Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. high-fives a fan while leaving the field after a 54-7 win over Colorado on Nov. 19, 2022, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. high-fives a fan while leaving the field after a 54-7 win over Colorado on Nov. 19, 2022, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

UW QB Penix Jr. prioritizing national title, not Heisman Trophy

Asked if he thinks about winning the prestigious award, the QB responds: ‘I think about winning the national championship.’

By Mike Vorel / The Seattle Times

SEATTLE—Consider the course to these three questions.

Last year, Michael Penix Jr. arrived on Montlake as a question mark, an undeniably talented Indiana transfer attempting to shake a four-season injury streak. His Hoosier career was marred by abrupt endings — ACL tears in 2018 and 2020, a sternoclavicular joint (connecting the clavicle to the sternum) injury in 2019, and an AC joint shoulder issue in 2021.

His wins — a program-record 68.8% completion percentage under offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer in 2019, second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2020, an iconic pylon-dive touchdown to stun Penn State in overtime — were waylaid by both literal and metaphorical losses, by surgeries big and small.

Penix arrived as the personification of unfulfilled promise.

A year later, he’s so much more.

Namely, the 6-foot-3, 216-pound passer is a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy — awarded each postseason to college football’s premier player. He’s also The Associated Press’ national comeback player of the year. He’s the soft-spoken face of a program revival, a pass-slinging symbol of Husky hope.

In a dazzling Washington debut in 2022, Penix led the nation in passing, throwing for a program-record 4,641 yards with 35 total touchdowns and eight interceptions. After besting Dylan Morris and Sam Huard for the starting quarterback role, he led the Huskies to an 11-2 turnaround — including road wins over rivals Oregon and Washington State and an Alamo Bowl victory over Texas. He set school records for single-game completions (36) and passing yards (516), and finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting. And instead of declaring for the 2023 NFL draft, he returned to Montlake with greater goals in mind.

A year ago, Penix split starting reps in a three-way quarterback competition. His father, Michael Penix Sr., told The Times last winter that “we were so pleased just to see him finish the season. We told him we want him just to get one game at a time down. One game at a time: that’s our goal.”

Thirteen games and 11 victories later, consider how far he’s come.

“Do you think about winning the Heisman?” Penix was asked Wednesday, following UW’s 10th practice of the spring. “Does that matter to you? Is it important to you?”

“I think about winning the national championship,” he responded. “And whatever comes with that, comes with it.”

For Washington to win its first national championship since 1991, much would be required — including a vastly improved pass defense; a reloaded offensive line; a stellar sequel from wide receivers Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan; a whole lot of injury luck; a consistent, chaos-inducing pass rush … and maybe a Heisman win.

But Penix, for one, doesn’t feel the weight of outside expectations.

Not compared to his own.

“I’m not responsible for making anybody’s predictions about me true,” said Penix, who is currently tied for the fourth-best Heisman odds on DraftKings, alongside Oregon quarterback Bo Nix. “I’m responsible for pushing myself extremely hard every day, responsible for helping this team win football games, responsible for helping this team get better every day. That’s what I find myself responsible (for).

“But as far as the Heisman thing, for me, it’s just football. As long as we go out and do what we do again, even better … I’m looking for a national championship. With a national championship comes those big awards. If we get that national championship, whatever comes with it, it is what it is. If I win, if I don’t win … as long as we win, I’m good.”

Good enough, in fact, for the Huskies to launch a hasty Heisman campaign — featuring promotional videos, a working website and “Be like Mike” branding — last November, following a convincing Apple Cup victory. This offseason, UW is doubling down.

But instead of succumbing to the content stampede — the hype videos, the ads, the billboards, the social media spotlight — Penix shrugged and said, “It’s just a button (on Twitter). I just click retweet. That’s it for me. I don’t really get too focused into it.”

Instead, Penix’s focus remains fixed on football — and so far this spring, it shows. USC transfer linebacker Ralen Goforth marveled that “leaving one Heisman quarterback (in USC’s Caleb Williams), coming to potentially the next Heisman quarterback … man, I’m seeing some great throws. Not only just what you guys see, but also I’ll see some things in PRPs [player-run practices] when it’s just us. He’s making throws that I haven’t seen, or throws I’ve only seen from one other person. He’s the real deal.

“You really see the desire to get better every single day. I see Mike put in all the extra work. He deserves everything coming his way, for sure.”

Of course, with four-plus months before his sixth (and final) college season, Penix won’t predict what’s next. He’s come through injuries, transfers and quarterback competitions … and arrived at more compelling questions.

“It’s a blessing to be out here, just playing the game I love and I’ve been playing since I was a kid,” he said. “But just coming out here, I take every rep that I have and treat it like my last. Because obviously coming through what I’ve been through, I understand that it can be your last rep of the season any time.

“Obviously I don’t think like that, but I always think about going out there and doing your best each and every play. Because I know it can be taken away from you.”

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