Better 2016: Deshaun Watson or Baker Mayfield?
2:11 | College Football
Better 2016: Deshaun Watson or Baker Mayfield?
Monday July 18th, 2016

It’s O.K. to admit your college football knowledge is a little rusty. It’s been six months since any games, and a host of stars from last year have left for the NFL. Sure, you know sensations like Deshaun Watson, Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette are back, but what about the new crop of on-the rise players? We’re here to help. Welcome to the Off-Season Spotlight, a weekly feature that will introduce you to a player you’ll want to know this fall. We’ve already looked at Clemson sophomore defensive lineman Christian Wilkins. Today, let’s focus on Washington sophomore quarterback Jake Browning.

Why is he important?

The college football preseason hype train embraces many teams, but its strongest amplifying forces are reserved for a select few. In 2016, one of them is Washington. Look around the CFB projectionsphere—official polls, magazines, advanced statistics-based models, you name it—and it quickly becomes apparent: Seemingly everybody (except coach Chris Petersen, apparently) thinks the Huskies are going to be very good this season.

That may or may not turn out to be true. Pulling it off, though, will require Browning to take a step forward in his sophomore season. To be clear, Washington brings back plenty of talent around Browning—eight starters and 72% of its production on offense, according to SB Nation’s Bill Connelly. Wide receiver John Ross III will return to provide a home run threat after missing last season with a knee injury (he was clocked at 4.25 seconds in the 40-yard dash this spring), and running back Myles Gaskin is set for his own sophomore leap after rushing for 554 yards on 5.59 yards per carry over the last four games of 2015.

Still, Washington’s case as a Pac-12 North contender and dark-horse College Football Playoff candidate crumbles if Browning regresses. The Huskies need him to deliver the ball to Ross and other returning targets like Dante Pettis and Brayden Lenius; to dissuade defenses from stacking the box to stuff Gaskin; and, most importantly, to avoid mistakes in challenging back-to-back division games against Stanford (Sept. 30) and at Oregon (Oct. 8), plus a Nov. 12 home date with USC.

If Browning falters, all of this preseason buzz will feel less like justified praise than misguided optimism.

AP Photo/Ron Jenkins

What has he already done?

Browning became the first true freshman in program history to start a season-opener, and though he threw for only 150 yards and posted a 40.9 QB rating in that game—a three-point loss to Petersen’s former team, Boise State—he subsequently led the Huskies to a 7–6 record, including a three-game winning streak (Oregon State, Washington State, Southern Miss) to close the season and an Oct. 8 road upset of the Trojans. It was a surprisingly successful season for a Washington squad coming off of the loss of three first-round draft picks and the return of only 10 total starters from 2014.

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Browning wasn’t great in his first college campaign—his deficiencies were particularly glaring when facing strong competition (six touchdowns, six interceptions, 121.48 passer rating against FBS teams with winning records)—but the talent he flashed suggests he could develop into one of the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks.

How did he look this spring?

Browning enrolled early and competed in spring drills last year, but at that point it was unclear who would rise to the top of Washington’s quarterback depth chart. A year later, he is garnering consideration as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate while serving as the face of a top-25 team. According to The Seattle Times, Browning completed five of his seven pass attempts for 65 yards with a touchdown over two series in the Huskies’ last spring scrimmage. “I thought he had a nice camp,’’ Petersen said of Browning, according to the newspaper. “I think he’s sharper in his decisions, I think he’s throwing it well. The ball’s coming off his hand nice.”

Here’s Browning connecting with Ross on a deep ball:

Anything else you should know?

Browning had compiled a really impressive resume before he ever stepped foot on Washington's campus. Rated the No. 8 quarterback in the class of 2015 by, the Folsom (Calif.) High product notched national records in career (229) and single-season (91) touchdowns, completed 1,191 passes and threw for 16,775 yards. Those are ridiculous numbers that Browning won’t ever come close to matching with the Huskies, but clearly his passing prowess has translated to the next level.

GALLERY: 10 Pac-12 players to watch in 2016

Show the highlights!

Check back next week for another rising star to know before the 2016 season.

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