By Todd Milles
The News Tribune
SEATTLE — If the Washington Huskies remain a national contender in FBS college football under coach Chris Petersen, people might look back to the 2015 recruiting class as the biggest reason why.
Austin Joyner left Marysville Pilchuck High School as a do-everything player, and was arguably the top prospect in Washington as a senior. He is now vying for serious playing time at cornerback.
It featured quarterback Jake Browning, one of the better passers in the country. It had Myles Gaskin, who could leave as one of the school’s all-time rushers by the time he is done. Wide receiver Chico McClatcher, the News Tribune’s 2014 All-Area player of the year, was part of it. So was left tackle Trey Adams, who is emerging as a dominant quarterback protector.
And yet, arguably the most touted member of that class from Washington state has not even been a regular contributor yet.
That might soon change.
When Austin Joyner was at Marysville Pilchuck High School, there was no position on the field he could not play. He rushed for 5,593 yards in his career, a school record. He was a dynamic defensive back. And if he got loose on kickoff returns, nobody could catch him.
Now a redshirt sophomore, Joyner isn’t asked to do it all. He will return kickoffs, just like he did a season ago. And he is vying for one of the cornerback openings in the secondary.
On Friday he was the star of the defense, picking off UW quarterbacks, including Browning, twice during live team work.
“We have a lot of talented guys in the (defensive back) room right now. I think we all right now are trying to give it our best shot, because as we all know there’s three vacant spots right now,” Joyner said. “And everybody is working as hard as they can to get those spots. I am no different from anybody else. I’m trying to put my best foot forward, and they are doing the same.”
The secondary has three positions open because its three stars from last season — cornerbacks Kevin King and Sidney Jones, and free safety Budda Baker — were taken high in the NFL Draft.
Emerging star Byron Murphy and veteran Jordan Miller came out of spring camp as the apparent new starters at cornerback, leaving Joyner and former walk-on Myles Bryant to battle it out for the No. 3 cornerback job.
But after a week of preseason camp, Joyner has been as impressive as any defensive back in his ability as a ball hawk, especially in one-on-one situations.
“My mindset this offseason has been very, very focused — and not elsewhere,” Joyner said. “It’s been all football.”
Who knows what kind of impact Joyner would have had by now had he not taken one bad step in his first season.
In the home opener against Sacramento State, Joyner played as a true freshman on the kickoff coverage squad.
On the first play of the game, he ran down to cover a kick, saw a blocker coming in his direction. To brace for the collision, he planted his left leg. His knee buckled.
Joyner had torn his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
Even though nearly two years have passed, Joyner admits he still does not feel like his old self physically.
“I will never be 100 percent,” Joyner said. “If you talk to anybody who’s had an ACL injury, they are never all the way healthy. But I feel as good as I know I am going to get, and it’s plenty good for me to play with. I feel like I am just as fast, just as explosive, with change of direction.”
And by the way he is playing, he is not thinking about being just the No. 3 cornerback. He wants to be the top cover guy.
“If I just keep playing how I am playing, we will see,” Joyner said.
It was almost a rewind of the fall-camp opener Saturday: The Huskies were back in the Dempsey Center in T-shirts and shorts, going at a deliberate pace. Practice ended after 90 minutes … Practice Sunday is scheduled for 2:50 p.m., and is open to the public. “Picture Day” will be afterward.