A quarterback and two linebackers with Sacramento-area roots were among the players on hand Wednesday at Pacific-12 Conference Media Day, where everyone looked refreshed and was brimming of optimism.
The Washington Huskies, led by fourth-year starting quarterback Jake Browning of Folsom, is the preseason media pick to win the Pac-12 championship over defending champion USC, led again on defense by Cameron Smith, who barreled onto the national football scene while at Granite Bay High School and is still blowing up backfields.
A dark horse candidate in the Pac-12 North is Cal, led on defense by senior All-American candidate Jordan Kunaszyk, who excelled at Roseville High and American River College.
“It’s so cool to have three of us from the 916 here,” Smith said.
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Washington returns a wealth of talent for fifth-year coach Chris Petersen, who prepped at Yuba City High and set passing marks at Sacramento City College and UC Davis in the 1980s. In short order, Petersen has elevated the Huskies to national prominence, pulling the program out of decline.
Typical of Petersen, he downplayed preseason projections, saying, “That doesn’t mean anything to us. We expect to be good and win games, and that’s never changed. I’d rather prove (the media wrong) than prove you right. Now we’re working to prove you right than prove you wrong.”
Washington returns 16 regular starters from its 10-3 team, including running back Myles Gaskin, who seeks his fourth 1,000-yard season.
The Huskies open the season on Sept. 1 against Auburn, eager to shed any notion that the Pac-12 cannot handle the heavies after going 1-8 in bowl games last season.
Browning passed for 2,719 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2017 after going for 3,430 and 43 as a sophomore, when he led the Huskies to the Pac-12 title and into the College Football Playoff. He has 9,104 career yards and 78 career touchdowns, the scoring strikes already representing a career record for the program.
Browning is second on the all-time Washington career passing list behind Cody Pickett, who passed for 10,220 yards from 1999-2003.
“I can’t believe how fast it’s gone,” Browning said of his Washington career. “I’m ready for this final year.”
A preseason All-America selection, Smith will be a fourth-year starter at USC. A projected first-round pick, Smith elected to return for his senior season because he enjoys the college game and his teammates. The Trojans went 11-3 last season when Smith again led the team with 112 tackles. He has 273 for his career. The USC career leader in tackles is Hayes Pullard with 373 from 2011-14.
Kunaszyk has played in 21 games for Cal since his transfer from ARC, quickly emerging as a leader. He has 125 tackles at Cal, which went 5-7 under first-year coach Justin Wilcox.
“We’re in great hands with coach Wilcox,” Kunaszyk said, adding that when the locker room was short of soap last season, it was the coach who delivered.
Kunaszyk has known Browning and Smith for years. He and Smith started football at the same time, as 6-year-olds in Roseville. He and Smith are on the 2018 Bronko Nagurski Trophy watch list that recognizes the nation’s top defensive player.
“It’s so fun to be here with these guys,” Kunaszyk said. “We all have high expectations.”
Kunaszyk said the real star at Cal is running back Patrick Laird, who signed up 3,500 people for his summer reading program.
“I didn’t do a lot of reading as a kid, but I do now and I love the whole aspect of it,” Kunaszyk said. “Anything to get better.”