By Larry Stone
Seattle Times columnist
It starts from a place of equality.
The Huskies will enter their first of 15 spring practices Wednesday determined to show no favoritism, and tip no hands, with regard to the vital position of quarterback.
Members of Kalen DeBoer’s new coaching regime say they aren’t stressed by the presence on March 30 of three candidates, with 157 days to go before one of them will lead the Huskies into the huddle Sept. 3 against Kent State.
DeBoer and staff are content to let the answer reveal itself organically, through performance in practice and drills, where every single throw is recorded and graded; through retention and mastery of the playbook; and through emergence of the intangible qualities of leadership and poise.
There is no timetable for naming a starter, offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said. If it’s still unsettled entering the summer, so be it. No one, they insist, has the edge. Not Dylan Morris, who has started 15 out of 16 Husky games over the past two seasons. Not Sam Huard, the five-star legacy who arrived on campus two years ago touted as a future star. Not Michael Penix, an often-injured transfer from Indiana who had great success in 2019 running DeBoer’s offense at Indiana and in 2020 put up a 491-yard, five-touchdown game against No. 3 Ohio State.
“You’ve got to try and create the most equal environment that you can, and see who really rises to the top,” Grubb said. “And that doesn’t mean just reps. It means opportunities in scheme, opportunities in field position. There’s a lot of thought that goes in it.”
Fans, of course, are clamoring for a clue as to who might have the edge. They’re going to be disappointed. Even when acknowledging that Penix had the initial advantage of familiarity with the verbiage and terminology in the DeBoer system, both Grubb and DeBoer hastened to add that Morris and Huard have quickly caught on, and caught up, in the four months or so since the new staff took over.
DeBoer says this sort of quarterback uncertainty in the spring is nothing new for him, and seems to relish the challenge. He estimates that he’s overseen six or seven QB battles over the past 15 years or so — most recently at Fresno State in 2020, when Husky transfer Jake Haener won the job. Haener was briefly thought to be a candidate to follow DeBoer back to Washington but he quickly withdrew his name from the NCAA transfer portal.
“You know, it seems like every year you’ve got two quarterbacks, and right now we’re really looking at three,” DeBoer said at a media session Monday. “I think that’s where it gets hard, is now the reps are diminished amongst three guys. That’s the hard part.
“But I know this: We’re going to pour everything into trying to coach these guys up. That’s just how I’ve always done it, and it will shake itself out. … And some of these guys have got more than just one year left, so it’s not just a short-term thing. It’s a long-term thing.”
Actually, all three have more than one year of eligibility remaining. Penix is listed as a junior, Morris as a sophomore and Huard as a freshman.
The hope, of course, is that no matter who is quarterback, DeBoer and Grubb will coax more explosiveness out of an offense that floundered under coordinator John Donovan, who was fired in 2021, nine games into his second season. Grubb raved about the playmaking potential of the receiver position and the myriad options on the offensive line, but he expressed concern over the running-back depth.
Yet it all flows from the quarterback position, so this pending battle is crucial. DeBoer will stress to the candidates to concentrate on their progress and not how they stand on the thus-far hypothetical depth charge.
“I think that’s the number-one message that we have for our whole team, but especially, I think, at the quarterback spot, because we all know that’s the position where one guy usually plays,” DeBoer said. “It’s not two or three, like at receiver. It’s one guy.
“And the quarterback, obviously, is the one that drives our offense. It’s important for that person to be successful. I think the hard part, when you’re talking about the quarterback, the earlier you name a quarterback, that person now can take on the identity of the leader of the team. But it’s harder when they don’t know if they’re the starting quarterback or not, and what direction it’s going.
“So that’s one of the hardest pieces as you’re trying to push your culture and trying to build that swagger, that confidence. That’s the one piece that is held back a little bit as you’re going through competition, especially at quarterback.”
For now it’s all about equality at quarterback for the Huskies. Three players standing as one. But discerning who emerges as THE one will be job one for Washington’s new staff over the next 157 days.