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UW’s Locker, Notre Dame’s Clausen share tales as QBs

Scott M. Johnson Everett Herald

As a high school quarterback, he turned down USC’s Steve Sarkisian to accept an offer to attend a once-proud program that had fallen on hard times.

He entered the college football world being seen as a savior who could restore glory to his new university’s program.

And it took two forgettable years for him to find his stride and finally live up to the expectations as one of college football’s best quarterbacks.

This is the story of University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker.

It’s also the story of Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen.

A pair of close friends and high-profile recruits who needed a little seasoning will square off for the first time this weekend when Locker’s Huskies face Clausen’s Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Both players are having outstanding seasons, which is exactly what was expected of them when they entered college football as freshmen. For both Locker and Clausen, the accolades took a little longer than anyone could have imagined.

“When you anoint someone the second coming: ‘Here’s the program, now go take us to it,’ that can be a lot of pressure,” said Sarkisian, now the head coach at UW after spending seven of the past eight seasons recruiting as a USC assistant. “… I think it takes time to grow, it takes time to learn. You’ve got to learn from mistakes. I think they’ve both done that.”

What Clausen found when he arrived at Notre Dame just more than two years ago was that the weight of a suffering fan base was being heaped upon his shoulders. The pressure only grew when Clausen was handed the starting job, and he didn’t exactly escape the spotlight when he was arrested for an alcohol offense on the eve of his freshman year.

On the field, Clausen certainly didn’t look like the next Joe Montana as a freshman. He lost five of his first six starts, got sacked countless times and eventually lost his starting job to an older quarterback.

Clausen showed progress as a sophomore last season, but not until recently has he shown why he was the No. 1-ranked player in the Class of 2007. He ranks fourth in the nation in passing efficiency (172.9) and has thrown 10 touchdown passes to only one interception.

“He’s shown to be a complete quarterback right now,” said Sarkisian, who faced Clausen as a USC assistant last season and will now plan against him as UW’s head coach. “It’s just that maturation process.”

Clausen, who turned 22 last month, said his emergence as a college quarterback has been gradual but rewarding.

“It’s different coming from high school into college,” he said this week. “You think you’re good, and you think you can step right in and play, but it’s extremely tough. It’s taken me three years to get to this point.

“I feel like I did as a senior in high school. I know how to handle myself and be a leader of a team. It’s something I’ve had to evolve to here at Notre Dame.”

Locker has been through a similar journey, although his college hardships have had more to do with injury and team struggles than his misfortune on the field.

The redshirt junior played 16 games over the past two seasons for UW and was plagued by injuries – a broken thumb kept him out of eight games last season – and inconsistent play. The UW program he was being asked to save went 4-21 in his first two years of eligibility, and so Locker came into this season with a lot to prove.

But he said this week that the pressure of trying to carry Husky Nation on his shoulders never weighed him down.

“I never felt like it was all on me to turn this program around,” Locker said during his Monday press conference. “The game is played with 11 guys on the field at a time. If it was meant for one guy to change it, we’d play with one guy on the field.”

But Locker was clearly the face of the program.

“Jake was the big man on campus,” sophomore wide receiver Jermaine Kearse said this week when asked what he remembered about his arrival at UW. “He was a part of my commitment here.”

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