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Last published at August 9, 2009 at 12:57 AM

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UW's Jake Locker has 17 months to write his legacy

A year or so ago, Jake Locker switched his college major from business to history. "I love American history," said the University of Washington...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Key UW dates

Monday: First practice, 3 p.m., Husky Stadium.

Aug. 16: Picture Day, 10 a.m., Husky Stadium.

Aug. 18: Scrimmage, 3 p.m., Husky Stadium.

Aug. 28: Raise the Woof! season kickoff celebration, 6 p.m.

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A year or so ago, Jake Locker switched his college major from business to history.

"I love American history," said the University of Washington junior quarterback. "I really like from the 1920s to now. It's kind of cool to see things repeat themselves."

If there's history he neither likes studying nor wants to see repeated, however, it's what's happened on the football field at Washington the past few years.

"I don't like to focus on what happened in the past," he said. "I have two years left, and we can make the best of the two years I have left here. That's what I plan on doing."

In fact, hard as it might be to believe, the career of one of the most heralded recruits in UW football history has no more than roughly 17 months remaining — or about three months fewer than since the last time the Huskies got a win (November 2007 against California).

It's that 17 months — a period that begins Monday when the Huskies take the field for the first practice of the 2009 season — that will ultimately determine the legacy of Locker.

He was viewed by many as the "savior" of UW football when he arrived in 2006 after a storybook career at Ferndale High.

But for reasons much greater than anything Locker could have controlled, the gap between UW and the elite of the conference has only widened — Washington has lost 14 straight games, one shy of the all-time Pac-10 record.

That led to the firing of coach Tyrone Willingham, who had made Locker the centerpiece of his rebuilding efforts.

Locker says he still has fond feelings for Willingham, but acknowledges that a change had to be made.

"I don't know whether it was the player and coach relationships, whether it was the players buying into what was going on," Locker said. "I think there are a lot of things you could look into that might have been the reason. In the end, it just didn't work out. I have nothing bad to say about them [the former coaches]. It just didn't work out for us."

But that was only part of what was an especially disastrous season for Locker, matters beginning to go astray long before Willingham was fired. Locker acknowledges now that he overworked himself last summer trying to juggle a job (he helped care for two young boys), playing a few baseball games for the Bellingham Bells and offseason conditioning and workouts for football.

"I just kind of felt like my body got worn down a little bit going into camp," he said. "I just felt like I didn't feel as good as I could have."

Then, early in camp, he suffered a hamstring injury that was far from healed by the time the season opened at Oregon.

"Hamstrings are weird deals," he said. "I'd never done it before, and it was just like nothing I've ever experienced."

The only game he really felt right for was the second against Brigham Young.

And probably not so coincidentally, that was the only time the Huskies really showed any life in 2008 as Locker gave glimpses of the stardom that has been anticipated. He was 17 of 32 for 204 yards passing with a touchdown and no interceptions, also rushing for 62 yards and two touchdowns. The last came with two seconds to play, concluding a Tuiasosopo-esque 17-play, 76-yard drive that looked as if it would tie the score. Alas, then came the infamous celebration penalty against Locker, a missed PAT and the true beginning of the end for Willingham.

Two weeks later against Stanford, Locker's season came to its end when he broke his right thumb trying to throw a block on a reverse. He was leading the way as part of the design of the play, something observers questioned later.

Locker isn't one of them, insisting he'd do it again and calling the injury a fluke.

"It's something I could probably do 100 more times and nothing would ever happen," he said. "It was just the one lucky time that I caught it. I just kind of stuck my hand out and caught it in just the wrong spot. The doctor said if I had been a centimeter in any other direction I would have been just fine. I would have just jammed it or something and it would have been no big deal."

Initially, everyone thought it actually wasn't that big of a deal, as the first X-rays made it hard to tell exactly what had been broken. That was one reason why after the game both Locker and Willingham floated the possibility that he could either return later in the season, or maybe play another position while he recovered.

But Locker said more extensive exams a few days later made it clear he had suffered a more serious injury than first thought. He would eventually need 12 pins, as well as a few screws and plates, inserted into the thumb to hold it together during recovery.

The screws and plates are all out now, but one pin remains, he said — another was taken out a few months ago.

But he says the thumb does not cause him any pain, saying, "It feels as normal as it did before," and that he banged it a few times during summer workouts and didn't sense anything out of the ordinary.

So fully healthy and more refreshed than a year ago, the question now is how quickly can Locker grasp the new offense being implemented by new coach Steve Sarkisian to make the most of the time he has left at UW. Sarkisian himself has called it "a race" to maximize Locker's ability before his eligibility expires.

"I feel like I owe it to him to get him ready for the NFL — that's what every kid aspires to who plays football," Sarkisian said. "He has the skill set to play in that league, the mental capacity to play in that league, and for me it's a race to get him prepared for that moment. And in the meantime we get to benefit from the great plays and moments he is going to provide us for the next couple of years."

Sarkisian said he marvels at the athletic ability of Locker, citing the fact that Locker was taken in the 10th round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Angels in June as proof. Locker has yet to sign a contract, however, and if he does, it is merely to give him the option to play sometime down the road — the Angels would hold his rights for six years. Locker says he is as committed to football as ever.

But in contrast to the way Willingham seemed to hold up Locker as the face of the program at every opportunity, Sarkisian is stressing that the success or failure of the offense will be a team responsibility. The new offense won't call for Locker to run as much out of the read-zone package as he has the past two years, instead relying heavily on the pro-set formations and play-action packages that Sarkisian orchestrated to great success at USC.

That doesn't mean Locker won't run at all, just that he figures to do so more when plays break down or when he sees an opening.

"He has natural playmaking ability, so with the system around him in place and his ability to [make plays], if there is something that is not right then he can use his athleticism to make plays," said offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.

Many have wondered if a more traditional passing offense is the best fit for Locker, noting his spotty accuracy as a freshman in 2007 (47.3 percent). But UW coaches express no doubts, pointing to Locker's 16-of-18 performance in the spring game.

And lost in the rubble of last season was the fact that Locker's accuracy was unquestionably better despite working with a younger receiving corps and a usually ineffective overall offense. He didn't throw an interception in 93 attempts and completed 53.8 percent of his passes. He was above 50 percent in each of the last three games (and 21 of 33 in the last two games against Oklahoma and Stanford).

Locker and Nussmeier each say there have been a few tweaks to Locker's throwing motion — mostly, making sure his feet are in the right place — but nothing major.

"It's just making sure that I was conscious of where I was putting the ball and my footwork and that I'm putting my feet in the right spot," Locker said. "And throwing the ball with confidence."

The change in scheme should also help Locker. Sarkisian's offense contains a lot of high-percentage throws, often to tight ends or backs, as opposed to the vertical stretch philosophy favored by the previous staff.

Former UW quarterback Hugh Millen, now a commentator on KJR-AM, says he's always thought Locker's form was more than good enough and that other factors, such as a continued understanding of the offense that comes with experience as well as more continuity with the receivers, will help his accuracy.

"I absolutely believe in that guy's ability to pass the football," Millen said. "Until his last minute of eligibility expires I will always believe that he can be an All-American candidate at QB."

That he hasn't become an All-American yet — that he has been the starting QB in just three games his team has won and finds himself in yet another rebuilding situation — might have some wondering if Locker regrets having decided to become a Husky.

That's another thought, he says, that has never crossed his mind.

"No, I wouldn't change it knowing it would be that kind of thing before I came here," he said. "The experience that I've had to this point, football and everything else, has been great for me.

"I love playing the game of football. It's my passion and I really enjoy doing it. But there are more important things than football. There are more important things in this life than football. So I try not to let [winning or losing] affect who I am and how I go about living life as the person that I am."

Still, happy as he might be with everything else that has happened during his time at UW, from the outside, his time as a Husky will be defined by what he does on the field.

And while it's hard to conceive of a quick turnaround without Locker leading the way, he insists he doesn't feel that pressure. He adamantly maintains he's just one of the guys — even if the long lines that have greeted him at every Picture Day since his arrival argue otherwise.

"All of that [hype] was built up by people other than me," he said. "So I never believed in it. I never bought into it. I was just another player on a team of 100 guys trying to win football games, and I still am. And that will never change."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

2009 UW schedule
Date Opp. Time, TV
Sept. 5 vs. LSU 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Sept. 12 vs. Idaho 12:30 p.m., FSN
Sept. 19 vs. USC 12:30 p.m., Ch. 4
Sept. 26 at Stanford TBA
Oct. 3 at N. Dame 12:30 p.m., Ch. 5
Oct. 10 vs. Arizona TBA
Oct. 17 at Arizona St. 6 p.m., FSN
Oct. 24 vs. Oregon TBA
Nov. 7 at UCLA TBA
Nov. 14 at Oregon St. TBA
Nov. 28 vs. WSU TBA
Dec. 5 vs. California 3:30 p.m., FSN
Game times subject to change.
Locker's numbers
In two seasons with the Huskies, heralded quarterback Jake Locker has endured a few ups and downs.
2007 2008
Games started 12 4
TDs: rushing/passing 13/14 3/1
Passing yards 2,062 538
Rushing yards 986 180
Interceptions 15 0
W-L as QB starter 3-9 0-4

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