EUGENE, Oregon — Neither Bo Nix or Michael Penix Jr. expected to spend five or six years in college, let alone at two different schools.
Yet here they are about to enter their final college seasons, two of the best in a quarterback-rich conference tied together by their talent, their geography playing in the Pacific Northwest and by their decisions to put off the NFL to return to college for one more season.
Penix, a former Tampa Bay Tech standout, is the engine for No. 10 Washington and Nix is the same for 15 Oregon, teams that should be contenders for the Pac-12 title in the final season of the conference in its current form. They both open Saturday at home, Washington against Boise State and Oregon against Portland State.
They’re both on everybody’s list of potential Heisman Trophy contenders. Born three months apart, they are both 23 and the old guys who have been around college football longer than either anticipated.
“I would never guess I would be in college for five years. But everything happens for a reason, you get dealt different cards and my path and journey was different from other people’s path and journey, and I’ve done my best to make the most of it,” Nix said. “I do what I can with the position I’m in and I wouldn’t trade anything.”
Nix and Penix will both enter their final seasons looking to add a few more college highlights before taking their games to the professional level.
Penix started at Indiana in 2018 and Nix at Auburn in 2019. Back then, the path was clear — play well for a few years and move to the NFL.
The journeys have been far from linear. Penix had season-ending injuries all four seasons at Indiana (knee and shoulders). Nix was a freshman phenom at Auburn, but a series of coaching and coordinator changes led to the decision to leave his family lineage on the Plains and head West.
Each enjoyed a career renaissance last season. Nix threw for nearly 3,600 yards and accounted for 44 total touchdowns as Oregon went 10-3 and may have been in the College Football Playoff with a better defense late in the season.
Penix was even better, throwing for 4,641 yards and 31 TDs as the Huskies finished 11-2 and won their final seven games.
Rather than using those seasons as a launchpad to the NFL, they both decided to take one more turn in college.
“Whatever decision I made, I didn’t want to make no regrets,” Penix said. “I feel like coming back was definitely something that was special for me to allow me to develop a little bit more and continue to help this team win football games.”
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Nix and Penix are just two of the standout quarterbacks in the final season of the Pac-12 — a last salvo for the conference that has produced so many great quarterbacks throughout its history.
There’s the reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams at Southern California. There’s former five-star Clemson starter DJ Uiagalelei now at Oregon State. There’s Cameron Rising, a two-time conference champion for Utah trying to come back from a torn ACL suffered in the Rose Bowl.
And that’s just the top of the pecking order and doesn’t include Cam Ward (Washington State), Shedeur Sanders (Colorado) or five-star freshman Dante Moore, expected to be the starter at UCLA.
What separates Penix and Nix from the others — aside from their age and college experience — is that decision to return. Even in a quarterback-rich draft last April that saw QBs taken with three of the first four picks, Penix and Nix likely would have heard their names called on the second or early on the third day.
Neither seemed interested in rushing through their college experience. There are areas of their games to improve and a quarterback draft class not thought to be as deep in the 2024 draft.
And there’s name, image and likeness compensation. While not a major factor in their decisions to stay, the fact both Nix and Penix have name, image and likeness endorsement deals mean in this age players don’t have to rush immediately to the NFL to have some financial security.
“You’re well taken care of in college so there’s nothing that you necessarily have to push for. No needs or anything,” Nix said. “But I think it’s a great opportunity for collegiate athletes. I think it’s really changed college sports as we once knew it.”
Both Nix and Penix still have questions to answer in the eyes of NFL evaluators, making their decisions to return less complicated.
“For me, it’s never been about money. I never came from a lot so it was I knew I had to work for everything that I got and that’s how I always go about life,” Penix said. “I’m gonna work for whatever. I’m not just expected to get something because I had a good year. It was never about that. It’s about this team, winning football games and trying to leave my mark.”
By TIM BOOTH AP Sports Writer