Hey, look! Jake Locker is smiling at you. He's probably just thinking, "Hey, I'm Jake Locker. How cool is that?"
This is supposed to be a quiet time in college football, but, heck, with conference expansion and USC's NCAA sanctions giving us breathless headlines, why not start the Heisman hype for Washington's talented quarterback?
Back before the 2001 season, Oregon put up a billboard in Manhattan of quarterback Joey Harrington and called him "Joey Heisman." Seeing that the Huskies and Ducks don't get along well at all -- thankfully, it appears the rivalry is about to become relevant again -- Washington officials tried to do one better by bringing Locker east in person.
He toured Manhattan. He hung out at ESPN and went through the infamous "car wash" -- interviews for all ESPN platforms, TV, radio, Internet, etc. -- which included an interview on "First Take" and a live chat, the transcript of which is here.
The intent of the tour is obvious: Introduce the East Coast media -- i.e., the country -- to a player whose incredible skills have been hidden under Seattle's gray rain clouds, which hovered over an until recently moribund program.
In 2008, Locker was knocked out in Game 4 against Stanford with a season-ending thumb injury and the Huskies went 0-12. A year later, with Steve Sarkisian taking over for Tyrone Willingham, the Huskies went 5-7, beating USC, Arizona and California in the process, and suddenly looking like a Pac-10 contender heading into 2010.
Dramatic improvement, yes, but Heisman-worthy? Maybe not as a settled body of work.
The burgeoning hype for Locker, which rubs some folks the wrong way (Oregon fans?), isn't based on what he's done so far. His numbers playing for mediocre-to-bad teams his first three years aren't the basis for projections that he will be a high first-round NFL draft pick -- perhaps No. 1 overall -- next fall. Nor are they the basis for his Heisman campaign.
With Locker, it's all about potential. And there's good reason to believe that potential will take a significant step toward realization this fall. The Huskies have solid talent returning, particularly on offense, and they have a brutal schedule that features many marquee games in which Locker could make a national audience go, "Wow."
What might Locker 4.0 look like in top form? Almost no one in the country saw Locker's performance on Dec. 5 against California for good reason: The Big 12 and SEC title games were played that day. But Locker led the Huskies to a 42-10 upset of Cal by accounting for five total touchdowns, three passing, two rushing. He completed 19 of 23 for 248 yards with no interceptions and rushed for 90 yards on 14 carries.
It was as dominating an individual performance as you'll see. It looked like Locker, who brings an appealing childlike glee to the game, could have done anything he wanted at any time.
All the glad-handing in the world won't make sparkling but off-the-radar performances attract the attention of Heisman voters, however. That requires winning, and the real Heisman hype rocket has an obvious potential launching point: Against Nebraska on Sept. 18 in Husky Stadium.
The Cornhuskers figure to be a top-10 team. If the Huskies can start 2-0 -- hardly automatic considering the opener is at BYU -- that game will attract significant national interest. Maybe even "College GameDay."
It will be billed as the Cornhuskers elite defense vs. Locker (whether that's accurate or not). And if Locker prevails with a sterling performance? At that point, the Heisman hype will begin in earnest.
And, of course, Mel Kiper and Todd McShay will start writing sonnets about Locker's future playing on Sundays.