Sports Journalism Blog

By Andrew Thomison | @Andrew_Thomison

Sports Capital Journalism Program

HOUSTON – Before the University of Washington’s climb to a game for the College Football Playoff National Championship, after a series of injuries that once threatened a dynamic talent, the foundation for the success of Michael Penix Jr. was established when he gained the trust of the people assigned to protect him.

Not long after his arrival following the 2021 season, Penix used the humility of a low-key work ethic to win over the players who had been tasked with protecting him throughout the 2022 season, the start of a journey that has led to a championship night on Monday.

“He’s just a true born leader,” offensive tackle Troy Fautanu said. “He’s still a little bit in his shell, trying to get comfortable with everybody. This year, he’s taken big leaps and he’s done a great job of making sure he holds everyone accountable, especially himself.”

Penix, was voted runner-up for the 2023 Heisman Trophy, the highest finisher in Washington history, for his play that has guided the Huskies to an unprecedented 14-0 season and a meeting Monday night against the Michigan Wolverines. A less scrutinized but significant election took place earlier last year, when the sixth-year transfer from Indiana University was voted one of four Washington captains.

“Learning more about the guy, it makes it a lot easier to block for him,” Fautanu said. “Just knowing how much he’s gone through in his career and in his life, him being able to be vulnerable and share that with us has really been the key thing that helps us go out there and want to block for a guy like that. He’s the most humble guy I’ve ever met.”

Penix played 21 games in four years at Indiana, his career threatened by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in 2018 and another in 2020, plus injuries to a sterno clavicular joint in 2019 and an AC joint in a shoulder in 2021.

In those 21 games, Penix threw 29 touchdown passes with 15 interceptions. Once it became clear that he needed a fresh start elsewhere, he chose to transfer to Washington and rejoin former Indiana Offensive Coordinator and Quarterback Coach Kalen DeBoer, then the new head coach of the Huskies.

“I didn’t have to say much,” DeBoer remembered during Media Day on Saturday. “I just reassured him everything I kind of felt from the players already. And that it was through December as I’m meeting with him and understanding that this is a really, really good group of guys. They really want to win badly. If you want to come in and just do the work and you’re just a good dude, they’re going to embrace you. They’re going to accept you.

“And he just came in and did all those things,” DeBoer went on, “and they opened their arms to him and he opened their arms to them as well. And it’s just been awesome seeing everything come together.

“He is very intentional on making sure that the team understands how much he appreciates them,” DeBoer said. “And that’s why we’re here, because of his leadership and all the team coming together around him, with him. And it’s led to great moments where everyone believes in each other and wants to be something special.”

Penix understood after his arrival that it was going to take time to establish himself with his new teammates. He also sensed that accepting the collective grind would win them over.

“It’s about the work that you put in,” Penix said. “Coming into a new team, the guys, they don’t really know what you’re going to bring to the table.

“But for me, I was showing it through my work, just trying to lead the best way I could. Obviously being a new guy, I didn’t want to feel like a guy that just because I was a veteran, I felt like I was above the team at all. I was like, okay, for me, I wanted to be able to work and show these guys that I’m somebody that they can trust and somebody that they can trust to lead them to win football games.

“That’s what it was about,” Penix said. “Just getting in the work each and every day. I knew my play would be able to speak for itself. So the whole off-season grind, that’s what it was always about, putting in the work and showing those guys that I’m ready to compete.”

This is how ready: Penix became the first Football Bowl Subdivision quarterback to pass for more than 4,500 yards in consecutive years since Patrick Mahomes of Texas Tech in 2015-16. Among the Washington records Penix has achieved in his two seasons are average passing yards per game in a season (357.0 in 2022) and career (344.0). His achievements have eclipsed the work of some of the great Washington quarterbacks of the past, including Sonny Sixkiller in the 1970s and Marques Tuiasosopo in the 1990s.

This season, Penix has passed for 4,648 yards, with 35 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His offensive line won the Joe Moore Award for the Most Outstanding Offensive Line Unit in college football.

“We just trust each other,” said redshirt freshman center Parker Brailsford. “I know he’s going to get us in the right calls, he knows I’m going to get us in the right calls. Certain things are my job, certain things are his job. We just work together to get everything done.”

Washington’s coaches quickly took note of the quarterback’s leadership and spoke of the kind of person Penix has been for the organization.

“As a person, number one I would say is what parlays into his leadership is Mike’s humility,” offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said.

Washington, which had a record of 4-8 in the 2021 season, is on the cusp of the program’s third national championship, the first since the Huskies shared the 1991 title with the Miami Hurricanes.

“Obviously we’re playing for something huge, the biggest in college football right now, so just making sure the guys just understand, don’t make the game bigger than what it is and do out there and have fun,” Penix said. “That’s what it’s going to be about, going out there and having fun.”