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Originally published August 27, 2011 at 10:09 PM | Page modified August 29, 2011 at 4:22 PM

2011 College football preview

Keith Price takes over as Washington quarterback — with a smile on his face

Washington sophomore Keith Price isn't worried about comparisons to Jake Locker as he steps in as the Huskies' starting quarterback.

Seattle Times staff reporter

5 keys to the Huskies' season

Keep the Polkamotive churning

Despite a knee injury that could cause him to miss the opener, junior tailback Chris Polk will be Washington's most reliable offensive weapon as it breaks in a new quarterback. Polk could be slowed a bit early, but should be back in 2010 form by the time the Huskies visit Nebraska, then enter Pac-12 play.

Will the Price be right?

While the Huskies will rely on Polk, they'll need quarterback Keith Price to make plays. The easygoing sophomore has a similar run-pass skill set to Jake Locker, so the Huskies could keep a lot of offensive sets installed for Locker.

Third time's the charm

The Huskies' most glaring statistical inequity last year was third-down efficiency. Washington converted just 32 percent of its third-down chances, compared to 41 percent for its opponents. A more consistent running game could fix that.

More happy returns

For several years, the Huskies have had an inexplicable inability to get much out of their return units. The addition of newcomers such as Kasen Williams should give UW more options as returners, and a better base of talent should make the units better.

Keep winning the close ones

Washington was outscored 381-284 last season but finished 7-6 thanks to a 4-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. The Huskies appeared to learn how to win as last season progressed, and need to carry that over into this year, which again figures to feature many close games.

Bob Condotta

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The only question about Washington's new starting quarterback might be which is more permanently affixed — the smile on his face, or the football in his hand?

"He is always smiling, all the time," said Keith Price's mother, Shaundra. "He just smiles, no matter what he is going through. He smiles even when he is in trouble, which used to make me mad sometimes. It was like, 'Are you trying to be funny?' "

"I don't know," Keith Price said with — what else? — a smile. "I guess I just like showing my teeth."

The smile doesn't leave even when he's asked yet again what it will be like to take over for Jake Locker.

"I never even think about it," said the redshirt sophomore, who was tabbed at the end of spring ball as the team's starter by coach Steve Sarkisian. "I just think of it as my show now. I just try to take every day and get better. I'm not worried about what Jake did. I'm just trying to be my own self."

That smile, and accompanying easygoing attitude, might be one of the best weapons Price has as he battles the inevitable comparisons.

"That's the beauty of his personality," said Sarkisian. "It's not that he doesn't care or doesn't deem it important. But things just don't rattle him. They just don't faze him. That's a great trait. He respects Jake and loves Jake, but I just don't think the effect of the Jake Locker aura will ever affect him or the way he plays. It's just not the way he is."

Who Price is, is a native of Compton, Calif., the oldest of three children, a kid who at an early age was captivated by football.

So much so, he couldn't leave the sport behind even when the games were over.

"He would go to the movies with a football in his hands and a helmet on his head," his mother said. "Everybody thought he was crazy."

He would scour catalogs to buy footballs of every NFL team, placing them on top of the TV when watching games. If one team started to fall behind, he would take off that football and replace it with one of the team that was ahead.

He still sleeps with a football, saying, "I've done it my whole life. I don't know. It's crazy. I just always loved sports and growing up watching football, I had all the helmets and just always had to have a football. I'd take it to school in my backpack. I just had to have it."

Washington safety Will Shamburger, a friend of Price's since age 3, says even when Price has free time, he usually wants to do something football related, such as watch film.

"He'll pick that over anything in the world," Shamburger said. "He just loves football so much."

Shamburger's family runs a school that the Price kids attended growing up. In fifth grade, it was decided to let Keith try public school for a few years. It's the one time in his life when the smile might have receded just a bit.

"It just went all bad," Price said. "I started following in the wrong footsteps and just doing stuff that was out of character. I had always been myself, and I was just doing things that just wasn't a part of me."

Nothing major. Nothing like the kind of trouble that can sometimes be found in Compton — and that Price sometimes saw himself.

"He just wasn't as studious as he was at the private school," said his mother. "He would dress like he was a ladies man, just to try to impress the girls. We took him right out and right back in (to private school)."

Eventually, Price landed at St. John Bosco High School, a Catholic prep school in Bellflower, along with Shamburger.

His grandparents' house was closer, so he lived there during school weeks.

He quickly became the starter at St. John Bosco, and by the end of his junior year was beginning to attract the notice of college scouts.

He wasn't getting as much as another quarterback in the same league, however — eventual USC signee Matt Barkley.

Sarkisian, then USC's offensive coordinator, knew all about Price. But with Barkley on board to sign with the Trojans, he didn't need another quarterback.

Price says it might not have mattered.

"I just wanted to get out of California," he said. "I was like, 'If I get an offer from somebody out of state, I just want to take it.' "

When then-UW coach Tyrone Willingham offered a scholarship in summer 2008 while Price was on an unofficial visit, the quarterback committed almost instantly.

Willingham was fired midway through the 2008 season, leaving Price uncertain what to do.

On his way to an even better senior season (he threw for 24 touchdowns and rushed for 579 yards), schools such as Arizona State and Oregon began calling.

He admits that after having been in the shadow of Barkley throughout high school, he kind of liked the attention.

"It was different," Price said. "But it was kind of fun."

After Sarkisian was hired that December, one of his first recruiting stops was to Price's house, which put an end to the indecision.

"Once coach Sark came to visit, it was a done deal," said his mother.

Price redshirted in 2009, then served last season as the backup to Locker. He started against Oregon and filled in briefly a couple of other times, memorably throwing a 1-yard touchdown pass at USC in front of numerous friends and family. He then beat out Nick Montana for the starting job in the spring, impressing coaches with his dual-threat ability, improved accuracy and command of the huddle.

Price has spent the past two years trying to bulk up — his weight is listed at 195 pounds — and fixing his throwing motion. As Price describes, "I had kind of a funky, over-the-top motion, and they brought it down a little bit so now it's down to normal."

Said offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier: "He was deliberate and he was over the top — he had a little hitch over the top, so we tried to drop him down just a hair to get him to where he became more efficient and a guy that could have a quicker release. Now a lot of it is just (improving) footwork and timing."

Price worked on those areas of his game this summer in regular sessions with former Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who used the facilities at Washington during the NFL lockout.

"The game has definitely slowed down for me, but I still have a lot of learning to do," Price said. "I understand that I'm still young, so I just have to keep growing. ... I just want to speed up my mind so I can play faster on the field."

With only one start, he'll likely enter the season as the least-experienced quarterback in the Pac-12.

But this is also the moment for which he has been waiting a lifetime. In essence, he has prepared for this since the day he first started picking out all of those NFL team footballs from his mom's catalogs — smiling all the way.

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

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