He’s still Cool Hand Jake.
The setting is different, the stakes much higher, the audience ten-fold on a national scale, but it’s still football for Jake Browning.
This means early morning film review, often alone in a dark room at the University of Washington, a clicker in one hand, a pen in the other to jot down notes. It also means more examples of the sophomore quarterback’s humble, bravado-free nature.
Browning, for all of his accolades that now include contention for this year’s Heisman Trophy, has never been a “me guy.” As he did at Folsom High School, he defers credit to teammates and coaches and the system in general.
“It takes all of us to make this work,” Browning said in a phone interview from Seattle this week.
Washington and the Pacific-12 Conference are a far cry from picking apart defenses en route to championship seasons at Folsom, but Browning has made the transition a remarkably seamless one. He makes what could be the first of two Northern California returns Saturday night with a visit to Cal.
His next appearance could be in the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 2 at Levi’s Stadium.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Browning looked mortal on a football field – for once – starting as a freshman last season. He and the Huskies took time to find themselves amid a 7-6 season. Browning landed the starting job months after graduating from high school by doing what he does best: outworking everyone else.
“He studied as hard as anyone that I’ve been around,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said last month. “He was up here morning, noon and night. He would go in (the video room), and you would see him the whole time, just getting film work done on his own, and it paid off. It gave him a fighting chance.”
This season, Browning has passed for 1,895 yards and 28 touchdowns – 12 more than all of last season – with just three interceptions for the No. 4 Huskies, who will bring an 8-0 record to Berkeley. Browning said he especially appreciates when teammates and coaches deem him “a great teammate.”
And when you peel away the layers, Browning offers dry humor. He lives with four teammates in an off-campus townhouse. The place may not resemble Animal House – with laundry and assorted debris scattered about – but it’s no Four Seasons Hotel, either.
“I don’t know if it’s a place you’d invite your parents over for the night,” Browning said with a laugh.
Browning, on a summer internship in Seattle for a wealth management company: “It went well. I got a class credit for it. I’m getting a feel for life after football. It’s interesting because you’re thinking everything outside of football is so easy – not getting yelled at in practice, not a physically demanding thing, sitting at a cubicle. But it’s hard. It’s a little different than every-day football. I was in a collared shirt, slacks, but no tie. This is the West Coast, more relaxed.”
Browning, on his sudden national celebrity that includes reporters asking to interview his father, Ed, who played quarterback at Oregon State in the late 1980s: “It’s weird, parents doing interviews. It’s like, ‘You’re 20 years old, can go to war, so you should be able to figure out media stuff (laughs).’ ”
Browning, on trying to maintain a low profile on campus: “I get recognized sometimes, but I don’t really stand out. I just blend in.”
And Browning on his nerves the night before a game: “I sleep pretty soundly. I’ve always slept hard. When I feel prepared, I can rest.”
Browning has always appreciated simplicity. He drove a clunker at Folsom, with the screeching sounds of low transmission fluid as he navigated the parking lot. The love of his life remains Ella, his 4-year-old sister. At Washington, he fancies himself as just one of the guys, not defined by football.
Troy Taylor, the onetime Cordova and Cal star quarterback, first met Browning at age 10 when Taylor ran a local passing academy. Taylor and Browning hit it off, and Taylor was the co-coach at Folsom with Kris Richardson when Browning became the most prolific passer in high school football history, throwing 229 touchdown passes in threeseasons for teams that went a combined 44-2.
Now in his first season as an assistant coach at Eastern Washington, Taylor remains in contact with Browning. They talk life and football, with a lot of laughs mixed in.
“He’s the same guy, the same old Jake, just as cool as can be,” Taylor said. “His best qualities, football-wise, are how he’s incredibly accurate, how his anticipation is unmatched, and he sees the game at a slow pace. But his absolute best quality is he’s always been the same guy, and he still treats everyone the same way. He never changed. He’s the same quality person.
“The hardest part of playing quarterback is the pressure you have on and off the field, all the scrutiny, and how he handles it is a big part of why he’s been so great. He’s still Jake.”
In a 70-21 rout of Oregon earlier this season, Browning passed for 304 yards and six touchdowns and ran for two to thrust him into the Heisman Trophy discussion. But it was on a touchdown run when Browning stunned his coaches and family. Browning pointed at a Ducks defender as he crossed the goal line and was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. It was out of character for Browning, who was not flagged last season or in high school.
The gesture cost the Huskies a 15-yard penalty and Browning 500 push-ups, a sentence handed down by Petersen. Browning’s teammates urged the Huskies’ coach to let them do push-ups, too. Petersen refused.
“That was not smart of me, and it wasn’t like me to do that, like an out-of-body experience,” Browning said. “I don’t know where that came from. My dad told me, ‘You’re lucky you won; otherwise you’d look dumb.’ My teammates were a fan of it. They loved it, but coach wasn’t a fan of it, and I wasn’t, either.”
Said Huskies cornerback Kevin King: “We stand behind Jake. He’s not a cocky guy. We all know his character. That’s somebody you want to be leading your team.”
Against Arizona, Browning earned more style points from teammates when he flattened a defender on a reverse to set up a 32-yard touchdown run. Browning downplayed it, saying, “If anyone else makes that play, any other position, it’s another play. But quarterback standards are lowered on athleticism. We’re not supposed to be able to make those plays. But it was fun. I don’t think he saw it coming.”
The Pac-12 sees Browning coming.
“He has all the tools,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “He doesn’t look like a young quarterback. He looks like a veteran that’s out there running the show. His progress has been impressive.”
Leading the Heisman Trophy race is Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has accounted for 3,520 total yards and 38 touchdowns, and that’s fine with Browning. Instead of individual awards, Browning prefers to discuss winning games, championships.
“It’s cool to be in the discussion, but it’s not something I listen to,” he said. “I focus on winning, and all the other stuff can work itself out. It’s an honor to be mentioned, and I’m respectful of it, but that’s not the goal; playing well is.”
Cool Hand Jake.