Spurned and rejected: Inside Michael Penix Jr.'s remarkable journey to the national title game
We’re numb to stories like Michael Penix Jr., but we shouldn’t be. When the Washington quarterback takes the field on Monday night in Houston, he’ll be yet another signal-caller who took a long, winding road to get to the College Football Playoff National Championship stage.
Last year, Stetson Bennett IV’s college journey from walk-on to Georgia legend culminated with a beatdown of TCU and Max Duggan, who wasn’t even the opening-day starter for the Horned Frogs. Joe Burrow had to leave Ohio State to become an LSU icon, as was the case for Jake Coker, who left Florida State before he led Alabama to a title in 2015. And who could forget the first year of the Playoff when Cardale Jones needed 2 Ohio State quarterbacks to go down for him to step up into a made-for-Hollywood script?
Penix is hardly the first or the last quarterback to play for college football immortality after a career that suggested he’d do anything but that. That, we know.
But when you actually dig into the multiple recruitments of Penix, it’s not fair to his story to lump it in with the others.
That’s not just because he was only a 3-star recruit and he suffered 4 season-ending injuries. Shoot, the guy only got a 6th year in college because of a pandemic. Then again, fellow Heisman finalists Bo Nix and Jayden Daniels were only able to stay in college for 2023 because of that COVID season.
What neither Nix, Daniels or any quarterback on this stage also dealt with was having a longtime scholarship offer pulled at the 11th hour and a post-Year 4, fork-in-the-road choice between playing at a Group of 5 school or … quitting football.
After Tennessee debacle, the private Ryan Day workout could’ve changed everything
Say what you want about Butch Jones and his appreciation for 5-star hearts. He and his staff saw something in the 3-star junior southpaw from Tampa.
In June 2016, Penix impressed the Tennessee staff at a camp and received a scholarship offer. Penix waited until he visited Knoxville for the Vols’ spring game the following April to give them his commitment.
“The fan base is amazing,” Penix told Saturday Down South after his announcement. “I like the coaches. I get along with all of them and they are all down to Earth and coach real well, and the facilities are great, of course.”
By “coaches,” Penix was referring to Jones’ staff. As in, the staff that didn’t make it to the end of the 2017 season at Tennessee. But the plan was still for Penix to stick with his commitment to the Vols. Athletic director Phillip Fulmer even called Jones’ recruits and assured them that they’d have their scholarships honored with the new class.
Then, as the story goes, everything changed. Jeremy Pruitt was hired and Tyson Helton was brought in as the team’s OC. Helton didn’t see a pure passer like Penix as the ideal fit in the offense. Tampa Tech coach Jayson Roberts got wind that Fulmer’s word about a guaranteed scholarship might not carry much weight.
“It was nuts, man,” Roberts said in a phone interview this week. “I figured I knew what was about to happen when the guy that was recruiting him, Robert Gillespie, called me and said, ‘I don’t want you to get blindsided. They’re having some conversations as far as what they want to do with Mike. I’ll let you know how that goes.’”
Spoiler alert: It didn’t go well for Penix.
“In my mind, for those conversations to even be had, I figured they were probably looking to move on. But it wasn’t my job to break that news to (Penix) or say anything. I just waited to see what they were gonna do and eventually, they did that,” Roberts said. “It was kinda messed up how they did that. When he was supposed to go on his official visit, they pretty much just canceled his flight and told him, ‘No need to come on your visit. You don’t have a scholarship anymore.’ They did it on the weekend he was supposed to go on his visit.”
Brutal. Penix then announced that he was no longer committed to the Vols, and he made it known that it wasn’t his choice:
— Mike Penix Jr. (@themikepenix) December 13, 2017
(Note that Penix tagged Jones and former Tennessee QBs coach Mike Canales in the announcement.)
That led to Roberts reaching out to his contacts in the industry to find Penix a new home. Ironically enough, one of those calls was to Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. It was Schiano who was set to succeed Jones at Tennessee, but then fan disapproval nixed the move and Schiano stayed in Columbus. Schiano had then-Ohio State OC Ryan Day go to Tampa to watch Penix throw.
Even after former Colorado State pledge Matthew Baldwin flipped to the Buckeyes, there was a potential open spot with speculation that longtime Ohio State verbal pledge Emory Jones could flip to Florida, who had just hired Dan Mullen. A late private workout with the Buckeyes was, in theory, full of opportunity. Penix didn’t waste it.
“That day, it was 20-30 MPH winds just blowing, gusting. Terrible conditions to throw a football,” Roberts said. “Mike didn’t care. He went out, rippin’ it through the wind. Throwing into the wind. Throwing dots.
“After (Penix) got through the workout, I remember Ryan Day saying to me, ‘Man, I don’t have a guy in my quarterback room that can throw the ball like that in these conditions. I’m gonna go have a conversation with Urban (Meyer) … but I don’t have a guy in my quarterback room that can throw the ball like this.”
That Ohio State offer never came. Meyer instead put his faith in Baldwin and 2017 signee Tate Martell, neither of whom ever started a game for the Buckeyes and transferred before the 2019 season.
But a different Big Ten school had ties to Penix. More important, they all wanted Penix.
Indiana head coach Tom Allen had a strong reputation among high schools in Tampa having gotten his start in the area. A year earlier, Allen hired Mike DeBord, who was Tennessee’s offensive coordinator during Penix’s recruitment, as well as former Vols’ grad assistant Nick Sheridan, who became the Hoosiers’ quarterbacks coach.
“The biggest thing for me was, you’ve gotta go somewhere not where they like you, but where they love you. IU went above and beyond to show them how they felt,” Roberts said. “A week before signing day, the entire staff came down the Tampa. They had a home visit at night. All 10 (Indiana) coaches came to the school that day … when the whole staff, even the defensive coaches, come and wanna do a home visit for this one guy, it showed how all-in they were on Mike.
“That sealed it for him.”
Penix still did his due diligence. He visited Indiana and Florida State, where former USF and Oregon coach Willie Taggart was hired to replace Jimbo Fisher. FSU did offer Penix, but Roberts said he thought his mind was made up before he arrived in Tallahassee.
“I hate that people want to paint this narrative that Coach Taggart never offered him, which is just not true. They sent the Letter of Intent on Signing Day and everything. It was just so late in the process,” Roberts said. “I don’t think Mike had an interest just because he didn’t have any type of relationship with Florida State. Not with that staff.”
But even after Penix signed with Indiana, Roberts still wonders — why did it ever get to that place?
After all, Penix checked a ton of boxes even as a 3-star recruit. His parents were both athletes at Tennessee Tech in the 1990s (his dad played running back and his mom was on the track and field team), and while he wasn’t a finished product physically at 190 pounds, he was still 6-2 1/2 with a frame that could add weight. He played against 7A high schools in Florida, which is about as stiff as the competition gets. All he did was go 20-4 as a starter with a 60-2 TD-INT ratio.
Oh, and as Roberts said, anyone who has seen Penix spin it knows that “the arm talent is out of this world.”
Washington was once about as unlikely of a landing spot as there was
Cole Cubelic had a front-row seat to watch Penix’s postseason performances in each of his 2 seasons at Washington. In 2022, he was a sideline analyst for the ESPN broadcast when Penix led the late-rising Huskies to an Alamo Bowl win against Texas. A year later, Cubelic was on the call for the ESPN Megacast when the Heisman Trophy runner-up delivered a Playoff performance for the ages in the Sugar Bowl to clinch Washington’s national championship berth.
To say that Cubelic is a fan would be an understatement.
“He’s insane, honestly,” Cubelic told SDS. “It was really cool to be on the field pass doing the (ESPN) Megacast with Colt McCoy, who played quarterback and had seen him, but seeing him in person, sort of being wowed at what he was doing and Colt made multiple references to just how fast the ball is coming out. And he said, ‘It just looks so effortless, but there’s so much velocity on the football and the accuracy after moving.’
“It was funny because (Sam) Acho just said one time, ‘You’ve got to get him off his spot.’ And I said, ‘Well, the problem is they’ve gotten him off his spot and he’s found a new spot and he’s still completing passes.’ He’s like, ‘No, you’re right.’ He says, ‘That’s frustrating for a defender.’”
Penix’s mobility isn’t lacking, but it’s something that Washington OC Ryan Grubb rarely utilizes with designed quarterback runs. His injury history is well-documented. While he led 2020 Indiana to its first AP Top 25 finish in 32 years, his IU career was overshadowed by his 4 season-ending injuries, the last of which happened in the middle of his redshirt junior season in 2021.
According to someone close to the Indiana program, there was an internal thought later that fall that he might quit football instead of using his 2 remaining years of eligibility to return to Indiana or play elsewhere. Ultimately, though, he told Allen after the 2021 season that he intended to get a fresh start and enter the portal after 4 years in Bloomington. There was Group of 5 interest from UCF, where Penix took an official visit back in his home state of Florida.
(In hindsight, that would’ve made for a strange scheme fit in the Gus Malzahn offense with how much emphasis is on the quarterback run game.)
Fresno State also began as a possible destination for a reunion with former Indiana OC Kalen DeBoer.
But after DeBoer took the Washington job, Penix decided that playing on the opposite side of the country made sense. It didn’t matter that the Huskies were coming off a 4-win season and that Washington had an incumbent starter in Dylan Morris and was set to sign 5-star quarterback Sam Huard, who was the program’s highest-rated quarterback recruit ever.
Penix valued loyalty. Unlike with the Pruitt staff at Tennessee, he had that in spades with DeBoer.
What’s next for Penix? Better yet, what isn’t on the table?
Once upon a time, Penix’s age (he’ll be 24 in May) and durability were major questions. That was before he started every game in a Washington uniform. He’ll start game No. 15 of the 2023 season with a chance to give Washington its first national title since 1991. If Penix does that — or even if he has a big showing in a losing effort — that might put the NFL Draft discussion into overdrive.
Fellow Tampa native and SEC Network analyst Aaron Murray has been comparing Washington to 2019 LSU all season. Naturally, there’s a certain comp that Murray likes for Penix.
“There’s a little Joe Burrow to him, honestly,” Murray told SDS. “Similar size, similar athleticism, similar arm strength, similar maneuverability inside the pocket. To me, those 2 are more similar compared to anyone else I can think of (for Penix) in the last 5 years.”
There’s a case to be made for that. The throwing motion will be heavily scrutinized during the pre-Draft process. Is Penix’s release a lefty Philip Rivers? Or does Penix’s delivery just feel unorthodox because it’s coming from the left side? This video of Penix as a righty called that into question.
Michael Penix Jr. as a righty will completely change how you view his throwing motion ? pic.twitter.com/Fmf4kHx3RG
— RK (@RyanKoenigsberg) January 2, 2024
For someone like Pro Football Focus’ Trevor Sikkema, there’s just too much to like for NFL teams to have him buried on their NFL Draft boards.
“He’s been a fringe first-round quarterback for me for most of the process this year, but how he has played against Oregon (both times) and of course against Texas has been huge,” he told SDS. “He’s a first-round player for me, and a guy I could see going as high as the top 10 with so many teams needing QBs. He’s such a fun gunslinger.”
As Sikkema also noted, Penix leads the nation with 40 big-time throws. How many does he have left on Monday night against Michigan? That, we don’t know. Lighting up a Michigan defense that’s No. 1 in scoring would vault to the top of Penix’s growing résumé. Perhaps it would be the last thing needed to vault him to the top of NFL Draft boards.
Barring injury, it’s hard to imagine Penix hurting himself during the pre-Draft process.
“On top of all of that, the individual that he is,” Cubelic said. “I mean, I’ve gotten to know him a little bit, talked to him, heard a lot of stories about him, seeing how he talks to people, seeing how he deals with his teammates, like he’s, he is as special of a human as he is a football player.”
As a football player, Penix will end his Washington career as one of the best players we’ve seen during the 4-team Playoff era. There aren’t a whole lot of quarterbacks who can claim that they took multiple Power 5 programs to unprecedented 21st-century heights. Penix can.
If you replay his career 100 times, there’s no shortage of avenues it could’ve followed. The most entertaining avenue was the one that put Penix in front of the camera after a Playoff semifinal victory. “I gotta thank the man above for everything he’s put me through to get to this point. It’s been a blessing and I’ve just been enjoying the journey,” he said.