SEATTLE – From the time Jake Locker signed his name on a national letter of intent tying him to Washington, he was anointed by the Huskies faithful.
He was the blue chipper who spurned the national powers and remained true to his small-town roots by staying close to home. He was the savior, ready to restore the pride in a once-proud program. As Washington’s struggles continued, Locker became a de facto spokesman for a football program spiraling to historic depths.
Now after injuries, inconsistency and two miserable years of losing when Locker was often the only bright spot for the Huskies, the junior is back to being something simpler – just a quarterback.
“It’s been a priority of ours for him to understand he’s part of our UW offense. He’s not our University of Washington Husky offense,” new Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said.
When Locker steps on the field Saturday night as Washington opens its season against No. 11 LSU, it’ll be his first competitive action since Sept. 27, 2008. On that night, with the Huskies trailing Stanford 14-7 and driving, Locker became a lead blocker on a reverse. As he stuck out his right hand to brace against the turf, Locker’s right thumb shattered.
Twelve pins, some plates and a few screws in the thumb turned Locker into a spectator for the rest of Washington’s winless season.
“I had never been injured to the point that I missed multiple games and wasn’t able to be on the field in my whole life,” Locker said. “So, it was hard for me to have to sit and watch, especially with the struggles we went through last season. It was hard not to be on the field with my teammates and try to do something to help us win.”
With only two years of eligibility left, Locker’s quest is to be the quarterback that starts the turnaround of a program that earlier this decade won the Pac-10 title and a Rose Bowl. It’s been a long time since Locker was under center for a game the Huskies won. Washington’s last win was Nov. 17, 2007, in an upset of California, but Locker was out for that victory after a concussion a week earlier.
For all the impressive numbers and highlight plays Locker has produced in his limited career, Locker’s last win came on Nov. 9, 2007. He has three wins as quarterback at Washington, after going 27-2 his final two years of high school.
“Going out and setting the foundation for this team throughout this season will be the responsibility of this football team,” Locker said. “Then to carry it on from there will be the responsibility of the guys who come along in the future.”
That foundation will be based around a new pro-style offense Sarkisian used at USC and asks Locker to use his feet less and his arm more. That means more reliance on teammates who in the past haven’t shown themselves to be a better threat with the ball than if Locker kept it himself.
Add in Locker’s speed and agility in the open field, and going from being a spread-option shotgun quarterback to a stay-in-the-pocket drop-back passer is about as drastic a change a quarterback can make in one offseason.
“Anytime you deal with a player of Jake’s physical capabilities and his desire and his want to, the sky is the limit for how good Jake can be,” Washington offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said.
It helps Locker is being tutored by a pair of former quarterbacks in Sarkisian and Nussmeier, the former standout at the University of Idaho. They spent most of the spring breaking Locker of bad habits such as poor footwork and positioning as he threw that sent his tosses off target. One of Locker’s biggest problems early in his career, intermediate throws of 15 to 20 yards, have been far more accurate during fall camp.
He’s also throwing to more experienced receivers. Five of the top six on the depth chart have playing experience. The one who doesn’t, freshman James Johnson, might be the best of the group.
Yet no one is quite sure how Locker will react on Saturday night when LSU pressures him in the pocket. Will the running side of Locker break out and take off downfield? Or will he show the poise Sarkisian has stressed in making Locker into a true passer?
“I really love what Jake Locker has done up to this point going through camp and getting ready for LSU,” Sarkisian said. “I think he has completely bought in to what we are trying to get done offensively.”