Jacob Eason and the decline of the Washington Huskies

A monumental recruiting miss still dogs the UW at its most crucial position

Jacob Eason wanted to be a Husky. So did Justin Herbert.

It should have been so easy.

Instead, the University of Washington’s failure to land either future NFL quarterback in the 2016 recruiting class has caused ripples that still reverberate through the program, hampering it both on and off the field.

As Husky fans wince at the struggles of quarterback Dylan Morris and watch UW transfer quarterbacks Jake Haener and Ethan Garbers succeed at Fresno State and UCLA, it magnifies the significance of the whiffs.

The Huskies missed a chance to stabilize their quarterback room, retain five-star talent, improve the offense, and enhance their recruiting panache.

They blew it. And the team’s quarterback struggles this season trace back to those fateful decisions.

Now, of course, we know how the story played out. With the benefit of hindsight, we see that Eason has been demoted and is struggling to hang in the league as the Seahawks’ third-stringer, while Herbert’s NFL career is on a Hall of Fame arc.

None of this was apparent as recruiting season peaked for the class of ‘16.

Herbert, especially, flew under the radar before receiving a late offer from his hometown University of Oregon. The Huskies could be forgiven for overlooking him.

Losing Eason, however, was an egregious mistake.

Not only was Eason a five-star quarterback — Gatorade’s National High School Player of the Year — he was tall and strong and possesses special arm talent.

Most importantly, he grew up in Lake Stevens, about an hour north of Seattle. He had been a Husky fan his entire life. He wanted to be a Dawg.

Why wouldn’t he?

The UW has long had a reputation for signing Western Washington quarterbacks and sending them to the NFL.

Chris Chandler was from Everett. Hugh Millen was from Roosevelt. Billy Joe Hobert and the Huard brothers (Damon and Brock) hailed from Puyallup. Marques Tuiasosopo was from Woodinville. Jake Locker was from Fernwood.

All went on to NFL careers.

So when Eason blossomed at Lake Stevens High it seemed only natural to those who had watched him that he would become next in this distinguished line of Husky NFL quarterbacks (which also includes Californians Warren Moon and Mark Brunnell).

Problem was, the Huskies weren’t requiting the love.

Eason’s recruitment peaked as the UW was transitioning head coaches from Steve Sarkisian to Chris Petersen. And the new regime seemed indifferent to the superstar QB just up the road.

California quarterback Jake Browning had earned the scholarship offer for Petersen’s first full recruiting class, in 2015.

When Jacob’s father Tony reached out about 2016, he was told that Petersen didn’t offer scholarships to quarterbacks until he saw them throw live. So a date and time was arranged for Jacob to audition.

At the prescribed hour a car pulled up the field. Out stepped offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith with a video camera. He said Petersen couldn’t make it.

The Easons were stunned.

Jacob was the top-rated player in the state, the second-ranked pro-style quarterback in the nation and fifth-ranked player in the 2016 recruiting class. And the head coach couldn’t be bothered to come watch him throw?

It marked the first misstep in a botched recruitment that has led to a revolving door at the team’s most important position, declining play and weakened recruiting classes.

It should have been so easy.

While the UW seemed to ride the brakes on Eason, other schools poured on the gas. Georgia, in particular, showered him with love. They convinced Eason he could become the next Matthew Stafford.

After awhile the young man bought in. Petersen finally saw him throw, and the Huskies made an 11th-hour push, but it was too late. Eason was smitten with the Georgia Bulldogs.

The UW had lost. For the first time in memory, the Huskies failed to sign a top-rated, nationally recruited quarterback prospect from their own backyard.*

So the Petersen regime began, in essence, by fumbling away the number-one recruit in the state of Washington. It set off a series of dominoes that has left the UW quarterback room, and the entire program, struggling to catch up.

Strike Two

Eason wasn’t the only future NFL draft pick from the Class of 2016 who was hoping to don purple and gold.

Herbert came to the UW from his home in Eugene on an official visit. His uncle was a Washington graduate, and at the time Herbert did not have any Pac-12 offers.

The young man sat in Petersen’s office, hoping at the end of the meeting the coach would proffer a scholarship. He didn’t, Oregon eventually did, and the Huskies missed out on a second future NFL draft pick.

Of course almost everyone whiffed on Herbert, but it’s worth noting that he was on the Huskies’ radar. They liked him enough to invite him to campus, so it’s fair to infer they assessed his skills and decided to pass.

Instead of Eason or Herbert, the Huskies bestowed their 2016 quarterback scholarship on Daniel Bridge-Gadd, a three-star prospect who was Gatorade’s player of the year for Arizona.

Bridge-Gadd took one snap at Washington before transferring to Northern Arizona University. Today he is a stand-up comedian.

Behind the scenes the UW athletic department was apoplectic about the optics of losing out on Eason. A series of staff meetings led to a collective over-correction: in-state quarterbacks should be locked up early.

Consequently, the UW rushed to offer Dylan Morris after his freshman season of high school ball. It offered Jacob Sirmon during the middle of his sophomore high school campaign.

Those choices immediately handcuffed the program at its most prestigious position. And they never seemed to make much sense.

First, the two quarterbacks are polar opposites. Morris is a 6-ft., 196-lb., point-guard with fair mobility. Sirmon is a 6–5, 222, classic canon-armed statue.

Which type of quarterback did the Dawgs prefer? Was there any type of schematic strategy to these decisions?

Second, the early offers eliminated all other quarterbacks in those two classes — 2017 and ’18 — since schools routinely offer just one QB per recruiting class.

Even the Huskies seemed to have quick regrets.

They broke protocol and offered a second quarterback in Sirmon’s class — Colson Yankoff from Idaho — an ominous admission that Sirmon’s offer was a mistake.

But if the Huskies were thinking twice about their new policy, they couldn’t ignore Sam Huard.

As a freshman starter at Kennedy Catholic High School, he was already a four-star recruit, and he would add a star by his senior year. His father, Damon, and uncle, Brock, were ex-Husky QBs. Plus he was putting up video game statistics in Kennedy’s air-raid passing attack.

So after setting precedent with Morris and Sirmon, and still stinging from losing Eason, it was almost impossible not to offer Huard after his freshman high school campaign.

Here was one local five-star quarterback who was not going to slip away.

Ripples

So why does this matter? And how does it relate to the 2021 Husky team?

After all, college programs have to make tough choices every year. There will always be players who feel slighted, decisions to be second-guessed. Fans can play the “what if…” game on endless loop.

This is different for a few key reasons:

1. Fast forward to 2021, when the UW missed out on two national top-10 players in its own backyard — Emeka Egbuka (Steilacoom) and J.T. Tuimoloau (Eastside Catholic) — and the Pac-12 is losing five-star quarterbacks to national powerhouses with alarming regularity (Bryce Young to Alabama, DJ Uiagalelei to Clemson). The Huskies set the precedent with Eason.

2. Quarterback is the most important position in college, just as in the NFL. What do the Alabamas, Clemsons, Georgias and Ohio States have that other teams lack? Future NFL quarterbacks. Game managers take you only so far. Against elite defenses, teams need someone who can make accurate deep throws, put the ball in tight windows, and pose a threat with his legs. The Huskies still lack a QB who can do these things.

3. By offering scholarships to 15- or 16-year-olds with one year of high school ball, it locked the UW out not only of any in-state late-bloomers but all other quarterbacks nationwide. In essence, the Dawgs decided in 2016 that they would rather have Dylan Morris at their controls four years hence than any other quarterback in America. Really?

4. Petersen compounded his mistake by welcoming Eason back as a transfer after his sophomore year, a decision that led to the departure of Haener and Garbers.

Imagine for a moment an alternate reality.

The Huskies offer Eason in a timely manner; he accepts and stays home. Imagine he plays three, or even four, years in the program. Imagine Eason throwing bombs to John Ross and Dante Pettis instead of Browning.

How many four- or five-star receivers could Eason have attracted to the program? How many four- and five-star players at other positions might have been influenced by his example and stayed home? How much better might the Huskies have been? Might they have beaten Alabama in the national playoffs?

We’ll never know.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter. What matters is perception.

When you have a quarterback with Eason’s measurables, arm talent, and pedigree, it’s imperative to keep him home or pull out all stops trying — even if he eventually gets beaten out or injured or transfers.

And when you have a quarterback with Eason’s measurables, arm talent, and five-star pedigree who wants to join your program, that’s low-hanging fruit.

It should have been so easy.

Tsunami

Instead of Bridge-Gadd or any successive quarterback recruit, the Huskies rolled with Browning as the starting QB for four seasons.

Browning became the UW’s all-time leader in passing yards, touchdown passes, total offense, passing efficiency, and yards per attempt. Along the way he led the Dawgs to two Pac-12 championships, a national playoff berth, and two New Year’s Day bowl games.

It’s an impressive resume.

But Browning never led the Huskies to victory in a major bowl or playoff game. Worse, the team wasn’t competitive in marquee losses to Alabama, Penn State, and Ohio State.

Browning went undrafted but signed with the Minnesota Vikings and today is on the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad.

Eason went 8–5 his freshman season at Georgia and 8–4 his final college year at Washington and set no school passing records at either stop.

Yet despite playing just two college seasons, he was a fourth-round draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts.

The fact he fell from backup Colts’ QB to Seahawks’ practice squad puts him on the same NFL footing as Browning, but again that’s not the point.

The point is that his physical tools coming out of high school were so undeniable, and his NFL potential so apparent, that nearly every college team in the country would have welcomed him with open arms.

Washington didn’t, and it’s paid a price.

Browning was a very good college quarterback with borderline NFL skills. He was also reportedly a dogged student of the game, studying tape and taking notes.

Eason’s ability wowed scouts, youth coaches, and casual fans from an early age. If he needed coaching up on the mental side, well, most figured, that’s why college coaches earn big bucks.

Why didn’t the Huskies value that talent? Why didn’t they anticipate the repercussions of losing the national player of the year?

Maybe had the Dawgs beaten Alabama or Ohio State or Penn State, or landed Herbert, or reeled in another five-star QB before Huard committed for 2021, the Eason gaffe would seem less glaring.

But they didn’t even come close.

Besides Bridge-Gadd and Yankoff, Petersen’s Husky quarterbacks were KJ Carta Samuels, Jake Haener, Ethan Garbers, Morris, and Sirmon.

Bridge-Gadd is out of football. Yankoff transferred to UCLA and became a wide receiver.

Carta Samuels transferred to Colorado State and now plays in Germany. Sirmon transferred to Central Michigan, where he was benched as the starter after leading the team to a 2–2 record.

Garbers followed Yankoff to UCLA and is getting playing time as backup QB. Haener transferred to Fresno State, where he has led the Bulldogs to an upset of UCLA and near-upset of Oregon this season.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Had Eason stayed at Georgia, Haener would probably be the Huskies’ starting quarterback today, with Garbers at back-up and Huard waiting in the wings.

Morris? Transfer portal.

Quarterback churn has become the norm in college football, but Petersen accelerated the process with a second mistake: He told Eason if things didn’t work out at Georgia he would be welcomed back home.

Lo and behold, Eason got injured early in his sophomore year, Jake Fromm led Georgia to the cusp of a national title, and the youngster from Lake Stevens accepted Petersen’s offer.

He would finally be a Husky.

The news hit the quarterback room with the force of a tsunami.

Yankoff and Sirmon raced to enter the transfer portal. Coaches talked Sirmon into staying, though he left a season later after Morris beat him out.

Then, a week before the 2019 season, Haener departed in a snit after losing the starting QB battle to Eason. Garbers, a 2020 recruit, followed on his heels.

Suddenly the team’s two best quarterbacks — Haener and Garbers — were gone. The Huskies were left with only Morris and Huard.

They had to use the portal to add depth, in the form of senior QB Patrick O’Brien.

Huard wasn’t ready to be a freshman starter. Morris — like Huard a life-long Dawg fan — became the starting QB almost by default.

Alternate Reality

It could have been worse.

Morris wanted to stay, and Huard never wavered on his commitment, which gave the team some stability at the quarterback position.

But it could have been so different.

It could have been at least three seasons of a five-star, future NFL quarterback, soon followed soon by at least three seasons of another five-star talent with NFL bloodlines.

It could have been a relatively stable quarterback room with a predictable transition.

It could have been a chance to thrust the UW into the national spotlight.

Because maybe, just maybe, if the Dawgs had had a future NFL draft pick as an established starter, and receivers to match, and an identity as a pro-style passing attack — combined with its reputation for a strong defense — the University of Washington would have proved to recruits a more attractive destination.

Maybe, if Eason had beaten out Browning, the Huskies would have reached the NCAA playoffs more than once in the Petersen era. Or at least won the Rose Bowl.

Maybe, had Eason been in the fold, the program would not have felt pressured to rush scholarship offers to high school underclassmen.

Maybe, with one five-star quarterback in hand, the Dawgs could have competed for national five-star QBs such as Young and Uiagalelei.

And then maybe, with that resume, future four- and five-star prospects — at any position — wouldn’t feel they need to leave the state to compete for national championships.

Maybe all that would have happened, maybe some of it, or maybe none.

We’ll never know.

Because of a bungled recruitment of perhaps the most decorated prep player in state history, we were robbed of a chance to find out.

It should have been so easy.

* * *

* Some might take issue with this statement, specifically in the case of Jake Heaps. Heaps was another five-star QB, from Skyline High, just east of Seattle, who shunned the UW for Brigham Young University.

Two responses: 1) Heaps was not a true five-star talent, as borne out by his subsequent career. Maybe the Huskies recognized that; yet note that they still fought hard to land him. Perception matters.

2) Heaps apparently did not have his heart set on being a Dawg, as did Eason and Huard and Morris. He chose BYU, he said, due to his Mormon religion, as a devout Catholic might dream of playing for Notre Dame. His checkered path after failing to win the starting job at BYU, however, mitigates against that claim.

So whether you want to count Heaps as the first missed five-star QB or not, it’s inarguable that the consequences from that whiff are nothing compared to whiffing on Eason.

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