The Tour of the Top Four, Appendix: Michael Penix Jr.

by Asa Arnold|April 23, 2024

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This article is a guest post from Asa Arnold. You can listen to more of Asa’s work on the “Analytics with Asa” Podcast.

Leading up to the draft, SumerSports brought you THE TOUR OF THE TOP FOUR, a data-driven journey to the NFL draft for each of the top four quarterbacks. We provided a summary of the careers of J.J. McCarthy, Drake Maye, Jayden Daniels, and Caleb Williams. You can find companion discussions to the articles on The Class Play Podcast, which can be found on the SumerSports Show Podcast Feed on your audio platform of choice. Guest writer Asa Arnold adds an additional stop on the tour here with Michael Penix Jr.

Michael Penix lines up in the shotgun. After 56 flawless minutes in the semifinal playoff game, Penix and the Washington Huskies lead the Texas Longhorns 34-28 with just over four minutes to go in the fourth quarter. With the Huskies at the precipice of field goal range, Penix is in familiar territory. 

The pressure of a six-year college career has come down to this moment. With one completion, Penix would secure 400 passing yards on the night, a game-sealing first down, and a ticket to the national championship game in Houston. One incompletion could open the door to a Longhorn comeback.

The ball is snapped. Penix catches it and turns left with his signature stoic pocket presence. After just one second has passed, Penix eyes star wideout and future first-round pick, Rome Odunze five steps into a go route and a step past Ryan Watts in coverage. The ball flies off Penix’s left hand. The ball hits Odunze’s right shoulder pad in a tight spiral and he secures it for a game-sealing 32-yard gain.

 

Amidst the thunderous cheers of 35,000 fans and the anguished silence of 35,000 more, Penix had just punched his ticket to Houston. Two teams, six years, and four season-ending injuries in the making, he had finally done it. The Huskies were headed to the National Championship. 

Michael Penix can best be described as Schrödinger’s quarterback. The near-perfect balance of desirable and unappealing traits creates a quarterback whose future success exists in a state of uncertainty until observed. Sustaining four season-ending injuries, yet playing every game in each of his last two seasons. Running a 4.5 40-yard dash time, yet scrambling at a nearly historically low rate. Possessing the best pressure-to-sack ratio among all quarterbacks in this draft class, yet ranking first in throwaways when pressured. Half superstar, half subversive, fully chaotic. 

The consistent faith Washington’s offense had in his arm is an indicator of the talent that lies in the southpaw quarterback. Posting the highest usage rate of any quarterback in this year’s draft, the sample size is not lacking with Penix. However, given his perplexing career and various contradictory traits, does Penix bring about more questions than answers? To break down one of the biggest wildcards of this year’s NFL Draft, let’s start at the beginning. 

Penix’s story starts with his dad, Michael Penix Sr. who was an all-state running back at Pasco High School, where Penix Jr. would start his career as a quarterback. Growing up in a football household, the younger Michael learned the intricacies of the sport through his father’s illustrious coaching career. In high school, Penix spent his first two years attending his father’s alma mater, later transferring to Tampa Bay Technical High School. This is where the younger Michael’s playing career began to take shape. Penix passed for 4,323 yards in his two years with the Titans, with 61 touchdowns and just six interceptions. 

After this strong performance and attending various collegiate camps, Penix finished his high school career as a three-star recruit, lower than any of his 2024 draft classmates. With offers from several schools, Penix chose the University of Indiana as the school to kick off his collegiate career. 

Penix’s story cannot be properly told without discussing the biggest knock on his draft stock: the injuries.

Penix began his career with Indiana. Despite being the starter for most of his time, Penix played just 20 games over four seasons with the Hoosiers. In that time, he suffered four season-ending injuries including two ACL tears in his right knee.

Penix started his college career as a co-quarterback, splitting time with then-sophomore Peyton Ramsey. In his third game, Penix tore his right ACL for the first time. He finished the season with 219 yards and one touchdown. 

Amid ACL recovery, Penix worked his way up to full-time starter in his second season. In his time under center, Penix displayed an aggressive down-the-field approach to passing paired with a knack for avoiding sacks. These two traits have remained the hallmarks of his game to this day. With a sack rate of only 2.4% on pressured dropbacks, the redshirt freshman ranked first in that category by a wide margin. Sadly, that season was cut short due to a shoulder injury suffered in a blowout win against Northwestern. Penix finished the season with 1394 passing yards and 10 touchdowns through the air, a pretty significant improvement over his previous season. 

Fall 2020 marked the start of his third season with the Hoosiers, and he retained his starting job despite the two injuries suffered in the previous two seasons. In a COVID-shortened season, the 4 -1 Hoosiers ranked 7th at one point largely due to the play of Penix. The highlight of Penix’s performance that season was a 491-yard, 5-touchdown behemoth of a game against #3 Ohio State in a 35-42 loss. Indiana was poised for success when the injuries reared their ugly head again. In the third quarter of a game against the Maryland Terrapins, Penix re-tore his right ACL, marking a bitter end to his third collegiate season. 

It was on the eve of the 2021 season when Penix discussed the possibility of quitting football, “It’s hard. I was scared to play, but I still tried to. It was just a lot. In my head, I said if I’d gotten hurt again, I was gonna quit football.” Despite missing medical clearance for his ACL in the previous season, Penix took the field on opening day. The injuries took their toll on the then-21-year-old. He posted his worst stats to date, pairing four touchdowns with seven interceptions in five games. Once again, his season was cut short due to injury. 

It was at this point Penix had a choice. He could run it back with Indiana, a place he called home amidst his difficult four seasons, littered with cold reminders of what could have been. Or, he could start anew. With the help of newly hired head coach Kalen DoBoer, Penix would don a purple jersey with the Washington Huskies. With his home set for two seasons, Penix would turn a new page that NCAA record books will remember. 

Penix started his Washington career on fire, rattling off four straight wins with the Huskies. This included a win over the 11th ranked Michigan State Spartans, where he posted 397 yards and four touchdowns. In this season, Penix was able to take his strengths to the next level. He once again led the FBS with a 3.2% pressure-to-sack ratio and finished the season with 4,641 yards, 31 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. Penix had finally put a healthy season together, and an impressive one at that. 

2023, the final year of Penix’s collegiate eligibility, was his best opportunity for a championship and his last chance to cement himself among the upper echelon of quarterback draft prospects. Would the NFL take a chance on a 24-year-old rookie with a career marred by injury? Penix would leave them no choice. With a 4,900-yard season under his belt, Penix became the first quarterback since Patrick Mahomes to post back-to-back 4,500-yard NCAA seasons. Penix would finish second in Heisman voting only losing out to fellow draft prospect Jayden Daniels

This leads us to the question many have. Why do Penix’s stats and draft projection differ so greatly? And–perhaps most perplexing– why do scouts hate him and coaches love him? The answers are… complicated. 

For starters, he can throw. Penix led the FBS in big-time throws with 43 on the season. With an average depth of target of 10.7 yards, only trailing Drake Maye among quarterbacks in this year’s draft class, Penix has no fear of the deep shot. Penix also ranked 4th among all FBS quarterbacks in completion percentage over expected, beating out projected early first-round picks Drake Maye and Caleb Williams. Other charting has highlighted Penix’s accuracy issues and posited that Penix’s receivers played a big role in helping out his CPOE number.

It is likely that a great deal of Penix’s confidence to attack defenses downfield was due to the incredible talent present in Washington’s receiver room. Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk, and Jalen McMillan are ranked #6, #59, and #65 respectively on PFF’s big board. The talent disparity Penix enjoyed between Washington’s receivers and the opposing defensive backs will likely not be present in the NFL. 

One of the more concerning aspects of Penix’s game is the inability to convert the easy throws. Whether it be his unorthodox throwing motion or his sometimes heavy feet, his yards per attempt on short and intermediate throws ranked 6th and 5th among his fellow 2024 classmates. This is a weakness that was highlighted in the National Championship game. Michigan forced Penix to throw underneath all night. His average depth of target on the night was just 8 yards, 2.7 yards shy of his regular season average. This led to one of the worst performances of the season, with the Huskies mustering just 13 points and a two-interception game from Penix

One of the most discussed strengths of Penix’s performance is his historically low pressure-to-sack ratio. When pressured, he did not take off and run. Despite showcasing his athleticism with an incredible pro day, which included a 4.5 40-yard dash time and a 36-inch vertical, Penix scrambled at an incredibly low rate. In 2023, Penix ran the ball just EIGHT times on non-designed runs, last among all quarterbacks in this draft class at just 2.2% of dropbacks.

Breaking down Penix’s pressures, a staggering 50.6% were either throwaways or aimed incompletions. While a throwaway is infinitely preferable to a sack (0.76 EPA lost vs 1.8 EPA lost), Penix’s 10.8% sack rate when pressured on the season begins to look a tad less impressive when factoring in the results compared to the other quarterbacks in the draft class.  

One of the more notable components of Penix’s profile is the disparity in opinion between scouts and coaches. Penix is said to have “the stuff you can’t coach.” Whether it be sack avoidance, downfield accuracy, or simply making the right decision, Penix has a rare combination of quarterbacking tools. Another example of this is Penix’s ability to run an offense and execute what is asked of him, regardless of the demand. 

Penix almost serves as the polar opposite to fellow soon-to-be rookie JJ McCarthy. McCarthy declared for the draft after just three seasons with the Wolverines, while Penix heads to Detroit after six. McCarthy boasts the lowest usage rate in the draft class at just 46.2%, while Penix posted the highest with 63.2%. McCarthy is a betting favorite to land inside the top 10, while Penix is an underdog to be a first-round selection. 

But let’s look back to the elephant in the room, the injuries. 

Part of Penix’s perplexity is his health dichotomy. Suffering four consecutive season-ending injuries is a cause for concern, but playing two consecutive injury-free seasons is a sigh of relief. Let’s break these injuries down and analyze the threat they pose. 

Penix’s injuries are concentrated in two areas, his shoulders and his right knee. Team doctors may have differing reports on Penix’s medicals, and they will surely inform how teams handle his draft stock. Outside analysis is purely speculation and day one selection could be a vote of confidence in his health.

Regardless of where Penix goes in the draft, the perseverance displayed with the sheer number of comeback seasons clearly indicates Penix’s willingness to compete. While Schrödinger’s quarterback is far from a certainty, the physical tools combined with his perseverant story make Penix one of the most perplexing but interesting quarterbacks to look out for come draft weekend. 

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