Jake Browning is Washington’s four-year starting quarterback, the senior who holds the keys to the offense for another 10 or 11 games, often the center of attention good or bad and admittedly not happy with his slow start to 2018.
Then there’s Jake Haener, the newcomer who took the field for the first time on Saturday and finished up the 45-3 victory over North Dakota. The redshirt freshman was so impressive in his college football debut, demonstrating surprisingly mature pocket presence and arm strength, that knee-jerk fans immediately suggested he should play more.
Browning and Haener, the incumbent and the challenger. The franchise and the heir apparent. The old Jake and the new Jake.
Yet on the periphery of this Husky quarterback hierarchy was the third component, the forgotten man for now, the inactive one—Jacob Eason. He's the local product from Lake Stevens who left the state, sampled the big time of the Southeastern Conference, got hurt, lost his job because of it and came home.
Eason went from the nation's top recruit at his position to season-long starter for Georgia as a true freshman to single-game starter as a Bulldogs sophomore before a cheap-shot hit took him out at the knees and changed everything.
While Browning and Haener are responsible for this season for the Huskies, the newcomer might have the job all to himself next season. He could be the one playing in the NFL in a few years, not them. Or Eason might be watching Haener run the show next year.
Unable to play right away as a transfer, Eason was a noticeable presence as he worked the Husky sideline during Saturday's game against North Dakota. At 6-foot-6, some six inches taller than Browning and four more than Haener, he was easy to spot. He wore black street clothes beneath his purple Washington jersey No. 10 and an athletic cap turned around backward. His hair was cut noticeably shorter than the long flowing mane he sported in the SEC. He did his best to fit in.
Midway through the second quarter, Eason sat down on the bench next to Browning and the two accomplished quarterbacks chatted easily as the Huskies held a 10-0 lead. Moments later, when the UW upped the score to 17-0 on Myles Gaskin’s 2-yard touchdown run, Eason got up and congratulated the offensive linemen coming off the field, notably bumping fists with starting left guard Luke Wattenberg. It was a small gesture, but the new guy let the others know he was watching.
Eason sat with Browning once more and together they looked at a replay involving the Husky defense on the big screen. Minutes later, Eason held out both hands, palms up, in mock protest after pass interference wasn’t called on Browning’s deep pass to Quinten Pounds.
Three minutes before halftime, Eason and injured tight end Hunter Bryant shared a laugh; next year, it might be several pass routes and a bunch of completions. They’ll likely need each other to make up for lost time. Once the half ended, Eason and Bryant left the field together trailing behind the UW players in full gear.
The half restarted and injured UW inside linebacker D.J. Beavers, who wore a protective boot on his left foot and wasn’t in pads, wandered over to engage Eason in discussion. They faced each other rather than stand side by side, turned away from the game action, and the two talked for the longest time.
Eason joked with junior tight end Jusstis Warren, the most noticeable player among the legions of purple shirts roaming the sideline with his bleached-out hair. The idle quarterback next spoke with receiver Josh Rasmusson, a familiar face who played with Eason a few years earlier at Lake Stevens High School. Later, Eason took a seat next to Gaskin and sat quietly.
As the fourth quarter began, Eason changed up his routine as the sideline spectator. He left the bench and moved to the edge of the field. He had good reason to seek an unobstructed view: Haener, his chief competition for the UW quarterback job in 2019, ran onto the field for his Husky baptism against North Dakota.
Eason stood there alone and watched intently, likely measuring his Washington football future with each snap. He clapped respectfully when Haener threw a looping 43-yard pass to sophomore Ty Jones for a big gain, checking out the deep throw a second time when the replay was shown on the big screen.
Once the game ended, Haener lingered on the field and slapped hands with fans who rushed down and excitedly wanted his attention. The compact player seemed to enjoy the impromptu interaction with these complete strangers, most dressed in purple like him.
Browning turned up in the interview room a short time later, sat down on a stool, looked pensively into the cameras and harshly critiqued his performance. He gamely answered every one of the questions pitched his way until Coach Chris Petersen entered the room to give his postgame observations.
Eason? He disappeared up the tunnel and slipped into football anonymity once more. He had nothing to celebrate or worry about that day that could be directly tied to him. It will be a while before he is able to regularly respond to media inquiries or mix with rambunctious team followers.
Eason has less than 12 months now to figure out how to become Browning’s successor and beat out Haener in the process.