SEATTLE — Troy Taylor has a Jake Browning story.
Troy Taylor has a lot of Jake Browning stories, all tales of relentless preparation and indefatigable pursuit of excellence, anecdotes that help illustrate the character of a kid already on track to break several of Washington’s most significant passing records.
There is one, though, that most aptly explains Browning’s essence.
The former co-coach at Folsom High School, Taylor used winter practices to tweak and expand his spread passing attack. One day, after Browning’s sophomore season — his first as a varsity starter — a Pac-12 coach from “a big-time school” stopped by to watch one of Folsom’s offseason practices.
Taylor had spent that session introducing and then drilling the team on a route adjustment. Afterward, he spoke with the Pac-12 coach, who told him he thought Browning was already one of the top quarterback recruits in the country.
Taylor thought that was pretty cool. He was excited to tell Browning.
So he did.
Browning’s response: “Oh, OK.”
And then: “Hey, on that route adjustment, did you want the inside receiver to be a little bit more flat than he was today?”
That, Taylor says, is Browning in a nutshell.
“He quickly changed the subject,” Taylor said, “and didn’t seem like he was that interested in talking about how great somebody thought he was.”
Taylor has known Browning for a decade. He coached him throughout his decorated prep career at Folsom, where Browning threw a national-record 229 touchdown passes in three seasons. He taught him basic fundamentals at his passing academy when Jake was 10 years old. He still talks to him at least once a week, even though Browning is a star sophomore and budding Heisman Trophy candidate for the Washington Huskies, and Taylor is now in his first season as quarterbacks coach at Eastern Washington.
So he has been asked and asked and asked: what sets Browning apart? What’s his secret?
Aside from the intangibles and physical abilities — accuracy, anticipation, toughness, whatever — the answer is almost annoyingly simple.
“His strongest quality,” Taylor said, “is he always remains the same. On the field, off the field, in practice, how he interacts with people, how he treats people. He’s just always the same guy.”
His coaches at Washington will tell you this, too. So will his teammates. Browning has a reputation as perhaps the Huskies’ most prodigious film watcher, a habit he developed in high school, when he would use lunch and study periods — every single one — to look at tape with Taylor.
There are times he stays so late at UW’s facility watching film that coaches have to tell him to leave. There are also times, Taylor says, when he’s pretty sure UW coaches don’t even know Browning is at the facility.
“I’ll be talking to him, like on a Sunday in February or March, and I’ll say ‘what are you doing?’” Taylor said. “And he’ll say, ‘oh, I’m just watching tape.’ I don’t think the coaches even know the amount of time he spends in there.”
UW coach Chris Petersen says Browning was more advanced than the average freshman when it came to analyzing film — a trait that helped him win the starting job last year as a rookie — but he’s been most impressed with the consistency of his study habits.
It’s one thing, Petersen said, to come in as a freshman and devour game film in an attempt to learn new concepts and “play catch-up,” so to speak.
“Well,” Petersen said, “now when you understand it better, it’s like, ‘do I really need to be here?’ That’s when guys really impress me and our staff, like, that’s not going to change. Maybe the preparation becomes a little more focused and intense. And he’s been the same.”
Said junior receiver John Ross: “He’s consistent with everything he does. He takes notes like a veteran in the NFL. He’s probably here the latest. There’s not a day where I’ve ever said, ‘look at this kid slacking.’”
He is also consistent during interviews, swatting away attention like he’s Dikembe Mutombo attacking a layup. Ask about one of his nation-leading 23 touchdown passes, and he’ll praise the receiver who caught it. Ask about his growing profile as a Heisman Trophy candidate, and he reminds “that’s not going to help us beat Oregon State,” referring to Saturday’s opponent. Imply that it was maybe sort of cool that UW scored 70 points in a victory at Oregon, and he’ll reply that “77 would have been cooler.” Ask about how fun it must have been to watch that game film, and he’ll tell you about a run play he should have checked into a pass, based on the defensive alignment … even though Myles Gaskin took that particular handoff 65 yards for a touchdown.
“I feel like the more watch lists you’re on,” Browning said, “the more you’re going to get made fun of in the locker room.”
(This is an attitude likely instilled in him by his father, Ed Browning, who played quarterback at Oregon State. Reached by telephone this week, Ed quite politely declined to be interviewed, wary of burdening his son with any more hype. That’s consistent with the way he raised him; he was always there for Jake, dropping him off and picking him up after lessons with Taylor, but never meddled in his instruction. “He let Jake make a lot of his own decisions,” Taylor said of Ed. “He was never a guy that was hovering around.”)
“I want to win games before I want to win any award,” Browning said. “If we were undefeated and Myles had a million yards rushing, I’d be happy, as long as I was doing my job.”
Browning’s media interactions don’t reveal the true scope of his personality. Those who know him describe a sharp, dry sense of humor, a reserved wit that belies his age.
That finger-point he busted out at Oregon? His teammates were surprised he did it in a game, but that isn’t the first they’ve seen of his competitive nature.
“He’s probably one of the biggest trash-talkers on the team, I’m not even going to lie,” said junior receiver Dante Pettis. “He just does it kind of subtly. He’s not going to be someone that comes up in your face.”
Browning and UW’s defense developed a healthy back-and-forth during practices, each giving the other grief after successful plays, though the quarterback is more likely to cut with intellect than with volume.
“He’s more one of those guys to wink at you and then throw a slant right next to you,” junior linebacker Keishawn Bierria said. “He likes to play mind games.”
“It’s real subtle,” senior defensive back Kevin King said, “but you know he’s there.”
That quiet fire might be what drew Huskies coaches to Browning the most (aside from, you know, the 229 touchdown passes).
“His competitive spirit, even though he’s not very boisterous,” offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said, asked to identify Browning’s most impressive personality trait. “When you watched him play, he was a competitive kid, but at the same time, he didn’t get too high or too low. He had that demeanor of even-keel that you look for in a quarterback.
OK. One more Browning story, via Taylor. Another coach, this time from “a very big-time” school in the Big 12, flew to California just to see Browning. He asked him about his favorite passing concepts as they sat in Taylor’s office. They chatted for a while. Then Browning left, and the coach discussed the meeting with Taylor.
“That’s a really unusual kid,” the coach told Taylor. “He gets it, and he knows that he gets it, and he’s not that concerned that you know that he gets it.”
Such concern is unnecessary now, anyway. Browning currently leads the country in touchdown passes, completion percentage and passing efficiency, and he’s doing it for an undefeated team ranked No. 5 in both polls.
Everyone, by now, should know that he gets it.