Former Husky greats say Jake Locker's legacy depends on senior season
Washington quarterback legends weigh in on whether Jake Locker can win enough this season to wipe away three years of losing.
Seattle Times staff columnist
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Sometimes, Brock Huard plays "What if?" with Jake Locker. The old Washington quarterback ponders the current one, grows sympathetic about Locker's missing Huskies glory and ponders how divine his legacy would be if he played in a different era.
Huard can see Locker adding another dimension to one of Don James' great teams. He can see Locker running the show in 1997 on a squad that began the season ranked No. 4. He can see Locker channeling Marques Tuiasosopo on the 2001 Rose Bowl team. It's fantasy football with a time machine, and in every scenario, Locker looks mesmerizing.
"If you could go back in time, it would be neat to see him flourish," Huard says.
Oh, what if? Locker has many freakish talents, but not even his five-step drop will zap him back in time. So, as he begins his fifth and final year in the program with an 8-20 record but legitimate hope — finally — to be on a winning Huskies team, his legacy remains difficult to decipher.
Ultimately, this year will define whether history views the Locker era as more than the gift that Washington couldn't unwrap. He spurned the NFL last spring and returned to school to win. If he wins, he'll go down as the quarterback who, despite all the turmoil of his first three years, led the program back from darkness. If he doesn't, it'll be perhaps the greatest letdown of the program's eight-year bowl drought.
"I think Jake would say, 'I didn't come back not to go to a bowl game. If I don't go to a bowl, my legacy will be incomplete,' " said Huard, the Washington quarterback from 1996 through '98, who now works as a college football TV analyst and co-host on 710 ESPN Seattle. "And maybe 'incomplete' is too nice a word. Really, it would be disappointing. For Locker. For everyone."
Locker is certain to go down as the most talented quarterback in school history, but barring a miracle, he won't stand as the best because his teams haven't won enough.
It's not his fault. During his first two seasons as a starter, the program turned into a disaster under coach Tyrone Willingham, bottoming out with an 0-12 record in 2008. Then coach Steve Sarkisian was hired, and last season Locker provided the most encouraging glimpse of his talent while throwing for 2,800 yards and 21 touchdowns and helping the Huskies jump from winless to 5-7.
Despite top-10 NFL draft projections, Locker delayed his pro career and a payday of perhaps $50 million guaranteed. Accompanied by a Heisman Trophy campaign that he really doesn't care for, Locker is the most hyped quarterback in college football.
What if Locker leaves Washington without any success? Former Washington quarterback Hugh Millen, who led the Huskies to an Orange Bowl triumph in 1985, says Locker shouldn't be viewed as a failure.
"I don't judge his first three years as a starter harshly," Millen said. "I'm just grateful that he was here at all. He's been able to keep a certain buzz about the program during times when it would be devoid of a buzz."
Quarterbacks are judged on winning, but it's also wrong to blame an incredible talent for losing when the entire program is a mess. Locker has been compared to Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway since high school, and Elway's collegiate story suggests that greatness can be obstructed. Elway finished with a 20-23 record at Stanford and didn't lead the Cardinal to a bowl game. Then he become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history and won two Super Bowls.
"I think Tui is the greatest performing quarterback that I've seen, but Jake Locker, hands down, is the most talented quarterback that's ever been here," said Millen, who serves as a football analyst for 950 KJR and Q13. "Personally, I don't think there's anybody close."
What would Locker need to do to close the performance gap between himself and Tuiasosopo, or Warren Moon, or Billy Joe Hobert, or Sonny Sixkiller, or any other great winning Huskies quarterback? The former quarterbacks agree it would take something extraordinary this season. Locker would probably need to win Pac-10 Player of the Year, lead the Huskies to the Rose Bowl and, perhaps, win the Heisman Trophy, something no Washington player has ever done.
But Locker can also rest his legacy on getting the Huskies back on track. Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who led Washington to a 1978 Rose Bowl victory, overcame a tough start to his career by finishing in spectacular fashion. If Locker can lead the Huskies to a bowl game, Moon says the quarterback will be remembered as a winner.
"I think Jake's legacy will be how he finishes," said Moon, now a Seahawks radio analyst. "If it's a good year, they won't even talk about the bad years, and they'll just call him one of the greatest quarterbacks the University of Washington has ever seen."
Millen says Locker has given "the greatest gift ever to Washington" by returning for a fifth season.
"I don't want to get too philosophical, but they say your talent is God's gift to you, and what you do with it is your gift back," Millen said. "To me, no athlete has ever given to this school the way he has. So, we're already talking about a kid that is, by my opinion, the most talented athlete that ever came out of the state of Washington, the most talented quarterback who's ever played here, and he's giving the greatest gift to the school. So it starts to form a picture of a really special guy, a guy that a generation from now, two generations from now, people will still remember how special he was in these areas."
Put some more victories with Locker's admirable qualities, and perhaps people won't need to remember him. He'll be unforgettable.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
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