Dade City’s Michael Penix sprinting past stereotype as NFL draft nears

The label has dogged Michael Penix Jr. like a frothing edge rusher, bent on bringing him down.

Pocket passer.

The term is darn near derogatory in today’s NFL, suggesting no mobility and — even worse — no place in many modern-day offenses. Hence the reason Penix, well-known victim of the stereotype (not to mention two ACL tears), has spent most of the calendar year literally trying to outrun it.

At the University of Washington’s pro day in late March, the 2023 Heisman Trophy runner-up ran a sub-4.6-second time in the 40-yard dash. For good measure, he also recorded a 36½-inch vertical jump.

“I feel like I possibly answered a lot of questions,” Penix told ESPN’s Molly McGrath afterward.

“I felt good, being able to run, to be able to jump. Obviously I wanted to do that to show that I’m willing to compete, and I want to write my own story, write my own narrative. And I feel like I did that.”

Whether the NFL at large is convinced remains to be seen.

Of the five most-heralded quarterbacks in this draft, Penix seems hardest to project. Clearly the best deep-ball thrower in the group, he led the Football Bowl Subdivision with 4,903 passing yards last season, ranking third with 36 touchdown passes. In two seasons as the Huskies’ starter, he completed more than 65% of his throws for 9,544 yards, amassing a 25-3 record.

Yet he totaled 100 rushing yards in those two seasons. Toss in the torn-ACL history (knee surgeries ended two of his four seasons at Indiana), and Penix is tagged as a proficient left-hander with Tom Brady’s touch and — to his detriment — Brady’s agility.

While a number of mock drafts (including two from CBS Sports) tab Penix as a first-rounder, ESPN’s Mel Kiper has him going at No. 37 overall to the Rams.

Meantime, the perception that he lacks mobility makes at least two Penix generations fume.

“That’s what people don’t understand — he’s never been a running quarterback, ever,” said the elder Michael Penix, a former Pasco High tailback who raised “Little Mike” in Dade City.

“Now, people think he can’t run, but they’re dead wrong. As a matter of fact, I’m willing to bet a whole lot on little Michael that if you put him up against all the quarterbacks in college (in a sprint) right now, I guarantee you he’s going to be in the top five. He’s going to outrun way more than half of them, I promise you that. He just don’t like to run, that’s not his game.”

Penix, who ultimately graduated from Tampa Bay Tech, seemed to reinforce that stance while addressing reporters at the NFL combine this past winter.

“A lot of people ask why don’t I run,” he said. “But I feel like the way I process defenses and process the game, I feel like I do it so quick to the point where I really don’t have to run. I know where my outlets are, I know where to get the ball to and, man, I’m confident in all my decisions. So, I feel like everything I do on the football field, it translates to success.”

Corroborating Penix’s claim: He was sacked only 16 times in 28 games over the past two seasons. His vision and ability to work seamlessly through progressions have been widely lauded by analysts and reinforced by metrics.

Penix was one of 13 Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks to have more than 100 drop-backs when moved off their first read. On those plays, his 86.2 overall grade ranked second in the nation behind USC’s Caleb Williams, according to Pro Football Focus.

“I feel like he’s got that athleticism. He gives me the confidence that he can avoid the rush,” said former Bucs general manager Mark Dominik, now a draft analyst for SiriusXM.

“I know that he doesn’t have the rush yards, but I think he’s got that pocket awareness where he can take that step up. He can slide to the left, slide to the right. I think he has a natural feel where he’s not looking around over his shoulder, but that he’s just kind of feeling it, and I think that’s what’s been really good about him.”

Question is, will field instincts and 40 times trump an extensive injury history? Because of Penix’s knee surgeries (and two significant shoulder injuries) while at Indiana, medical questions hound him like the pocket-passer label.

Even after two sparkling seasons at Washington, he’s still trying to outrun the past — and the perceptions.

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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