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Larry Stone: With little time to prepare, Washington offensive coordinator John Donovan wants quick decisions from his QBs. But choosing a starter will take time.

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 16, 2020

Washington quarterbacks Jaden Sheffey, center, Kevin Thomson, left, and Jacob Sirmon, right, pass in a group during NCAA college football practice, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in Seattle.  (Associated Press)
Washington quarterbacks Jaden Sheffey, center, Kevin Thomson, left, and Jacob Sirmon, right, pass in a group during NCAA college football practice, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in Seattle. (Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – In assessing the qualities he’s seeking in the next Washington quarterback – a four-man battle that will obviously play a huge role in determining the Huskies’ success in 2020 – new offensive coordinator John Donovan kept coming back to one factor.

Quick decision-making.

But here’s the thing: Don’t expect Donovan’s fondness for swift, resolute determinations by his signal-caller to be replicated in the crucial call he and coach Jimmy Lake must make among four disparate QB candidates.

In the absence of spring practice, and with four players who all have their selling points, the assessment likely will take a while to marinate. It won’t be a quick decision, in other words; more likely, it will be a gradually emerging realization.

Certainly, four days into fall camp ahead of the Huskies’ Nov. 7 opener at Cal, Donovan wasn’t ready Tuesday to tip his hand in any manner. No one candidate is getting more snaps than the others, no one is running the first unit exclusively, no one has yet separated himself.

It didn’t seem like gamesmanship, either. Unlike last year’s battle, when nearly everyone believed Jacob Eason was going to emerge as the starter despite talk of an open competition, the “open” designation this year is legitimate. Lake has even left open the possibility that they could go into the Cal game with the matter unresolved.

“I’d love to be able to say to you as soon as possible, ‘This is the guy,’ ” Donovan said. “I’m not at that point. But I’d love to be able to do that.

“At this point in time, no one’s the clear-cut leader. Hopefully, that happens faster, and I’ve told them the guy we can trust, that will put the ball where it needs to be put when the guy’s open, that can make a decision fast without putting us in a bad position offensively, will be the guy that will get a shot. So that’s what we’re hunting.”

It’s possible to make a case for all four, which is why handicapping this race is so tough.

There’s Jacob Sirmon, a redshirt sophomore who briefly entered the transfer portal last year after he lost out to Eason but changed his mind and now is probably the betting choice to emerge as the starter.

That’s because Sirmon has more time in the program (two years) and is the only candidate to have seen action as a Husky – albeit mop-up duty in five games last year, in which he completed 2 of 3 passes for 19 yards. But because of the unique circumstances of 2020, knowledge of the playbook and the reps he got in practice last year could be a huge factor. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Sirmon fits the prototypical QB mold, and was a much-pursued four-star prospect out of Bothell (Washington) High School.

Then there’s senior transfer Kevin Thomson, who has by far the most game experience – just not at the Power Five level. Thomson was a three-year starter at Sacramento State, where he earned Big Sky Conference Player of the Year in 2019 after passing for 3,216 yards and 27 touchdowns, and rushing for 619 yards and 12 TDs.

If maturity is a premium in the hierarchy of criteria for winning the Husky job, Thomson would seem to have a leg up. Hard to believe, but Thomson in his seventh season of college football at his third college (he spent his first two years at UNLV), by virtue of injury and redshirting. He could conceivably come back for an eighth year in 2021 because of the NCAA’s ruling that this football season doesn’t count against anyone’s eligibility.

Dylan Morris, a redshirt freshman, has his camp of supporters as well. Somewhat undersized at 6-0 and 200 pounds, Morris has been likened to Jake Browning, which is not a bad thing considering Browning’s body of work included two Pac-12 titles. Morris knows the Husky offense and has shown a strong arm, dating to his days at Graham-Kapowsin High School in Graham, Washington.

Ethan Garbers is the wild card in this competition. As a true freshman who didn’t have the benefit of participating in spring ball, despite enrolling early to do just that, he would seem to be a decided long shot.

Yet Garbers’ bloodlines are strong – brother Chase is Cal’s starting QB – and his high school credentials are solid. Garbers led Corona del Mar to a 16-0 record and a California CIF title as a senior and threw 71 touchdown passes (with just five interceptions). The only other person in California prep history to throw for more than 70 TDs was Browning. There are those who believe Garbers has the sort of ability to emerge from the pack – but will he have enough time to show it?

After one question about how soon he wants to narrow the competition, followed by another about whether he could see the Huskies taking two quarterbacks into the Cal game, Donovan laughed and said, “That’s a good one. You guys ask all the questions I think about all the time. We all do.”

That’s because the Huskies need to get this right. And it could be an excruciating decision. They should hope it is, based on multiple players making a strong case for themselves, rather than having to pick the lesser of four evils.

“Obviously, you hope to have one that you really feel good about, and you go with him,” Donovan said. “We’re in Day 4 right now, but hopefully, once you’ve been around, you’ve been in this profession long enough, usually one kind of takes the reins a little bit and everyone sees it. Hopefully, that’s the situation here.”

Donovan added that all four candidates have their strengths and weaknesses, things one can do better than the others.

One trait could make a difference.

“The guys that can make accurate throws, but good, quick decisions,” he said. “Decision making. Fast decisions. I’m all over them about it. And they know that. I’m not going to handle it with kid gloves. I’m going to call them out if they’re not making it, if they’re hanging on stuff. That’s got to be the deal. Accurate when you throw it, and fast, good decisions, and be ready to move on when something’s not there that should be there.”

Sounds like the Husky fall camp will be a slow, steady, drawn-out assessment to decide who is the best at quick decisions.

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