People are sleeping on Jacob Eason and Washington as Playoff contenders in 2019
From the moment Jacob Eason took that awkward step out of bounds in the middle of the first quarter of Georgia’s 2017 season opener against Appalachian State, he’s become what I call the “on the back burner quarterback.”
On the front of the stove sat Jake Fromm, who stepped in and led the Dawgs to their first national championship berth since 1980 as a true freshman. Also on the front of the stove sat Justin Fields, who stepped on campus as the highest-rated recruit in Georgia history.
That combination was why Eason ultimately elected to find a new stove. I mean, school.
And for the last year because of inconsistent NCAA transfer rules, Eason sat on the back burner while Jake Browning played in the final season of his roller-coaster career. Now, Browning is gone and Eason is at the front of the stove, ready to start cooking. I mean, playing.
Yet as Eason’s opportunity to start nears, it appears the preseason prognosticators still have Eason sitting on the back burner. Justin Herbert and Oregon are the new Pac-12 favorites while Washington is expected to take a step back without the likes of Browning and Myles Gaskin.
Want a fire take for the “on the back burner QB?” Eason will have the Huskies contending for a Playoff spot by season’s end.
In a weird way, it now feels like the quarterbacks who transfer and sit out a year are somewhat forgotten about. Eason and former 5-star Clemson quarterback Hunter Johnson — he’s expected to start at Northwestern after sitting a year because of transfer rules — certainly aren’t being talked about in the same regard as transfer-and-play quarterbacks like Fields or even Shea Patterson last year.
Obviously some of that has to do with Eason’s freshman year. His numbers (55% accuracy, 16-8 TD-INT ratio, 6.6 yards per attempt), weren’t as good as what we’ve seen recently from true freshman quarterbacks like Fromm, Jalen Hurts or Trevor Lawrence.
Even though he came into Georgia with the 5-star hype, Eason wasn’t as ready for the opportunity as those other freshmen signal-callers were. And in Eason’s defense, the circumstances around him weren’t as good as they were for those others (Year 1 of a new head coach is an entirely different situation). He was asked to carry the offense. He threw 55 passes — still tied for third-most in program history — in his third career game. Nick Chubb was coming off his injury, the receivers were inexperienced and the defense wasn’t at the level it was at in 2017.
Eason was more the norm of what we’ve come to expect from freshman quarterbacks. The game often looked too fast for him and he didn’t have the precision necessary to play the position at an above-average level in the SEC. For every next-level throw — of which there were plenty and he did set UGA freshman records — a dud would follow.
It wasn’t long ago that we said the same thing about Drew Lock. Sure, the talent was there but the intangibles weren’t. Some offseason work and a new offensive mind (Josh Heupel) made all the difference.
I can’t help but wonder if the same will be true with Eason under Chris Petersen.
That isn’t just based on Eason’s status as a former 5-star recruit. It’s based on what we’ve seen and heard about him since arrival at Washington (and really before that when he handled the awkward Fromm situation as well as he possibly could have). Even though Eason technically hasn’t been named the starter, the feeling out of Washington spring camp is that the upside is still obvious with his ability to stretch the field and that Petersen will put his faith in him in Week 1.
So why hasn’t Petersen just come out and named Eason the starter?
“(Eason) hasn’t played real football in a long, long time. That’s the thing,” Petersen told the Associated Press in April. “This is a college guy who played one year of college football and I just think it’s a disservice to him for you guys to put all this pressure on him. I’ve seen what is out there and all that kind of stuff. He’s a college guy, has played one year of football, got some really good talent.
“But our other guys do as well, but it’s not being talked about like it is with him. I think that’s unfair.”
In a way, maybe that’s why some of the buzz with Washington hasn’t been off the charts. If Petersen came out in April and said “Jacob Eason is the most talented quarterback I’ve ever worked with. He’ll be our starter in 2019. I think the sky is the limit for what he can do in this offense,” think about how we’d react to that.
I remember after Jarrett Stidham was inevitably named Auburn’s starter in fall camp of 2017 he suddenly got the same preseason Heisman odds as Saquon Barkley.
Petersen recognizes that Eason has had this 5-star anticipation define his entire college career. As he enters this all-important juncture, it makes sense to let other quarterbacks make the offseason headlines.
And to be fair, the lack of national hype for Washington isn’t entirely based on Petersen’s approach with Eason.
The Huskies rank No. 130 in percentage of returning defensive production. It’s easy to question how a team that had 8 defensive players drafted in the last 2 years is going to survive that kind of turnover. I’d argue that Washington, who quietly had a top-8 defensive each of the last 3 years, recruiting 13 defensive players rated 4-stars or better in the last 2 classes will help that turnover. What Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski did with that unit during Washington’s 3 consecutive 10-win seasons doesn’t get enough credit.
But as long as the defense doesn’t completely fall off and Eason improves the passing game — something that seems extremely likely even if he doesn’t play like a bona fide first-round prospect — Washington should still be the team to beat in the Pac-12.
Oh, and why do I think Eason will improve a passing game that ranked No. 60 with the inconsistent Browning?
With 4 starters returning, Eason will have more offensive line help than he had as a true freshman at Georgia. He’ll also have plenty of veteran options on the outside with 3 leading receivers Aaron Fuller, Andre Baccellia and Ty Jones (combined for 144 catches, 1,949 yards in 2018) back along with 2018 top recruit Marquis Spiker and 2019 U.S. Army All-American Puka Nacua ready to emerge.
And for what it’s worth, Washington gets Oregon, Utah and Washington State at home this year. Those games will come in the latter half of a schedule that doesn’t feature a Power 5 road opponent until Week 6. The entire 2019 slate features just 1 road game against a Power 5 bowl team.
Add all that up and why can’t Eason lead Washington on a 2016-like year? That’s not my way of saying he’ll throw for 43 touchdowns like Browning did, but there’s a perfectly realistic scenario in which Eason is at the center of this “at home again” storyline and the Huskies are playing for a de facto Playoff berth in a Pac-12 Championship.
Right now, though, Eason and the Huskies are on the back burner. I don’t think Petersen minds that one bit.
Something tells me it’s only a matter of time before they move to the front of the stove.