Thursday, September 29, 2011
Price steps from the shadows to the spotlight
By Ted Miller
In 2008, USC and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian were wrapping up a 12-1 season and another -- yawn -- Rose Bowl victory while Washington was swirling down the toilet bowl of an 0-12 season. Sarkisian and head coach Pete Carroll were in the midst of signing another top-rated recruiting class, and they cherry-picked everybody's top-rated quarterback [cue angelic chorus] Matt Barkley.
Washington quarterback Keith Price has made many of his best plays throwing outside the pocket.
Meanwhile, dour, defeated Tyrone Willingham up at Washington got a commitment from... wait... [shuffling recruiting web pages] ... here it is... a fellow from Saint John Bosco High School whom ESPN recruiting identified as an "athlete," not a quarterback.
Ah, but Sarkisian had raised an old former quarterback's eyebrow at Price while scouting Barkley. When he was hired to replace Willingham, he made an inspired decision that went completely unheralded at the time.
"That was one of the key things we wanted to get done as soon as I took this job: Keep [Price] committed here," Sarkisian said.
Entering the season, Price, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound sophomore, was mostly viewed as the guy who would hand the ball to tailback Chris Polk. Be a game manager. Don't screw things up. Behave.
Instead, he presently ranks ninth in the nation in passing efficiency and is tied for the lead with 14 touchdown passes. He's completed 67 percent of his passes with just three interceptions, and the Huskies are 3-1 in large part because of his immediate success.
Barkley, while a likely NFL first-round draft pick this spring, ranks 34th in the nation in passing efficiency. Just saying.
Price's only previous significant action before this season was a start at Oregon last year when Jake Locker was hurt, and he turned in solid but unspectacular numbers: 14 of 28 for 127 yards with a TD and no interceptions in a blowout loss. Spring practice began with Price expected to be in a tight battle with Nick Montana -- yes, son of Joe -- to replace Locker. It ended with Price the clear starter.
Still, an impressive spring game and consistent playmaking in practice is one thing. What about when the lights go on and the action counts?
Question answered. Price, reputed to be cooler under pressure than a fall evening in Seattle, seems almost amused that folks are surprised.
"I knew how good I could play," Price said. "I knew my potential."
That's not just Price's personal confidence. That is a common theme among the Huskies players and coaches. While fans and media are agog with "Can you believe how good Keith Price is?" the Huskies coaches and players say they saw this coming.
"He's been doing this for us every day in practice," Sarkisian said. "Did I think he was going to be leading the country in touchdown passes after four games? Probably not. But I did think he'd play well."
Polk said this before the Huskies visited Nebraska on Sept. 17: "I'm not surprised at all. He's one hell of a player and he's not reached his full potential."
Price and Polk will face a big test at Utah on Saturday. The Utes are tough in Rice-Eccles Stadium, which old Pac-10 fans are about to learn is one of the loudest venues in the conference. They play sound, rugged defense. The Utes are fourth in the conference in rushing defense, No. 1 in pass efficiency defense and have forced 12 turnovers, four more than any other conference team.
But what Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who also recruited Price, sees on film is a quarterback who can make a defense look bad even when it is sound.
"He makes so many non-rhythmic plays for them," Whittingham said. "When the play breaks down, when the pocket breaks down, he's able to escape and find a throwing window and makes something happen."
That has been Price's best skill thus far: His creativity. While he's a good athlete, he's more of a pure passer than a runner. He uses his athletic ability to extend plays, not to scramble for yards. He's hit a number of throws downfield when on the run outside the pocket.
Sarkisian calls this Price's "stinger." Sometimes coaches want to tamp it down because it's outside-the-playbook thinking. But not Sarkisian, even if it sometimes leads to an unhappy ending.
"Many of the good plays that he makes for us [involve] extending plays and buying time in the pocket," Sarkisian said. "He's going to make mistakes doing that stuff, but I just don't want to take that stinger from him. We're going to coach him. We're going to coach him on ball security -- the fumble there on the sack on the two-minute drill right before the end of the half [against California]. Those aren't great plays from him, but he'll learn. I definitely don't want to take that stinger from him because it's a unique asset to our offense right now."
That "stinger" has been around for a while. Price has played quarterback since he was eight years old. He never played any other position. While he doesn't have the polish or the "wow" arm strength Barkley has, it's already clear he has playmaking instincts and outstanding vision.
Further, he doesn't seem to cloud his thinking with the analysis of minutia. The best advice he's received about playing quarterback? "Just keep playing, no matter what the score is. Just keep playing and keep leading. That's the best advice. Forget about the score and just play."
It's also worth noting that Price has been putting up these numbers while not 100 percent physically. He engineered the win against Cal on two sprained knees.
"I still have a long way to go," he said. "Hopefully, my knees get better, back to 100 percent, so I can really showcase what I'm about."
So 14 touchdown passes in four games isn't even Price's best. Seems like a reason to stay tuned.