Joe Davidson

Cool-hand Jake: Browning impresses in debut as Washington Huskies QB

Former Folsom High School standout Jake Browning became the first true freshman to start a season opener at quarterback for Washington on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015.
Former Folsom High School standout Jake Browning became the first true freshman to start a season opener at quarterback for Washington on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015. The Associated Press

Jake Browning handled the anticipation of his first collegiate start with the breezy confidence of a smooth operator.

Translation: Same old Jake.

While family, friends and perhaps an entire new fan base in the Pacific Northwest gnawed their fingers to the knuckles on Friday night during a nationally televised game, Browning took this next-level gig in stride.

Browning lives for this, has worked for this opportunity seemingly since he first got serious about throwing a football at 10 years old. On the nights leading into his much-ballyhooed quarterback debut for the Washington Huskies, in an electrified environment ready to swallow him whole, Browning slept soundly, with the sort of snoring that might alarm the neighbors.

And there you have it. The 19-year-old true freshman from Folsom High School continues to be renowned for his poise.

Browning didn’t flinch or blink on this grand stage, either, and he had every right to. Browning was the young leading the young onto the blue turf of No. 23 Boise State, the venue so loud you couldn’t hear yourself yell. Football matters here. The faithful are known to sleep on Broncos bedsheets and attend church in blue and orange after a night of tailgating.

“This is a really hard environment to throw anybody into for the first time, let alone a freshman,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen, the Yuba City native and former Boise State coach responsible for throwing him to the wolves, or, rather, the Broncos.

This is a really hard environment to throw anybody into for the first time, let alone a freshman.

Washington coach Chris Petersen, on Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho

Browning didn’t overwhelm the way he did over three spectacular varsity seasons at Folsom, where he went 44-2 with a remarkable 229 touchdown passes in becoming the most prolific prep quarterback in national history. Then again, he wasn’t facing Stagg of Stockton, either. Against Boise State, Browning was a modest 20 of 34 for 150 yards with no touchdowns – when is the last time that happened? – in a 16-13 loss to the heavily favored Broncos.

But Browning showed great promise, warding off a late hit by the Broncos early in the game and an interception to make it a game. Boise State stormed to a 16-0 halftime lead, but Washington’s defense, special teams and new quarterback made it competitive. Browning, scrambling and passing, put the Huskies in position to force overtime as a 46-yard field-goal attempt just missed with 21 seconds left.

And typical Browning, he was hard on himself afterward, the buzz of his start dulled by defeat.

“It’s hard to talk encouragement when we just lost,” Browning said. “There were some positive things, but we lost. There’s no pity points.”

Browning said he fully expected to win, never mind that Washington returned few starters and Boise 17, which often equates to a lopsided affair at this level.

“Looking back, it was fun to play, but I don’t like to lose,” Browning said firmly. “I feel physically sick right now (that we lost).”

Browning learned that he had won the job over two more experienced players more than a week before arriving in Boise. Petersen didn’t announce his starter in advance, a ploy to keep Boise State coaches guessing, and it didn’t become official until just before kickoff. Browning got a head start on the season by graduating from Folsom in January, enrolling at Washington, studying the playbook and soaking in 15 spring practice sessions.

And that rest last week? He had plenty.

“I didn’t feel overly nervous,” Browning said. “I slept well.”

In Folsom, scores of fans were glued to the ESPN telecast. That the state-ranked Folsom Bulldogs did not play until Saturday night seemed almost too perfect. Folsom co-coach Troy Taylor, who has mentored Browning for more than 10 years, hosted a coaches’ party in his home. Taylor spoke to Browning before the game and after. Game time was difficult for Taylor because no matter how much he yelled or offered body English to the TV screen, Browning couldn’t hear or feel any of it.

Looking back, it was fun to play, but I don’t like to lose. I feel physically sick right now (that we lost).

Washington quarterback Jake Browning

“I know I was definitely more nervous than Jake was,” Taylor said. “He said he felt great going in, and I thought he played really well. He was accurate and composed, and I know he wanted that pick back, but considering everything, he was really good. You know he doesn’t like to lose, not used to it, and that’s good. You want your quarterback to be like that. Clearly, you can see that this guy will be an incredible player.”

Taylor can speak from experience of quarterback excellence and expectations. He led Cordova to a 14-0 campaign in 1985 and still owns a bevy of Cal passing records. And he started for the Bears as a true freshman, midway through the 1986 season.

Only one difference: Taylor was a nervous wreck going in, racing up and down the team hotel in the wee hours before his debut against Oregon State to burn off anxiety, a far cry from the cool calm of Browning.

“Honestly, for me, it was survival, and for Jake, he was in the moment,” Taylor said. “I ran up and down the hallways, to get tired so I could sleep. Jake rested, so that tells you who has the brighter future.”

Browning’s teammates weren’t fretting. Several said Browning had won the locker room with his leadership and skills before the opener, and it was solidified with his gutsy effort.

“A freshman coming into this environment, I thought he did awesome,” Washington wide receiver Jaydon Mickens said. “We were very much impressed with him coming in, and especially now after taking those hits, putting us in field-goal range. That’s awesome. He was gaining confidence, encouraging guys on the sideline.”

Browning found out quickly how fast this pace is. At Folsom, a short bubble screen often resulted in a 70-yard touchdown as the Bulldogs cruised to a 16-0 season in 2014. At this level, the closing speed of cornerbacks is striking. At Folsom, the offensive line provided ample protection for Browning to savage defenses downfield. At this level, that pocket evaporates in a hurry.

But what remains is Browning’s presence. He’s a natural leader who feels the game. His next test is Saturday at home against Sacramento State.

“I thought Jake did some good things (against Boise), and I know there are a lot of little things he wants to work on,” Petersen said. “He – and we – will continue to progress and get better.”

Petersen added of Browning, “He’s got a good demeanor, is an accurate thrower, good pocket presence, understands football.”

Browning also understands perspective. He likes to say that he is a quarterback but not necessarily defined by the sport. He appreciates simplicity. He drove a clunker at Folsom – the one with the screeching sounds of low transmission fluid. The love of his life remains Ella, his 3-year-old sister. Modest and compassionate, he attended his junior prom with a special-needs student.

Browning speaks the part of Huskies leader now, to the point he will fret about not beating Boise State, not that anyone faults him.

“I was trying to give our kicker the best chance (to force overtime), and I didn’t,” Browning said. “Doesn’t feel good at all. When we get momentum behind us (like the second half), we’re a pretty good team. That starts with me. I can’t come out here thinking, ‘I’m a true freshman.’ Got to come out and think, ‘Win.’”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD