SEATTLE – Through three games, Keith Price seems to have answered every question but one: How good might he be if he had two healthy legs?
The Washington quarterback suffered a sprain to his right knee in the second quarter of the opener against Eastern Washington, and a sprain to his left knee in the third quarter Saturday at Nebraska.
But despite hobbling at times on the field, Price is off to one of the best statistical starts of any quarterback in the nation – as well as any in Huskies history.
Price has thrown 11 touchdown passes, tied with Bowling Green’s Matt Schilz for most in the nation, and according to UW research, the most in any three-game span in the history of the school. He needs just four more touchdown passes to crack UW’s season top 10.
“He’s playing phenomenal football for us right now,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. “He’s been lights-out.”
He also has short-circuited any debate over whether he’s the right guy to replace departed Jake Locker. Sarkisian and Price’s UW teammates say they’ve never doubted that Price had the right stuff.
“He’s always impressed me,” said senior middle linebacker Cort Dennison, one of four team captains. “I think as soon as Jake left last year, he really embraced the role and put people on his shoulders and said, ‘Let’s go.’
“He’s always smiling, very charismatic and very positive and upbeat. And when you have a leader that demonstrates those qualities, everybody on the team is going to pull for you and be behind you. So I’ve always been impressed with Keith from day one.”
In national circles, some assumed that Locker’s heir apparent might be Nick Montana. The son of Hall of Famer Joe Montana committed to Washington shortly after Sarkisian arrived, but with the class of 2010.
Price, a redshirt sophomore who signed in 2009, was already here when Montana arrived, getting some vital seasoning in Sarkisian’s offense.
When the job was fully thrown open to competition last spring, Price won the top spot. He displayed the attributes fans are seeing now – impressive mobility, a mastery of the offense, and accuracy.
“He’s got an innate ability to extend plays and keep his vision and find open receivers downfield,” Sarkisian said.
Yet Price entered the year with just one start, last season at Oregon. Taking over as the full-time starter this year for Locker, however, immediately thrust Price into the spotlight.
Price has not seemed awed by the pressure. His ever-present smile symbolizes an upbeat personality that coaches say allows him to weather any storm.
“It’s his natural demeanor, the way he carries himself, the way he presents himself,” said UW offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. “He never has tried to be anybody other than Keith.”
That has allowed Price to compile a slew of heady numbers. He is completing 64.4 percent of his passes (the UW record is 65 percent by Steve Pelluer in 1983) and has a QB-efficiency rating of 165.91 (the UW record is 153.8 by Brock Huard in 1997).
“I think we learned a lot about Keith Price through the first quarter of the season,” Sarkisian said. “He’s a tough kid. He’s got a playmaking ability about him. And I think our teammates have learned a lot about him and have rallied behind him as well. He’s all we ever could have asked for up until this point through three games.”
Price seems to be about the only one not impressed.
Asked this week what he thinks the key has been in his early success, he paused, flashed that smile then said: “Guys are getting open for me. The line is doing a great job. I don’t have to do much but throw it to the open guy. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Obviously, that’s easier said than done. It might be even easier on two healthy knees.
Price said this week the right knee is now close to 100 percent but the left knee is “40 or 50” percent. Price has practiced all week and vows to be much improved for the California game Saturday. But he’s unlikely to be completely healed.
The knees have taken away Price’s ability to run, usually a strength of his game.
“It’s taken it away,” he said. “I can’t lie. I haven’t been able to run like I can, but I’ve been throwing the ball pretty well.”
Which also is no lie.
Running back Jesse Callier, who suffered a hamstring injury against Nebraska, returned to practice Wednesday. Safeties Nate Fellner (hamstring) and Taz Stevenson (knee) remain questionable for Saturday. Sarkisian said freshman DE Josh Shirley has had his best week of practice. Sarkisian also said the team would like to rotate more players on the defensive front. Shirley could be a candidate to see more time.