The issue facing NFL teams now is whether the 6'2½", 231-pound Locker is a stud athlete who happens to play quarterback, or a quarterback who happens to be a stud athlete. That question could make him this year's most polarizing quarterback. Several teams are divided in their own buildings about him. Scouts love his upside and intangibles: He has a great work ethic, comes from a solid family and will never cost a general manager a minute's sleep wondering where he is at night. Coaches, however, know that their jobs could depend on Locker's playing well quickly, and even his strongest supporters accept that he'll need time to develop in the pro game. "It's unfortunate that the kid was built up to be something special instead of coming under the radar," says one NFL decision maker. "Anyone who looks at him now with a discerning eye will struggle to see him as a first-rounder. I can't see taking him in the first round and expecting him to play right away."
"He's probably the second-best athlete in the draft at that position behind Cam Newton," says another G.M. "[Locker] does have an upside, but he's a little ways away. You've got to give him some time. But the accuracy is still going to be his biggest issue."
For all the questions about Locker on the field, there are none away from it. He comes from the Mayberry-like town of Ferndale, where seemingly all of the 11,000-plus residents know his name. At Jake Locker Day last July the mayor joked that he'd be out of a job if Locker decided to run for office.
Athletic success is nothing new to the family. Locker's mother, Anita, won a state volleyball title at Ferndale High; dad Scott and uncles Pat, Mike and John all played at Western Washington, where Pat, a star running back, still holds the career total yardage record; and Jake's grandfather Hugh Locker was an all-city football player at Ballard High in Seattle. Still, those who know Jake admire him as much for his humility and humanity as his athletic gifts. When he arrived at Washington, one of his stated goals was to be a positive role model. As part of an independent study class on leadership last year he created the Touchdown for Kids program, which raised more than $50,000 for Seattle Children's Hospital. "Jake had thoughtfully planned it out, almost like it was a business plan," says Eve Kopp, director of corporate annual giving for the hospital's foundation. "He said, 'I want the whole community to be involved, and here's how we're going to do it.' He didn't want to be the spokesperson. He wanted the whole team to own it. He wanted all the accolades to go to his teammates."
Stories like these lead one general manager to privately admit he's "rooting" for Locker. The executive acknowledges the flaws in Locker's game but says the quarterback has a knack for excelling when it matters most. The Huskies' bowl hopes appeared to be over after a 53--16 loss at Oregon last November—their third defeat in a row, by an aggregate score of 138--30. It dropped them to 3--6, with two of their final three games on the road. But after a 17-point home win over UCLA, Locker engineered a drive at Cal to set up the game-winning field goal as time expired, then connected with wideout Jermaine Kearse for a 27-yard score with 44 seconds left against Washington State to give the Huskies a 35--28 Apple Cup victory and make them bowl eligible. In the Holiday Bowl they avenged their loss to Nebraska with a 19--7 win.
"This guy's future is so bright because there's so much upside to him," Sarkisian says of Locker. "People ask if you can improve his accuracy. I definitely think you can. And the reason is, if you look at him out of the pocket, when he's on the run and making those throws, the accuracy is there. That tells me the physical tools are there to be accurate. There is a level of comfort in the pocket that doesn't just happen overnight. It takes constant repetition. He's only been in a pro offense for two years. He will work at it. He has the character and the work ethic to make it happen."
Locker draws comparisons with former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, not only because of their upstanding character but also because both played in spread offenses and were viewed as quarterbacks who would scramble if their first read was covered. The description has merit but leaves out an important element: Tebow was surrounded by NFL talent. In addition to Tebow, who went in the first round to Denver last year, the Gators had 22 players drafted from 2007 to '10, including seven in the first round and 13 in the first three. Five of the picks were wide receivers, and one was a running back. Washington, which never was better than 7--6 under Locker, had just four players drafted over the same period, none of them in the first or second rounds. How teams factor the Huskies' dearth of elite talent into their evaluations could determine whether Locker goes in the top 10 of the first round to the Titans (No. 8) or the Redskins (10), mid-first to the Vikings (12) or the Jaguars (16) or toward the bottom, to the Seahawks (25). Some teams do not have a first-round grade on him, but given the number of clubs in need of a quarterback, the possibility of his dropping to the second is remote.
Regardless of what happens, Locker is taking the same approach that he did last year, when he first heard about Kiper's declaration, thanks to a text sent by a longtime pal. Says Locker, "It's cool to have somebody think that way about you, but it doesn't change what your goals are or how you go about preparing. If anything it should make you work harder. But I can't get caught up in that. Those [experts] have a job, but they're not the ones who draft people. That's how I looked at it then, and that's how I look at it now. Yeah, it's great that they're saying that—but, honestly, it really doesn't matter.
"The biggest thing that teams keep asking me about is accuracy and whether I can complete the passes more efficiently that I'll be asked to make. I say, 'Yeah. I guarantee you I can.' For me it's always been a process. I haven't been a drop-back passer for very long, and I feel myself getting better and better every day that I do it. Without a shadow of a doubt, I believe I can be one of the most efficient quarterbacks at the next level. All I need is the chance."
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