SEATTLE — It’s the nightmare coaches and fans share. How do you survive when your starting quarterback goes down?
Take last season. Florida State and Michigan had high hopes for 2017. The Seminoles were third in the preseason Associated Press poll while the Wolverines were 11th. Each were considered College Football Playoff favorites in some capacity.
Or at least they were until their quarterbacks got hurt. FSU lost Deondre Francois to a season-ending knee injury in the first game and were forced to start true freshman James Blackman. The Seminoles finished 7-6.
Michigan went through three quarterbacks because of injuries and finished 8-5.
Like Florida State and Michigan in 2017, the Huskies have expectations of playing the CFP for the second time in three seasons. Having senior quarterback Jake Browning bolsters those hopes.
Yet what happens to UW should Browning get hurt? What’s the backup plan? What do to the Huskies look like in his absence?
The thought of Browning being injured made senior tailback Myles Gaskin cringe. But as Gaskin pointed out, that’s why spring camp is important. The steps taken in April creates a foundation for a player’s path once the season arrives.
“I think spring is very important for (quarterbacks Jake Haener, Jacob Sirmon and Colson Yankoff). You see those guys take a lot more reps,” Gaskin said. “Just to get their feet wet. It’s practice but you gotta get better in practice. I mean, whoever is in the game at any position, we’re going to play ball with. We’re ready to roll with whoever.”
UW has five quarterbacks in spring camp — Browning, Haener, Sirmon, Yankoff and Georgia transfer Jacob Eason, who is sitting out this season due to NCAA rules.
That leaves Haener, Sirmon and Yankoff — none of whom have thrown a collegiate pass — as the options in the event Browning gets hurt.
Haener is a redshirt freshman who came to Montlake in 2017 but used the season to learn the offense. Sirmon and Yankoff are both four-star prospects who were members of Chris Petersen’s prized 2018 recruiting class. Sirmon is the nation’s composite No. 6 pro-style passer while Yankoff is ranked the sixth-best dual-threat quarterback.
The Huskies are in the last week of spring camp and it’s clear Haener is Browning’s backup. He’s worked with the second-team offense since Day 1 and has received some first-team reps at different points.
“If guys deserve more reps, they’re going to get more reps,” Petersen said recently. “Like I said, it’s hard for the two brand new guys just because they’re trying to digest so much. Jake Haener’s had a whole year of this and it’s made a world of difference. Those other guys will catch up rapidly.”
Petersen said whether it’s quarterbacks, centers or cornerbacks, every college football program has to build depth because the each position has to go further than two-deep.
He cited how UW maneuvered through last season in response to losing cornerbacks Jordan Miller and Byron Murphy to long-term injuries. The Huskies turned to Myles Bryant and Austin Joyner en route to finishing 10-3 and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl.
“That’s no excuse if someone goes down,” Petersen said. “We have to have the next guys.”
KJR 950 AM analyst and former NFL quarterback Hugh Millen said there’s a number of variables to consider should Browning get hurt.
Millen, who also played for the Huskies, said it all depends upon the length of Browning’s injury. If Browning’s out for a small window, he said it makes sense for UW to play Haener and preserve either Sirmon’s or Yankoff’s redshirt status. But if Sirmon or Yankoff proves to be better than Haener, Millen said it changes the conversation.
In recent seasons true freshmen starting quarterbacks have started and thrived in the right situation.
Browning played right out of high school but he came from an environment where his father was a former Oregon State quarterback. He played 16 games as a high school senior and did it for an offensive coordinator in Troy Taylor, who is now the OC at Utah. Browning played in 46 high school games in only three years. Sirmon had 27 games in three years while Yankoff saw time in 32 games over four years.
“(Browning) was getting great training and he was getting that from a young age because he was with Troy Taylor back when he was in middle school,” Millen said. “So he came in college ready. … He came in mentally ready to play because of those factors.”
Jared Goff, who became the No. 1 pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, started as a true freshman but California went 1-11.
Then there’s Georgia.
The Bulldogs were title contenders when they turned to true freshman Jake Fromm after Eason was injured in the first game. Fromm, a five-star prospect, led Georgia to the national title game where it lost to Alabama. The Crimson Tide turned to true freshman Tua Tagovailoa, also a five-star prospect, in the second half in the title game with Tagovailoa rallying Alabama to an overtime victory.
Millen said today’s environment has allowed true freshmen to learn the collegiate game at a faster rate. He cited how 7-on-7 teams and tournaments, along with the prevalence of private quarterback coaches, have shrunk the gap compared to 10 or 20 years ago.
But as Millen pointed out, there is a benefit to having a year in the system.
“Your second year, you’re way more equipped to play than you are in your first year, I think,” Millen said. “The difference between a redshirt freshman and a true freshman is astronomical in most cases. Now, with Browning … he was uniquely qualified to come in and play as a freshman. Even then, at one point, they were 2-5 in the conference and at or near the bottom of the passing stats.
“Even with him, as college ready as he was, they’re still freshmen. You don’t wanna play freshmen. Just because Jake Fromm did it? Put that against the other numbers and you’ll see what an aberration that was in my opinion.”
Whether it’s Haener, Sirmon or Yankoff, the Huskies are better positioned than most teams. They’ve got an experienced offensive line and have proven to be a top running team, even with Browning.
UW could have up to five seniors — left tackle Trey Adams, Gaskin, right guard Matt James, right tackle Kaleb McGary and tight end Drew Sample — starting on offense.
Gaskin and Sample are both three-year starters. Junior center Nick Harris, who was UW’s starting right guard last season, has 17 starts in 25 games. The Huskies can also turn to others such as junior receivers Andre Baccellia (four starts in 22 games) and Aaron Fuller (eight starts in 27 games) while Chico McClatcher (five starts in 29 games) and Quinten Pounds (three starts in 25 games) continue their recovery from season-ending injuries.
“You never know and you obviously would never want that to happen. But you never know what is going to happen when you play the game of football. For everyone across the board, it’s always being ready, and it’s something we’ve been able to do the last couple of years,” Sample said.
“If someone goes down, the next guy is ready and the offense will be there to support them.”