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Originally published August 29, 2011 at 10:01 PM | Page modified August 30, 2011 at 4:26 PM

Jerry Brewer

Washington quarterback Keith Price: Nice, redefined

Don't be fooled by the Huskies junior's smile. He'd love to beat you.

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes Great spin on our new starter! Gives me hope for another great year for the Dawgs! ... Read more
quotes Nice article and it sounds like a nice kid! Best of luck Keith, Husky Nation is behind... Read more
quotes redshirt sophmore. Read more

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The effervescent Keith Price is telling the story of the last time he got mad. As always, he has a smile on his face.

It was Nov. 14, 2008, the last game of his senior season at St. John Bosco High School in California. The Braves were playing Servite High, a team they hadn't beaten in the Price era, and he wanted this win badly. But the Braves lost 48-31, and amid his frustration, Price slammed his helmet into the ground.

"We had a new transfer running back, and this guy fumbled two plays in a row," recalled Price, the Washington redshirt sophomore quarterback. "Everything was off in that game. I was so angry, so frustrated."

And since then? Nothing significant. No road rage. No confrontations with rowdy neighbors. No yelling at the television after a plot twist. Nothing.

Price is Mr. Congeniality, but don't take him the wrong way. Please don't take him the wrong way. Nice is too often a code word for soft in sports. It's too often a code word for vanilla in real life. Price is neither, and starting Saturday, you will see.

Our culture is so obsessed with the roughneck persona that we even have a fresh word for looking tough — mean mugging. But Price is always nice mugging, and for a refreshing change, the fiercest competitor on the field just might look like the happiest person in the stadium, too.

His smile masks his passion. His lightheartedness belies the work he has done to become worthy of this responsibility.

Price has had an incredible three-year transformation already, and if he continues the Huskies' long tradition of producing NFL quarterbacks, he'll be quite the success story. From time to time, he allows himself a moment to reflect on how far he has come, from a three-star Tyrone Willingham recruit known for his running ability to Jake Locker's well-rehearsed successor.

"I was just thinking about this the other day," Price said. "I was looking at (freshman quarterback) Derrick Brown and remembering what my freshman year was like. It was hard to pick up everything. I didn't feel like I did anything right. It was awful. Now, it's night and day."

Price recalls his struggles to memorize formations and protections, read college defenses and comprehend the subtleties of the position. His mind was racing. He redshirted his first season, and it was a good thing, too. He didn't become comfortable with coach Steve Sarkisian's pro-style offense until the end of 2010 spring practice.

He needed long visits with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier to learn the system. They would write down each set of plays in different colors to make it easier. Price kept studying, kept smiling. After a while, the offense became manageable.

"He's grown up in this system, and it's a real good credit to Doug Nussmeier in training this guy," Sarkisian said. "From where he was the first day of training camp his freshman year to where he is now, he's been fantastic."

The only thing left to prove is the biggest thing. Price has to show what he can do in games. In his only collegiate start, he handled himself well last season when he was forced to start the Oregon game because of Locker's injured ribs. He also threw a 1-yard touchdown pass during a brief cameo in a win at USC. But this is his team now, and everyone wants to know how he'll handle it.

"Oh, I'm curious," Sarkisian said, grinning. "Like you are."

Ask Price how he'll fare, and he smiles wide and offers an honest, "I'm not sure. We'll see."

Oh, but it was confident ambivalence. Seriously. It's like Price wants you to underestimate him. It's better to surprise than to disappoint.

You should want Price to succeed. It would be transformative to see a star athlete excel with a smile and not a shrug or a snare. It's a little thing, and perhaps it matters more to me because I'm the president of the Grinner's Guild. But sports are now dominated by players with edgy affects, and it's mostly false bravado. Give me a pleasant, inwardly tough athlete any day.

"Don't get me wrong: In my neighborhood, you had to fight," said Price, who is from Compton. "When I was a kid, it was, 'Hit me, and I'll hit you back.' But I was never the troublemaker.

"I definitely think people can misperceive who I am because I smile a lot, but I think anybody will tell you that I don't like to lose. If I have to get on a guy, I'll pull him aside and let him have it, but I'll do it my way. I like to build people up."

Introducing Keith Price, the kinder, gentler — but no less intense — competitor.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com,

Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer

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