Jake Browning was blindfolded.
He had his hands in a petri dish to paw at a wad of sticky, purplish goo seemingly plucked out of a Play-Doh can. And Browning frowned.
The Washington Huskies quarterback was part of a Pac-12 Network promotional shoot, decked in a white smock better suited for a true scientist. This gag scene included scores of athletes during media day on Wednesday and Thursday in the heart of Hollywood.
“Yeah, not my best work,” Browning said later with a laugh.
To be sure, Browning’s best work with his hands features gripping a football. And unleashing it short or long, with zip or touch. It’s been his thing since his youth football days in Folsom, and he fired a Pacific-12 Conference record-tying 43 touchdown passes last season in earning league Offensive Player of the Year accolades.
Cameron Smith of USC also dabbled in the science fun, his massive mitts mauling the substance. And yes, the Granite Bay product much prefers to have his hands in the thick of real action, such as chasing quarterbacks or scooping up fumbles. He’s a preseason All-America linebacker by Sporting News.
These 6-foot-2 juniors represent some of the best of the Pac-12 – Browning as its most decorated passer and Smith as perhaps its most regal and fierce stopper.
The promising team captains will draw attention, including from NFL scouts. Both could be first-round draft picks in April, should they decide to leave school early. For now, Browning and Smith are dialed in to the immediate challenges. Practice starts in Monday for Seattle, where the Huskies aim to repeat as Pac-12 North champions. USC also starts training camp on Monday as the media pick to win the South. If they meet this season, it’ll be in December for the Pac-12 title.
These rising stars have run into each other for years, from youth ball to their high school days, Browning at Folsom and Smith at Granite Bay. Browning got the best of Smith in high school. They were both three-time Bee All-Metro honorees, and both won CIF State championships. Smith and USC bettered Browning and Washington last season 26-13 in Seattle.
“I’ve played against Cameron since we were 8 years old, and he’s always been good, great,” Browning said. “He’s a really good guy.”
Browning and Smith got to know each other outside shoulder pads this week, including a Wednesday night tour of Universal Studios.
“It’s cool,” Smith said, “I got to hang out with Jake the past few days here. I didn’t know him that well in high school. We had a rivalry that was built up. He’s a great guy. I love watching him play.”
Washington’s second loss in 2016 was to Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal, which Browning labored through with a sore passing shoulder that required offseason surgery. He insists his shoulder was not an issue against Alabama and deemed himself, “100 percent and ready to go.”
USC started last season 1-2 but finished with a nine-game winning streak, punctuated with a Rose Bowl victory over Penn State.
“I’m not happy with how last season (ended),” Browning said. “We lost. We finished with a loss, and to have that sour taste in your mouth now for almost eighth months, that doesn’t feel good. So there’s no mistake that there’s motivation for us and that we can do better.”
Said Smith of USC’s outlook, “For us, it’s ‘fight on.’ We’re ready to go.”
Browning and Smith graduated from high school in the winter to get a jump on their collegiate careers. And both started as freshmen. Smith was the first USC freshman to start a season at middle linebacker since Riki Gray in 1978. In 22 career starts, he has recorded 161 tackles. He has been named to the Bednarik Award watch list that recognizes the nation’s top defender.
That the Sacramento region has two prominent players in the Pac-12 comes as no surprise to Ernie Cooper, Smith’s coach at Granite Bay.
Sacramento has long been a haven for prospects, and the Pac-12 includes several projected starters: guard Cody Creason of Folsom at Arizona, Tony Ellison of Granite Bay at Arizona, tackle Kolton Miller of Roseville at UCLA, defensive tackle Ngalu Tapa of Burbank at Washington State and cornerback Trey Udoffia of Del Oro at Colorado.
“There is really good football in Sacramento, and has been for a long time,” Cooper said. “Cameron and Jake are there.”