If Locker stays, UW could soar

SEATTLE – For all the emotional swoons, good and bad, that Steve Sarkisian experienced in his first year as Washington’s football coach, he was left with an overwhelming sense of hope after the Huskies’ season finale that this time next year Washington will be preparing for a bowl.

Gone is the stain of 2008’s 0-12 debacle, replaced by optimism that the competitiveness Washington showed in Sarkisian’s 5-7 first season will eventually lead the Huskies back into the upper echelon of the Pac-10.

“No doubt this (season) was a success,” Sarkisian said. “We’re as good as anybody in our conference. We can go play them next week, and we’ll be in a ballgame with them. I don’t know if we could have said that a year ago, but we can say that today.”

How hopeful everyone else feels about the Huskies in 2010 will largely depend on quarterback Jake Locker’s decision to either stay for his senior season or leave early for the NFL.

Locker might feel a sense of unfinished business, especially considering the close, last-second losses to Notre Dame, Arizona State and UCLA that kept the Huskies from a bowl trip. If he returns to try to cement his Washington legacy, he’ll be leading a dynamic offense.

“I think we can be electric. I think we’re coming into our own,” Sarkisian said after the Huskies’ 42-10 pounding of California to close out the 2009 season. “We’re a very young offense that continued to grow throughout the season and … we showed some explosiveness that we can continue to grow on.”

If Locker turns down the lure of the NFL, the Huskies could present one of the most potent offenses around. They’d bring back a 1,100-yard rusher in tailback Chris Polk, the 2,800 yards passing and nearly 400 yards rushing of Locker, and three receivers with 35 or more catches this season.

But until Locker announces his intentions, there will be a great deal of apprehension on Montlake.

After Saturday’s win over the Bears, Locker insisted he’s made no plans and only now will begin evaluating his future moves. He’s likely to submit his name to the NFL Collegiate Advisory Committee to get a gauge of where he might be drafted, but pundits are almost unanimous in believing Locker’s potential would make him a high first-round selection.

Locker has until Jan. 15 to declare for the draft and until Jan. 18 to withdraw, provided he doesn’t hire an agent.

“It’s going to be something where I sit down with my family and the coaching staff and with whatever timeline I do come up with and make a decision,” Locker said.

If Locker leaves, the Huskies face a gaping hole at quarterback, with inexperienced Ronnie Fouch or redshirt freshman Keith Price likely to take over. Otherwise, the Huskies offense returns nearly in full.

Polk was expected to be part of a running back by committee approach when the season began. Now he’s on pace to leave Seattle as Washington’s all-time leader in yards rushing after posting just the 13th 1,000-yard season in school history. Jermaine Kearse finished with 50 receptions, nearly 900 yards receiving and eight touchdowns – nearly half the catches and six of the TDs in the final four games.

“I think a lot of teams are going to have to respect us more next year,” freshman receiver James Johnson said. “Other teams aren’t going to go into a game and just expect to win. They are going to know we are going to fight every second of the game. I think that’s what we showed the Pac-10 this year.”

Defense is where the Huskies have holes to fill from a unit that showed progress toward the end of the season, but still gave up an average of 389 yards per game this season – numbers slightly skewed by Washington’s final two games where it allowed just 163 yards to Washington State and 296 to Cal.

Gone will be defensive ends Daniel Te’o-Nesheim and Darrion Jones, linebackers E.J. Savannah and Donald Butler and safety Jason Wells.

But there were bright spots in the development of freshmen cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Adam Long, and improving linebackers Cort Dennison and Mason Foster. Washington was also able to pressure the quarterback in its final two games with five sacks against Cal and five against Washington State, and continuing that into next season will be key in the improvement of the Huskies defense.

“I think that we showed we can play through anything,” Foster said.

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