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University of Washington Huskies Football

Commentary: Michael Penix Jr.’s return makes possibilities seem endless for UW Huskies

Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) is embraced by his grandmother Cheryl Penix after UW defeated WSU during the second half of a college football game on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. The Washington Huskies won the game 51-33.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

The video, posted on Instagram and Twitter, had the distinct feel of a quarterback saying goodbye. At first, at least. But somewhere between the heartfelt thank yous and the declaration of unfinished business, Michael Penix Jr. deftly sidestepped the conventional wisdom like it was a slow-footed pass rusher.

No, Penix wasn’t saying goodbye to Washington and turning pro, as most people had assumed he would do after a brilliant debut season for the Huskies. Instead, all Penix did with one 211-word statement, unveiled at 6:58 p.m. Sunday to an unsuspecting public, was turn Huskies football on its ear.

In a good way. The best way imaginable, in fact.

Suddenly, everything is possible for Washington, now that a 10-2 team that is finishing on a meteoric upswing and all the good vibes it can muster doesn’t have a gaping hole to fill at quarterback. A feel-good season just got a feel-great push into the realm of the limitless.

National championship? It doesn’t seem like hyperbole anymore for Washington. Take away an inexplicable loss to Arizona State this year – the Sun Devils went on to lose five of their last six, the only win coming over a horrible Colorado team – and the Huskies would have been one victory over USC from the national playoffs this year. And did anyone who watched Utah systematically dismantle USC on Friday think that the Huskies wouldn’t have had much more than a puncher’s chance against the Trojans?

With Penix back in the fold, the Huskies will certainly start the season ranked in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 poll; and from that jumping-off point, a conference title is not a pipe dream. And then you see where it takes you. Especially if Penix’s return is the lure to convince his stellar wide receiver combo, Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze, to run it back with him. It’s also easy to see Penix as the pied piper attracting all manner of stellar talent to hit the transfer portal with Seattle in mind.

Heisman Trophy? Penix will absolutely go into 2023 stamped as one of the favorites. In this race, early hype is half the battle. It’s awfully hard to come out of nowhere and insinuate yourself into the consciousness of voters, especially when you’re playing six 10:30 p.m. starts on the East Coast, as Penix and the Huskies did in ‘22.

By all rights, Penix should be in New York this year as a finalist; there’s little doubt he was one of the three best quarterbacks in America this year – and we all know that’s what the Heisman race has become. Next season he’ll have the name recognition from the start. Penix vs. likely 2022 Heisman winner Caleb Williams in USC’s final Pac-12 season will be one of the most riveting story lines in college football next year – and this time, they face each other at the L.A. Coliseum at some point in the season. It could be the college football game of the year. That’s another thing Penix’s return made possible.

After he led the Huskies to an Apple Cup victory 10 days ago, I wrote that even if Penix had a one-and-done Washington career, as he appeared headed for, he had established himself as a Husky legend by playing brilliantly in leading victories over their two fiercest rivals, Oregon and Washington State.

So what is the next level above legend? Demigod? By eschewing the hefty seven-figure payday of an expected second- or third-round NFL draft pick – and he could possibly have worked his way to the first round by virtue of his Alamo Bowl, college All-Star Game and NFL combine performance – Penix has earned the undying and eternal affection of Husky fans.

Let’s just stop for a moment and think about how remarkably things have changed for the Washington program in one year. Following their Apple Cup blowout loss to WSU last November, the Huskies’ season had been an unmitigated disaster, marked by the in-season firing of offensive coordinator John Donovan and then coach Jimmy Lake. The reputation of the once-proud football school was in tatters.

Lake’s replacement, Kalen DeBoer, has resurrected and even elevated that reputation fully in one year. DeBoer’s offensive coordinator, Ryan Grubb, has proved to be a master of the X’s and O’s. And his hand-picked quarterback, Penix, was the perfect conduit to transform those fancy schemes into yards and points.

Absolutely no one would have begrudged Penix for turning pro, especially after four injury-riddled seasons at Indiana before his fully healthy 2022. If pro scouts have any doubts about Penix, it’s the long-term ramifications of the knee (twice), shoulder and sternoclavicular joint injuries that cut short previous seasons. The safe play would have been to go out after an injury-free year in which he led the nation in passing and not risk another injury that might thwart his draft chances in 2024.

It’s not known what effect NIL had, if any, on his decision to return. Penix might be wise to get an insurance policy, as Jake Locker did when he decided to forgo a certain first-round pick to come back to Washington for his senior year. But I get the feeling that, like Locker, Penix simply loved the college life, and the college game, so much that he couldn’t bear to leave.

Not with the possibilities ahead in 2023. They were simply too enticing. “The job is still not finished,’’ Penix said in the video he posted.

The job might not be. But the Penix legacy has been cemented. All that remains to be seen is how far he takes it in the second year no one saw coming.