10 touchdowns and just four interceptions in six games under DeBoer in 2019. Penix added 14 passing touchdowns and just four picks in the shortened 2020 season, but struggled with turnovers in five games last fall — completing 53.7% of his passes while throwing for 939 yards with four touchdowns and seven picks.
Still, DeBoer dismissed Penix’s momentary interception spike.
“He’s taken care of the football. That’s how I know him,” he said. “I know there’s been a season where he had a few more interceptions, but I know him as a guy who 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 fall.
“But his poor talent (is impressive), whether it’s the deep ball or throwing it from one hash all the way to the opposite sideline, quick out routes or corner routes. He can throw the ball vertically. With our play action pass as well as our RPOs (run-pass options), he can read things and get rid of it quick. That allows us to open up pretty much the entire offense for him.”
That offense is expected to make significant strides from 2021, when Washington finished ninth in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (21.5 points per game) and 10th in total offense (323.4 yards per game), while Morris surrendered a conference-worst 12 interceptions.
Of course, that improvement is contingent on a flurry of factors — including a previously underperforming offensive line, an encouraging set of wide receivers (Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan, Ja’Lynn Polk, etc.), an impactful strength and conditioning program and a system designed to accentuate their strengths.
But without a performing Penix, it all falls flat.
“He’s matured, so he knows what it takes,” DeBoer said. “He knows what it’s supposed to look like. He’s very detail oriented, I think. He’s always getting us into the right checks. He knows not just us offensively, but he understands defenses. He’s an extremely smart guy.”
Added offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ryan Grubb, on what separated Penix: “There’s a few things: control of the offense and his confidence. He had a good grasp when he got here, and he continued to improve his command. I think that’s one of the things all three of them got better at, and Mike just continues to develop in that regard. He makes a lot of plays with his feet as well and can extend plays.”
But don’t expect those feet to be a focal point of UW’s offense. Penix, after all, has sustained season-ending injuries in all four collegiate seasons — torn ACLs in 2018 and 2020, a sternoclavicular joint (connecting the clavicle to the sternum) injury in 2019, and an AC joint shoulder issue in 2021. While he addressed the media Tuesday, a horizontal scar stretched across the quarterback’s clavicle.
DeBoer, Grubb and Co. will prioritize keeping Penix upright.
At which point, the 6-foot-3, 213-pounder can do what he’s always done.
“I grew up playing,” he said. “My dad was a coach when I was at a young age so I was always around the football, and that became my first love. There was a lot of motivation and encouragement from teammates (after season-ending injuries), always keeping me up in those hard times, lifting me up and making sure I stayed positive and continued the course.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the Tampa product’s course carried him 3,100 miles northwest, to Washington. His steadfast positivity continues to pay.
But when Penix enters the huddle against Kent State on Sept. 3, what would he like to be Washington’s first offensive play?
“I’m going to let coach Grubb do that,” Penix said with a grin. “I’m going to make it happen, though.”
The backup competition continues
Given Penix’s injury history, the competition to be UW’s backup quarterback is perhaps more relevant than ever.
DeBoer said Tuesday that Morris currently claims that spot.
But the competition is far from over.
“It’s close,” Grubb said. “Of all three guys, the guy who made the biggest jump overall in camp was Sam (Huard). There was some operational things and sacks and turnovers from the spring, where I thought Sam grew light-years in that regard (in August). Operationally, Dylan’s a guy that everybody trusts. He’s going to get up (to the line of scrimmage). He’s going to know exactly what to do, how to move somebody, change the protection. That’s where he’s just a little before Sam.
“That’s a tight deal, though. Those guys were tooth and nail, all three of them. It says a lot about the room. Again, people are going to make their own decision on how tight it was or was not, and that’s fine. I feel comfortable with what those guys got done. I’m very happy with where the room’s at overall and what they got accomplished.”
And while Penix apparently accomplished most, Grubb and DeBoer made a point of jointly meeting with each quarterback individually to explain their decision.
“You just want to make sure (Morris and Huard) know that the support mechanism isn’t changing,” Grubb said. “I think that’s one of the things that can be lost. When you tell guys such big news, sometimes you’ve got to almost refocus them. It’s like, ‘Hey, there’s a lot more information here I’m trying to tell you. I want to help you. Our love for you is not going to change.’”