Heisman Trophy 2023: Why Washington's Michael Penix Jr. should be the front-runner

2T4BKKM Palo Alto, USA. 28th Oct, 2023. Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) looks to the sideline during a college football regular season game against the Stanford Cardinal, Saturday, October 28, 2023, at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, CA (Brandon Sloter/Image of Sport) Photo via Credit: Newscom/Alamy Live News

The 2023 college football season has been filled with performances worthy of Heisman Trophy consideration.

Michigan's J.J. McCarthy remains undefeated in 2023 and has been far and away the most efficient quarterback in the country. LSU's Jayden Daniels has racked up a nation-leading 3,196 all-purpose yards as the best dual-threat quarterback in the game. Oregon's Bo Nix is a relative long shot at this point, but he ranks third in the nation in accuracy percentage and is pulling the reins for the second-most-efficient offense in the FBS.

But one player has separated himself from the pack while leading his fifth-ranked Washington Huskies to an 8-0 record. And that player is quarterback Michael Penix Jr.

2023 Heisman candidates: PFF passing stats through Week 9
Metric J.J. McCarthy Jordan Travis Michael Penix Jr. Jayden Daniels Bo Nix
PFF passing grade 91.0 85.2 91.4 90.9 90.2
Big-time throws 14 16 20 20 10
Avg. target depth 10.5 9.7 11.1 10.2 6.5
Adj. comp. % 83.3% 72.8% 78.7% 80.6% 85.2%
Touchdowns 18 18 24 25 21
Passing yards 1,799 2,109 2,950 2,572 2,283
Betting Odds (BetMGM) +300 +650 +275 +400 +600

LEADING ONE OF THE BEST OFFENSES IN THE COUNTRY

The Washington offense has been elite in 2023. The No. 5-ranked Huskies enter their Week 10 showdown against USC as the nation's fifth-best offense in expected points added (EPA) per play, with their 7.9 yards per play second to only LSU (8.3) through nine weeks.

The passing attack — which Penix has executed flawlessly at times — has been electric for most of the season. The squad has earned a league-leading 92.1 team passing grade, and they average a colossal 399 passing yards per game, 52 yards more than the next-closest offense.


SUCCESS IN THE STABLE METRICS

Penix has earned the highest passing grade in the nation through nine weeks. Better yet, he has excelled in all of the stable metrics of quarterback play.

A quarterback's performance from a clean pocket, on early downs and with no play action should be weighted heavily, and these are strong indicators of future output. Good quarterbacks dominate these situations, while lesser quarterbacks rank near the bottom.

And Penix has dominated these situations.

Metric Michael Penix (2023) Percentile rank 
Clean-pocket grade 92.7 93rd
Standard dropback grade 92.1 94th
Grade on first and second down 91.6 94th
No play action 84.6 79th
Grade on throws at or beyond the sticks 93.9 90th

The Washington quarterback has been exceptional from a clean pocket, having completed 173 of his 230 attempts for 2,395 yards, 23 touchdowns and five interceptions. He's racked up 15 big-time throws to only four turnover-worthy plays, with his 10.4 yards per pass attempt from a clean pocket good for sixth in the nation.


COMPOSURE UNDER PRESSURE

Although we rarely see Penix scramble after multiple ACL tears, he still ranks in the top 15 in pressure-to-sack ratio due to excellent pocket manipulation. It helps that he has a stout line in front of him, one that has been charged with only three sacks allowed through nine weeks.

Penix is lethal from a clean pocket and will carve up any secondary when he's given time to work. He isn’t quite as dominant when pressured, but he still has the 21st-ranked PFF grade in such situations. And when blitzed, Penix has made five big-time throws and only one turnover-worthy play on his way to a 79.8 PFF grade.


ATTACKING THE DEEP TO INTERMEDIATE RANGE

Many quarterbacks thrive on short throws or checkdowns to running backs. Most of the same quarterbacks struggle to throw the deep ball. Penix, however, gets better and better the farther he throws it.

On intermediate throws (10-19 yards), Penix is completing 74.2% of his passes and boasts a 91.7 PFF grade (ninth). On deep throws (20-plus yards), he has 19 big-time throws (tied for second) on 59 attempts.


OVERCOMING ADVERSITY

It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows for Penix throughout his college career, though. Having been recruited by Indiana as a three-star prospect out of Tampa, Fla., he played four years with the Hoosiers before transferring to Washington.

Unfortunately, Penix dealt with multiple setbacks and season-ending injuries during his time at Indiana. First, he tore his ACL in his right knee, ending his true freshman season. In 2019, he dislocated the SC joint in his right arm. In 2020, he tore his right ACL again. In 2021, he separated his AC joint, capping an extraordinary run of horrifically bad fortune.

Many people would have given up after all those injuries, but not Penix. He continued to put in the work and has completely turned his college career around in the past two years.

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He is a natural leader who his teammates look up to, and you can see it live on the field every week. His leadership qualities were on full display during the Oregon game, where Penix was pressured 16 times and took more hits than he’s taken all season. He was obviously in pain, but he never got rattled. He finished 22-of-37 for 302 yards, four touchdowns, five big-time throws and no turnover-worthy plays.

He kept getting back up, showing poise in the pocket to deliver strike after strike, including the game-winner to Rome Odunze with a minute left. That’s the kind of guts it takes to win a Heisman.


PATH TO THE 2024 NFL DRAFT

While Penix will be 24 years old at draft time and brings an extensive injury history, he is still viewed as one of the top quarterback prospects in the 2024 NFL Draft.

His arm talent alone will draw the attention of NFL scouts everywhere. He is currently the 23rd-ranked player and the fourth-ranked quarterback on the PFF big board.

It’s likely safe to say Penix won't make it past early Day 2, but if he keeps playing like this and wins the Heisman Trophy, it will be hard for teams to pass on drafting him in the first round next April.

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