UW Football Preview
Can freshman QB Jake Locker save the Huskies?
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Jake Locker filePosition: Quarterback
Height: 6-3 Weight: 210
Hometown: Ferndale (Ferndale High)
Awards: Named the state Player of the Year by the Seattle Times in 2005 after leading the Golden Eagles to the 3A state title, beating Prosser in the championship game 47-12. ... Also named a first-team All-American by Parade magazine and EA Sports. ... As a senior, passed for 1,603 yards and 27 TDs and rushed for 1,338 yards and 24 TDs. ... Redshirted last season.
Washington quarterback Jake Locker stunned Huskies fans by admitting that he does indeed — gasp! — have a few flaws.
"I cannot do anything that involves a skateboard, a wakeboard or a snowboard — any of that stuff," he admitted in a shocking revelation.
"I cannot even stand on a skateboard. I fell off the first time I stepped on one when I was 10 or 11, and I haven't stepped on one since. I went snowboarding and spent two days up on the mountain and I couldn't even get on the rope tow without falling down. I gave up on that after that weekend. Wakeboarding, it took me two years to get up for the first time and I finally did it last summer, so that was a big milestone for me."
Many fans were left confused why Locker would even need a wakeboard given his reputed ability to walk on water.
OK, so maybe Locker has no future in the X Games.
But the sentiment that Locker is Washington's savior, the player who will finally pull the Huskies out of the Neuheisel-Gilbertson morass, is as real as ever.
Just look at the line that greeted Locker's table at UW's Picture Day earlier this month, which stretched from one sideline to the other, probably double that of the queue for every other table combined.
"It was definitely kind of surprising," Locker said. "I didn't really understand it. I haven't played any games yet."
Not in college, anyway.
But Locker's Ferndale High School career was the stuff of legend — as a senior, his team won the Class 3A state title and Locker had a 27-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 24 rushing touchdowns and was recognized as a first-team Parade All-American.
At Pac-10 media day in July, Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said that Locker was as good a high-school quarterback as he had ever seen, comments he elaborated on in private later.
"You get a guy of his talent, that turns programs around pretty damn fast," Erickson said. "The biggest thing they ever did was get him. He can turn that program around."
That's a feeling shared by almost everyone who has seen Locker play, either at Ferndale or in scrimmages and practices with the Huskies.
Former UW quarterback Hugh Millen has said Locker has the potential to be the best QB in school history.
"When I think of the reasons why it wouldn't work, I have trouble coming up with any," Millen said. "It is very unlikely in my mind that it is not going to come together for him big time."
The biggest question, then — and the one most relevant to the 2007 Huskies — is, how quickly it will all come together?
While Locker's talents seem undeniable, he is being called on to do something not done at UW since the dawn of two-platoon football — start at quarterback in the first game of his freshman season.
Locker will make what might be the most anticipated debut in Washington history Friday when he starts in the Huskies' opener at Syracuse. Locker, listed as a sophomore by UW, is a redshirt freshman by NCAA eligibility standards.
Brock Huard started nine games as a redshirt freshman in 1996, but not until the third week of the season, and he did so in part because of an injury to Shane Fortney. Marques Tuiasosopo started one game as a true freshman in place of an injured Huard in 1997. Back before freshmen were eligible, Sonny Sixkiller started the first game of his sophomore year in 1970, a situation somewhat identical to Locker's, though Sixkiller had seen game action with the freshman team the previous season.
Otherwise, UW quarterbacks have been sophomores or older when they got their first starts, a luxury the program had for years in days when it was laden with depth at the position.
Huard, who may come closest to rivaling Locker in high-school reputation and expectations, led the Huskies to a 9-3 record (7-2 in games he started) in 1996 and set virtually every Huskies freshman passing record, including 1,881 yards and 13 touchdowns.
But as Huard pointed out recently, that was a different era of Huskies football.
"My playing experience was so much easier than what Jake is going to face," Huard said. "I had a great situation because I had Corey Dillon to hand the ball off to, a couple of All-Pro linemen in front of me [Olin Kreutz and Benji Olson] and very capable receivers. So I certainly didn't have as much of a burden. I was basically managing the game and handing the ball off and making the big throw off play-action.
"Jake is going to have to carry a lot of the load, both in running the ball and throwing the ball, so in that way it's so different than my situation."
That Locker will be called on to do so much, so soon, has some who know him worried about how fans might react, particularly when he encounters rough times, which seem inevitable for a freshman QB.
"My concern is that people are patient," said Jamie Plenkovich, Locker's coach at Ferndale High.
"It's an unfair expectation because he's a still just a freshman who has not played at that level. It is going to take an adjustment period to adjust to that speed. [The Huskies are rebuilding] and their schedule is difficult. So those things are going to make it a challenge for them this year."
A "frosh" start
Freshman quarterbacks, while rare at UW, are becoming an increasing breed in college football. There were 16 freshmen ranked among the NCAA's top 100 in passing efficiency last season, more than the previous two years combined.
Many of those were players like Locker, who redshirted a season before playing, an important distinction that UW coaches think will pay immense dividends.
The Huskies thought long and hard about playing Locker last season after Isaiah Stanback was injured. They decided against it, mostly to preserve a year of eligibility, but also wanting him fully ready before he had to take a snap.
It was the second time in four years that Huskies coach Tyrone Willingham had faced that situation, deciding in 2003 to play true freshman Brady Quinn when he was the coach at Notre Dame. Willingham said he didn't necessarily decide to treat Locker differently because of anything that happened with Quinn. Rather, the situations were different.
"We were not able, based on where we were as a program, to give [Quinn] a chance to redshirt," Willingham said. "Here, we had Isaiah Stanback, and that allowed us some sort of luxury. I think that year is important if you can gain it. There are some guys who can step right in, but for most of them, the game slows down [the longer they are in a system], and having the game slow down means you get in control of it, and in most cases that doesn't happen instantly."
Locker wanted to play last season, even asking coaches to go in when injuries felled both of the backups — Carl Bonnell and Johnny DuRocher — in the second-to-last game against Stanford. Now, however, he's glad he didn't.
"I feel like I understand the offense a lot better," he said. "I'm not thinking as much. I'm able to just call the play, go over what it is, and then just go up to the line and play and react to what the defense is doing. There's a lot less thinking involved, so I can make decisions faster and throw the ball where it needs to go faster. I'm just so much more confident in where I'm throwing the ball."
He also says he's not concerned about living up to the expectations of others, a question he has gotten so often since coming to UW that he has a ready answer.
"I might fulfill expectations, I might not," he said. "Nobody knows at this point. So I'm just going to go out and do as well as I can and play as hard as I can, and I don't think there's anything else I can do. I can't worry about the expectations that others have for me."
Those are fairly standard thoughts, uttered by most quarterbacks who have been in a similar situation.
But those close to Locker insist he is one of those players who truly won't get caught up in the hype.
"I have no doubt he will be able to deal with that sort of thing," Plenkovich said. "He does a really good job of just worrying about what he can control. He doesn't spend a lot of time reading the paper — he's kind of a rare kid that way.
"That was one of the things that worried me coming out of his junior year, when he started getting a lot of attention and going to the Elite 11 [quarterback camp], how he would handle that. But it didn't change one thing in how he prepared for the year, how hard he worked in the weight room."
Plenkovich cites another high-school incident as evidence of why he thinks Locker will handle all the expectations.
His junior year, Locker played one of his worst games against rival Lynden, a 26-6 loss in which he had a fumble and two interceptions.
"He felt like he needed to do everything, and he forced some things that were uncharacteristic of him," Plenkovich said. "After that game he came up and apologized for losing the game — that's the only time since I've been coaching that's happened. He was just despondent."
But he also was adamant that it wouldn't happen again, vowing from that point on not to make the same mistakes.
"That was definitely one of the toughest experiences I've had to get through in my football career," Locker said.
"But after that game, I watched film with coach on Monday and he said, 'You can make things happen, but you have to rely on other players,' and I agreed with him. It was very true, and it's a lot more true now in the situation that I'm in."
Said Plenkovich: "From that point on, he made very few mistakes."
Faith and leadership
It was also around that time that Locker found Christianity, which continues to be one of the guiding forces in his life.
Locker, raised a Catholic but currently attending a non-denominational church near campus, said he decided to reaffirm his commitment after his sophomore year and calls his faith "definitely the most important thing in my life."
"I don't think I'd be in the position I am without it," he said. "It's helped me with some of the decisions I've had to make, whether to play football or baseball, or some of the stuff I've had to face here. It's just something I can always go to. It kind of helps anchor my life."
Locker appears to have that rare gift of leadership of being able to relate to everyone, something many credit to his upbringing in what might be the first family of Ferndale athletics — father Scott and three uncles all played football at Western Washington.
Locker's ability to bridge all worlds seemed evident one day when he walked into Edmundson Pavilion with some teammates, leading them in a somewhat joking sing-a-long of a current pop hit. Then spotting a reporter, he stopped and held the door open.
"There's just something about him," said center Juan Garcia. "He just has it. I don't know how to explain it. He's just being him. He's not even trying to be our leader or trying to do anything other than just being Jake. Other guys will come in and try to be leaders, and it's like they are fake. You want to say, 'Hey, calm down a little bit.' But he shows his leadership by example and by talking, and he does both without even trying."
He has become well-known for some of his philanthropic activities off the field, spending an afternoon with an ill child or shaving his head in solidarity with a friend battling cancer.
Those intangibles may have helped convince Willingham to make the somewhat surprising move of naming Locker starter ahead of Bonnell, a fifth-year senior, before spring ball began. One of the biggest factors coaches consider when starting a young QB is whether he can get the rest of the team to follow his lead.
That's a bridge Locker hurdled with ease.
"I'm older than him by three, four years, and he tells me what to do and I listen," Garcia said.
"I don't even think twice."
Huskies offensive coordinator Tim Lappano says Locker earned his respect the old-fashioned way — by earning it.
"Number one, he worked harder than anybody on our team," Lappano said. "He's in great, great condition, and you earn the respect of your teammates when you get out front and you win all the sprints and your conditioning numbers are off the charts. To me, that's where he won this team over, in the offseason with his effort. He's just a grinder."
Room to grow
Still, some fans remain skeptical of turning the team over to one so young, especially when Bonnell appeared to outplay Locker during the spring game, a contest that by design didn't play to Locker's strengths with quarterbacks off limits to contact (and thus, any real running).
Locker admittedly struggled with his passing accuracy in the spring. But he said he worked all summer on improving his footwork, keeping his feet set and at the proper angle, and coaches say it hasn't been as much of a problem this fall.
Those close to the program also caution that no one has yet seen the playbook as it will look with Locker in control, particularly running out of the spread option, something the Huskies used with Stanback but are likely to expand now.
Huard said he thinks Locker can be a better runner than Tuiasosopo, whose legs helped carry the Huskies to the 2001 Rose Bowl.
"I think even Marques would attest that from an athlete standpoint, speed and strength and power, that Jake is going to be even beyond him as a runner," Huard said.
Lappano says simply that he doesn't think there's anything Locker can't do.
"You're going to see him throw the ball long, throw the ball short, throw the ball intermediate, see him move around and run," Lappano said. "You're going to see a multitalented, multipurpose quarterback who can do a lot of things.
"He's going to make some mistakes. But he's also going to make some plays that will make people shake their head and say, 'Thank God we've got him for three more years.' "
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
UPDATE - 10:18 PM
Washington State's Klay Thompson will play Thursday against Huskies