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Petersen hopes QB competition advances passing game

4/3/2015

SEATTLE -- Second-year Washington coach Chris Petersen casts a glance toward the large wall of windows that provides him a view of Husky Stadium, Lake Washington and the snow-capped Cascade Mountains. Perhaps a profound, revelatory thought is coming, one that will trenchantly diagnose what went wrong for the Huskies in 2014, a season that was supposed to go well mostly because Petersen was sitting in this spacious office.

"We weren't good enough in the passing game," Petersen said.

While that pronouncement wasn't accompanied by a thunder clap or angelic chorus, and probably won't do much to change Petersen's somewhat overstated reputation for not revealing much to reporters, it pretty much cuts to the chase.

Washington played good defense last year. It mostly ran the ball well. It was strong on special teams. But it scared no one when it threw the ball. Ergo, a lackluster 8-6 record that didn't seem terribly Petersen-esque, considering he went 92-12 in eight seasons at Boise State. Those Broncos teams almost always threw the ball well. The two years they averaged less than 225 yards per game through the air, they went a combined 24-2.

The Huskies ranked 11th in the Pac-12 with just 200.1 yards passing per game, and that was the primary reason the offense mostly floundered, particularly against good opponents. In four games against ranked conference teams, the Huskies scored just 21.2 points, which ranked 10th in the conference. In those four games, they scored just nine touchdowns and went 0-4.

If you prefer convenient plot lines, the story this spring was supposed to be about quarterback Cyler Miles righting himself after a middling sophomore campaign, embracing the challenge of re-winning the starting job and earning kudos for his offseason work and newfound grasp of the offense, not unlike what former Huskies QB Keith Price did after a disappointing junior season. Yet, it was announced in mid-March that Miles was taking a "voluntary leave of absence," one that wasn't a disciplinary issue, as it was when he missed spring practices a year ago.

As for Miles' chances of playing again for the Huskies, most speculation terms it doubtful.

“There’s a chance," Petersen said. "We’ll just see. I don’t know how it’s going to go. It’s all about Cyler just getting everything in order and feeling like he wants to do this and can do this.”

So what was stacked up as a "quarterback competition" challenge for a returning starter after the Huskies embarrassing loss to Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl is now an unadulterated, 100 percent Quarterback Competition. When Petersen says he has no idea who will prevail between junior Jeff Lindquist, redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels and freshman Jake Browning, it doesn't seem evasive. It feels honest.

It's unlikely that spring practices will yield an official pecking order, so the big story of Petersen's return to Boise State for Washington's season opener on Sept. 4 also might include the naming of a starting QB. “I think it will be pretty hard to [name a starter this spring]," Petersen said. "If we knew that, we would do it. I just think we can’t get enough reps with those guys.”

Lindquist is the veteran. He started for a suspended Miles in the 2014 opener at Hawaii and ended up throwing 30 passes last year. He's got size -- 6-foot-3, 244 pounds -- and is a good runner.

“He has a lot of tools," Petersen said. "He just hasn’t played in a lot of games, but he can do some things. He can.”

Yet Lindquist struggled against Hawaii, particularly in the second half, and he's well-aware of the critical area where he has come up short in previous QB competitions.

“Accuracy," he said. "That’s been my deal all through college. From a mental aspect, I’ve been doing all right with the game, and I understand it pretty well. It’s just a matter of making a throw that was two feet too far out front [rather] than putting it right on a guy.”

He's completed just one third of his throws, with one touchdown, no interceptions and just 5.4 yards per attempt.

Carta-Samuels, a solidly built 6-foot-2, 219 pounds, was the star of the scout team last year. He was rated the No. 14 pocket passer by ESPN coming out of Bellarmine Prep High School in Saratoga, California in 2013. His ESPN recruiting bio lauded his accuracy and quick release, "Good player, above average athlete, but certainly a guy who has the arm talent to develop."

Browning, ESPN's No. 5 pocket passer in 2014, put up huge numbers last year for Folsom (Calif.) High School, setting single-season (91) and career (229) records for touchdown passes. From his recruiting bio, "There is a high ceiling for frame development over the course of time. He is your prototypical pocket passer with good enough feet to move around within the pocket and get the ball out of his hand."

Browning, listed at 6-2, 205 pounds, hasn't fully physically matured, and he certainly casts a thinner shadow than the other two, but early returns the first week of spring practices confirm he's legit.

“I’ve been amazed by how quickly Jake has picked up the playbook coming from high school," Lindquist said.

Petersen has never started a true freshman at quarterback, but there's always a first time. Kellen Moore started as a redshirt freshman, and that's to whom Browning has more than once been compared.

Said Petersen, “He understands a lot of football already. He’s further alone than a lot of guys would be after two years. ... He's not a true freshman in my mind.”

Washington isn't making Carta-Samuels or Browning available for interviews. The Huskies had another QB last year who started a game, Troy Williams, but he transferred to Santa Monica College.

Whoever wins the job, he won't be surrounded by proven players. The Huskies offense, with just five returning starters, also has questions on the offensive line and with the skill positions.

So while a rebuilding defense, one that lost four superstar players who could be selected in the first round of the NFL draft this month, is as pressing an issue, Petersen figures to be fixated on whether the Huskies will be good enough in the passing game next fall.