Washington's Locker focusing on Huskies, not 2011 draft prospects
Mel Kiper Jr. has already anointed Jake Locker the No. 1 pick in 2011
Locker has all the tools to be great, but has yet to dominate at college level
Despite NFL hype, Locker remains focused on helping Washington win
SEATTLE -- Last year, Jake Locker had to make a difficult, life-altering decision. He debated it. He consulted his parents. Eventually, he decided to go for it.
"I've been asking for a dog for birthdays or Christmas since I was five," said the Washington quarterback, now 21. "I live in a house now with a fenced-in backyard. I thought, 'Yeah, I can have a dog. I'm going to get one.'"
Ten months later, Locker and his chocolate Labrador, Ten, are virtually inseparable.
Locker also made a weightier, more heavily publicized decision late last year: Putting off untold NFL riches to return for his senior season at Washington. Many analysts felt Locker, not Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, would have donned a St. Louis Rams cap last Thursday had Locker entered the 2010 draft. Before the NFL even held this year's event, draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. was already christening Locker next year's top pick.
"If you had to ask me right now who is going to be the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, I would say it's etched in stone it's going to be Jake Locker," Kiper said on April 7. "You can mark that down. Jake Locker, if he's not the No. 1 pick, it's an upset."
Kiper has not been the only notable figure dishing out praise. Before and after his team's game against Washington last September, then-USC coach Pete Carroll insisted the 6-foot-3, 235-pound standout was "the best quarterback we've played against" during his tenure, acknowledging that list included former Texas star Vince Young. Arizona State's Dennis Erickson once called Locker the best high school quarterback he'd ever seen.
While admitting, "It's an honor," to receive such lofty praise, the Ferndale, Wash., native, history major and outdoors enthusiast remains largely ambivalent about the draft and the media-fest that accompanies it.
While Bradford was shaking hands with commissioner Roger Goodell last week, Locker was going through a spring practice with his Huskies teammates. While the ESPN pundits spent much of the past few months dissecting draft prospects, Locker and his housemates, offensive lineman Cody Habben and former receiver Tony Chidiac, opted for the History and Discovery channels. (He says he's also become attached to the NBC game-show Minute to Win It.) He hangs out with girlfriend Lauren Greer, an outfielder on U-Dub's 2009 national champion softball team, and, of course, Ten (same as his jersey number), who's become as ubiquitous an accessory as Locker's Chevy Camo cap (he drives a 2006 Silverado) and brown Georgia Boots.
"He really hasn't changed since the day I met him," said Habben, a fellow fifth-year senior. "He's pretty much the All-American guy."
Not a lot of fans outside the Pac-10 have seen this All-American guy play, however.
Unlike Bradford and Tim Tebow, who won Heismans and played in BCS Championship games, or Jimmy Clausen, whose games aired weekly on NBC, Locker has spent most of the past three years toiling in obscurity for a rebuilding West Coast program that hasn't won more than five games since 2003. For all his obvious physical talents -- he's built like Tebow but runs a sub-4.4 40 (witness this 56-yard touchdown dash against Arizona last year) and was selected in the 10th round of the MLB draft by the Los Angeles Angels last year -- he's yet to earn higher than honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors.
There's an unusual disconnect between his exalted NFL stock and his actual college achievements to date.
"I really think you haven't seen the best of Jake Locker yet, and that's what's so exciting about him," said Washington offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier, a former St. Louis Rams assistant. "Jake has the ability to make every throw in the book. He has certain characteristics of the very, very good quarterbacks that have played this game."
UW fans anointed Locker, a 2005 state champion and Parade All-American at Ferndale (a small town in the northwest corner of the state), as the program's savior before he ever played a game. The dual-threat quarterback didn't disappoint as a redshirt freshman in 2007, throwing for 2,062 yards while rushing for 986. But then came a nightmarish '08 campaign both for Locker, who suffered a season-ending thumb injury in the season's fourth game (not to mention a costly excessive-celebration penalty in a early-season loss to BYU), and the Huskies, who finished 0-12, prompting coach Tyrone Willingham's ouster.
But Locker's career took a fortuitous turn with the arrival of new coach Steve Sarkisian, the former BYU quarterback and USC offensive coordinator who helped groom former Trojans stars Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez. Sarkisian's pro-style offense helped turn Locker into a more traditional quarterback (he ran for just 395 yards last season) while improving his accuracy (58.2 percent, up from 48.6 his first two years) and productivity (2,800 passing yards and a 21-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio, up from 14-to-15 as a freshman).
"You look at a Carson Palmer or a Matt Leinart or a Mark Sanchez, those guys have been trained since the sixth grade by the [private] quarterback gurus in all the fundamentals and techniques of the position," said Sarkisian. "Jake is a fantastic athlete, but we've had to expedite that fundamental and that technique aspect of the game with him."
And even though Washington finished below .500 again in 2009, going 5-7, Sarkisian also seems to be expediting the Huskies' rise from the ashes. Beginning with a stunning Sept. 19 upset of then third-ranked USC and ending with a 42-10 rout of 19th-ranked Cal in which Locker went 19-for-23 for 248 yards and three touchdowns, Washington was one of the Pac-10's biggest surprises.
Immediately after that season-ending Dec. 5 Cal win, reporters covering the game peppered Locker with questions about his impending NFL decision. He said he'd first started hearing chatter about his NFL prospects (mostly through texts from friends) following the USC win, but largely hadn't thought much about it.
Many players in similar positions say the same thing, but it's likely few are as genuinely in the dark about the process as Locker.
"To Jake's credit, although there was already that talk around him, he was just focused on winning some more games," said Sarkisian. "When it came to the end of the year and we had to talk about [the draft], he was a little bit na´ve to it at first. We had to speed up the process so he was aware of the magnitude of the decision he was making."
On the morning of Dec. 14, a Monday, ESPN analyst Todd McShay posted his first 2010 mock draft online -- with Locker as his No. 1 pick. By then, however, the quarterback had already made up his mind and walked into his coaches' office -- with Ten in tow -- to tell them of his decision.
"What made me consider [leaving] was the fact of where I possibly could have gone. It's an amount of money that can change your life," Locker said. "But I would never be able to come back and play college football again. Ten, 20 years down the road, I would have wondered what we could have done this year. I didn't want to be kicking myself in the ass for not coming back and missing out on that."
Long-suffering Husky fans dream of Locker leading them back to glory in 2010. He'll have no shortage of weapons at his disposal. Washington has 18 starters returning, including four starting offensive linemen, three proven receivers (Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar and James Johnson) and 1,113-yard rusher Chris Polk. The Huskies also add two freshman early-enrollee running backs, Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper, who have turned heads all spring.
"The pieces are in place to be an explosive offensive football team," said Sarkisian. "In the games we won last year and the way we played at home, [it] tells me we're good enough to beat anybody. Our challenge as a program is to find the consistency where we can go win on the road. It's something this program hasn't done in years, and its something we weren't able to get done last year."
To do that, Locker himself needs to become more consistent. Nussmeier continues to work with Locker on improving his footwork and giving him more freedom to improvise within the offense. An extra year's worth of familiarity with the system should pay dividends.
Of course, if one believes Kiper, Locker need not even step on the field this fall to assure his spot atop next year's draft board and the potential $50 million that comes with it. But he will, and he's glad.
"I love playing college football," said Locker. "Once I thought about it that way, it was really easy for me. It didn't matter where I was going to get drafted, it didn't matter how much money I was going to make. I still had to go through the process and make the best decision for me and my family, and I believe I did it. I haven't regretted my decision for a day since I made it."
His housemates, his dog and a state full of Husky fans are thrilled to have him around for another year.
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