The focus is now. It’s this final game, this matchup, this moment. No more. At least, that’s what the Washington Huskies are saying in the buildup to Saturday’s Heart of Dallas Bowl against Southern Mississippi.
But the Huskies, they’re human too, and when the topic of the future is broached they concede they’re not unlike the growing number of fans daydreaming about the program’s promising prospects.
“I try not to. I really try not to,” UW freshman running back Myles Gaskin said. “I mean, I know we’ve got a lot of potential, but you can’t control nothing else but this very second, this very moment. It’s exciting – it’s very exciting – but you can’t look too far ahead.”
In reality, this season has always been about the future. That much was clear in August when UW coach Chris Petersen named Jake Browning the starting quarterback, the first true freshman in program history to earn that role for an opening game. When Petersen was introduced as UW’s coach two years ago, he said he envisioned building a program for the long haul. His actions and choices along the way have supported that plan, particularly when it came to the youth movement this season.
As Browning settled in as a solid Pac-12 quarterback, and as the Huskies (6-6) ironed out some of the many wrinkles around him late in the season, he was more and more linked in the backfield with another true-freshman prodigy. All Gaskin did was earn UW’s offensive MVP award after breaking the school’s freshman rushing records with 1,121 yards and 10 touchdowns.
From precocious to productive, Browning and Gaskin have established themselves as the centerpieces of an offensive evolution – UW’s Backs to the Future – creating healthy optimism in and around the program for 2016, and beyond.
The Huskies already boast the top-rated defense in the Pac-12, and with the core of that defense coming back, one national writer last week predicted UW will be a “trendy” Top-20 pick going into next season. UW’s offense, for the second year in a row, finished the regular season ranked 10th in the Pac-12. For the Huskies to challenge the likes of Stanford and Oregon in the Pac-12 North, that offense needs to be more consistent and more dynamic.
With Browning and Gaskin leading the way, it’s fair to expect that it will.
Browning came to campus with a flashy high-school resume – a California state championship and a national-record 229 touchdown passes – and soon after arriving at UW in January he started to build a reputation to match some of the hype. There’s an understated intensity about Browning that, in many ways, mirrors that of his coach. Like Petersen, Browning has been described as a perfectionist. Like Petersen, he demands much of himself and those around him.
“The guy hates losing,” offensive lineman Coleman Shelton said. “The only thing on his mind is winning.”
Gaskin said Browning is “absolutely” hard on himself – “maybe sometimes too hard. That’s how he is, (and) it’s been working for him. I’m not going to stop him.”
Losing was foreign to Browning, who was 44-2 in three years as the starter at Folsom High School. This season, having to talk about losing in postgame interviews almost appeared as infuriating for him as the losses themselves. After the Huskies’ collapse at Arizona State on Nov. 14, Browning sat in a sofa chair, shoulders slumped, as he answered questions and accepted responsibility for throwing three fourth-quarter interceptions. “I gotta improve,” he said.
Browning’s dedication to film study has already become a bit of legend around the UW football offices. At one point, Gaskin wondered how late Browning had been studying game film the night before and Gaskin recalled giving his quarterback an are-you-serious? response back when told it was around midnight.
“He’s doing all he can,” Gaskin said “And I know sometimes it looks a little rough and everyone kind of looks at him (as the reason for that), but that man, that’s a hard worker. That is a hard worker. I’m excited for what else he’s got in store.”
Browning has won over many outside the locker room, too.
“I’m really impressed with that guy from start to finish,” said Keith Gilbertson, the former UW coach and offensive coordinator. “As big as the game can be in the Pac-12, it was never too big for him. He was always cool and in command.”
The Huskies had the youngest offense in the Pac-12 this season, and of the 82 teams playing in a bowl game they are the third-youngest overall, according to UW research. Having a core group this young, especially on offense, is “really unique,” Gilbertson said.
“Of course, everyone’s got a lot of work (to do),” Gaskin said, “but Jake, he’s very surprising. He’s becoming a better leader and he’s just one of those guys you want to fight for. It’s just exciting to see him right back there next to me, knowing he’s going to do all he can and everybody else is too for him.”
As the offense grows and evolves, the task for Browning is to continue to establish trust, respect and camaraderie with teammates, young and old. Coaches and teammates say Browning isn’t the type to stand up in the middle of the locker room and give an impassioned speech; rather, he’s more likely to pull a guy aside and offer encouragement or, if necessary, blunt criticism.
“He has gotten a little more animated, more vocal,” UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said. “He’s not going to be the rah-rah speech guy. That’s OK. I think you’ve got to be authentic in how you do it, but he’s been more comfortable to call guys out or point things out or get them going a little bit, and that will all continue to grow.”
Entering the season opener, Gaskin was the third-string running back and he had five carries for 5 yards in the Huskies’ loss at Boise State. By the Apple Cup, he was entrenched as the No. 1 running back, and he capped off his record-breaking regular season with a career-high 32 carries for 138 yards and two touchdowns.
On Friday, ESPN named him to its true freshman All-America team, though he sounded more like a veteran when asked about his sudden success. For running backs, it’s always wise to defer to the guys blocking up front.
“I’m just very thankful,” the former O’Dea star said. “All the records I give to the O-line. They did a great job this year. I can’t really say much else. I mean, thank God, my family, the UW football community, but the O-line – it starts with those guys and I have nothing but the utmost respect for those guys. They don’t get none of the cheers or nothing you see when somebody runs into the end zone, but those guys every single day are working their butts off, so just much love to those guys.”
Lauded throughout the season for his patience, vision and speed, Gaskin might have impressed most in the end with his durability. At 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, he’s a bit undersized as a Pac-12 running back but was able to stay healthy all season, crediting regular treatments with trainers and the occasional ice bath.
While Browning and Gaskin accounted for 87 percent of the offensive production this season, just as important for the Huskies’ future was the development of an offensive line that’s scheduled to return four of five regular starters next season. In particular, true-freshman left tackle Trey Adams and redshirt-freshman right tackle Kaleb McGary worked through the growing pains that are to be expected of that position. They should be better for it, and the Huskies should be, too.
The nucleus is in place for UW’s offense for 2016, and beyond. But first, the Huskies aren’t looking beyond this bowl game, this one more chance for a true-freshman backfield to shine, one last game before their future becomes the focus.
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