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Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Locker looks for fresh start at UW

By Ted Miller
ESPN.com

SEATTLE -- If it were a different age of Washington football -- just about any other age, in fact -- the entire nation would know about Jake Locker. He would be mentioned in the same sentence with Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy. He would be praised for his extraordinary skills as a quarterback and admirable qualities as a leader and human being.

Locker
Jake Locker missed most of Washington's dismal 2008 season after suffering a thumb injury in the fourth game against Stanford.

That's the suspicion, at least, for Huskies fans, who stew over the notion that Locker's potential may not be realized because he's the quarterback stuck playing in the Excrement Age of Washington football.

Yet Locker has a reply to such thinking: Don't cry for me, Husky people.

"I don't regret coming here -- I wouldn't trade this experience for anything," he said. "Sometimes the football stuff didn't turn out the way I wanted it to. But I'd do the full-on same thing even knowing what would go on. At the same time, I've still got two more years to make a difference here, to turn this program around and get it headed into the right direction."

That might raise an eyebrow or two. No regrets? Really?

Locker was a national recruit out of Ferndale, Wash. He could have played for scores of winning programs and competed for championships and individual honors. Instead, the Huskies have gone 9-28 since he arrived in 2006 as the most touted recruit of the feckless Tyrone Willingham Era.

As a redshirt freshman, he won his first two starts over Syracuse and Boise State, and the Huskies led 10th-ranked Ohio State at halftime of Game 3 before collapsing.

Since then, it's mostly been Locker vs. the world, with the world winning. He has been surrounded by an outmanned supporting cast, and the entire offense mostly became a series of Locker runs and scrambles with an occasional pass mixed in. The coup de grace: He suffered a severe thumb injury trying to throw a block against Stanford in the fourth game of 2008, and he was lost for the final eight games of a winless season.

While Saints Tebow and McCoy battle for magazine covers, the chief issue around Locker is whether he'll be able to adapt to new coach Steve Sarkisian's pro-style offense. Or whether football is even his sport -- see his signing with the Los Angeles Angels.

So, does Locker ever fantasize about being the subject of fawning media attention that lauds his extensive community service and volunteer work and his personal faith as much as his potential to lead a team to the national title?

"Definitely not," he said. "My faith has taught me that you do things the right way whether you're getting credit for it or not. That's not why you do it. You don't do it so you can be in the paper or in the news. You do it because it can make somebody else's life better and because you live for something higher than yourself."

The question here, of course, is can Sarkisian make Locker's football life better and thereby uplift long-suffering Huskies fans?

Maybe.

Every team has hope during the preseason, but the attitude change around the Huskies is palpable, and not just because the energetic Sarkisian has invited fans to reconnect with a program that was shrouded in sometimes cartoonish secrecy by the dour Willingham.

Fans watching practices might have noticed Locker's much-discussed accuracy issues -- he has completed less than 50 percent of his throws -- seem, well, less of an issue. Sarkisian said Locker has been completing passes at about a "65 to 67 percent" clip in scrimmages.

Sarkisian and quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier have worked on Locker's footwork and mechanics and have made his delivery smoother -- Sarkisian calls it "leaning it out." They focused on developing consistency in his setup, release point and his follow-through.

Sarkisian also forced Locker, who rushed for 986 yards in 2007, to stay in the pocket during spring practices instead of running with the football. But Sarkisian isn't stupid. He's fully aware he's got one of the best athletes in the Pac-10 playing quarterback for him.

Steve Sarkisian
A healthy Locker combined with new coach Steve Sarkisian has given Washington fans some reason for hope ahead of the 2009 season.

"There's going to be some give and take," Sarkisian said. "I can't just say, 'We're running a pro-style offense,' and not take advantage of what this guy can do. I mean, he's a 4.4 [40-yard dash] guy at 230 pounds."

What Locker also has is a surprisingly strong receiving corps, one that was too young to assert itself last season but has played at a high level since spring practices.

"Jake's throwing a lot better," said D'Andre Goodwin, who caught 60 passes in 2008. "He's being coached up on small details. We're all getting a lot more repetition with things. We're all feeling comfortable with each other. He knows how each of his receivers run routes."

Locker refuses to wish away the past, but he's also not going to dwell on it, either. One of his least favorite subjects is breaking down what went wrong under Willingham, though he has never shied away from saying change was needed.

As for his new coach, their partnership could benefit both in the present and future, a point Sarkisian hastened to make with Locker during their initial meetings.

"I said to him, 'Jake, I owe it to you to get you ready for the National Football League. You deserve it. Let's go do it for two years, and you make your dream happen,'" Sarkisian said.

If Locker can reach his potential, it also would be a dream for beleaguered Huskies fans.

Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. He covers the Pac-10 for ESPN.com's blog network. Send your questions and comments to him at tedmillerespn@gmail.com.