Monday, April 12, 2010
Huskies' Locker wants postseason before NFL riches
By Ted Miller
SEATTLE -- Washington defensive tackle Cameron Elisara has just introduced Jesse Callier to Pac-10 football, running through the freshman running back's pass-block attempt like a knife through soft butter, and now he's breathing into quarterback Jake Locker's ear hole.
Jake Locker returned for his senior season in hopes of leading the Huskies to a bowl game.
But wait. Locker, at the last moment, scoots to his left with a move that's equal parts casual and lickity split. Then he flicks his right hand. If you performed a similar motion, your penny might fall short of the wishing well. But when Locker flicks a football, oftentimes it flies 40 yards down field, as this one does.
Even a jaded onlooker who's watched plenty football practices finds himself glancing side-to-side to confirm the appropriate reaction: "Golly."
Most quarterbacks would have been sacked. The Locker of 2007 or 2008 probably would have used his 4.4 speed to run for a short -- or perhaps not so short -- gain. But this is Locker 4.0, who bypassed an opportunity to be a top-10 NFL draft pick on April 22 and returned to the Huskies for his senior season. Once seen as just an athlete playing quarterback, now he can play well within a pro-style system while reserving the right to riff a bit of improvisation when the feeling strikes.
"A lot of times when plays break down is when you get your biggest plays," he said. "It's about a good balance of both; of understanding when it's going to be productive to get outside the pocket and try to make a play and when you need to stand in there and make a throw."
This Locker, who accounted for 28 touchdowns in 2009, is expecting to refine his considerable skills in Year 2 under coach Steve Sarkisian and lead the Huskies to their first bowl game since 2002.
"In my opinion, the real strides, the real improvement, occur from Year 1 to Year 2," Sarkisian said. "That's historically what we've seen."
That expectation is shared by more than a few folks. It's why many draft experts are projecting Locker to go No. 1 overall in 2011 -- ESPN's Mel Kiper told reporters it was "etched in stone."
But first things first: Locker has yet to experience a winning season or go to a bowl game in his career. He can't do it alone. What's ignited the buzz in Seattle, however, is that he won't need to. His supporting cast on offense is the match of any in the Pac-10, particularly at the skill positions.
His top seven receivers are back, and Aguilar, Jermaine Kearse and James Johnson are as talented a troika as there is in the conference. Sophomore running back Chris Polk, who's sitting out spring after shoulder surgery, ranked fourth in the conference with 1,113 yards rushing in 2009. Junior tight ends Kavario Middleton and Chris Izbicki offer big targets. And four starters are back on the offensive line.
There are questions on defense, but the Huskies should be able to score points in bunches in 2010.
Locker, of course, is where it all starts, and where things seemed to best click for him and Sarkisian was during the final two games of 2009, when the Huskies battered Washington State and California by a combined count of 72-10.
In those two games, Locker completed 35 of 51 passes (69 percent) for 444 yards with three touchdowns and one interception while he rushed for 171 yards and three TDs.
Locker's running, of all things, was the revelation. He'd spent much of the season in the pocket working within Sarkisian's system, but it seems that coach and player both had things to learn from each other.
"As much as last year he was learning our system, we were learning Jake Locker as well," Sarkisian said. "We were figuring out what he did well, how he did it well."
Which means Sarkisian and Locker will give opposing defenses a lot of looks next fall. Locker under center and in shotgun? Check. Four- and five-receiver sets? Check. Double-tight? Check. Two backs or an empty backfield? Check and Check. Some spread option? Maybe, better prepare for it.
Opposing defensive coordinators will have a lot to think about.
Speaking of things to think about, Locker admits that the NFL isn't completely out of his head. He confesses a high level of curiosity about next week's draft.
"I'm not going to lie to anybody about that -- I'm following it very closely," he said. "I've always followed it closely. I like that stuff. I feel like you can learn a lot from it just by watching it -- what people do and what they don't do and how it looks."
Sarkisian doesn't think thoughts of the next level will become a distraction for Locker, even as pundits micro-analyze his game, looking for flaws and red flags.
"Knowing Jake, I don't know if you can be more humble than that guy is," Sarkisian said. "As talented as he is physically, he's a better person, a better teammate. His teammates love him. They love his work ethic and the passion he plays with and the preparation he brings. They're in this together."
And together, the expectations are that Locker will lead the Huskies back to the postseason before departing for NFL riches.