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Wednesday, August 30, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Stanback a quarterback in the making

Seattle Times staff reporter

Isaiah Stanback was never going to be the typical Washington quarterback. But dig deeper and the differences become even starker than just appearance and style.

Most have seemed groomed for the position from birth. They were sons of coaches (Brock and Damon Huard) or famous ex-players (Cody Pickett, Marques Tuiasosopo) who, as legend had it, had footballs placed alongside rattles in their cribs.

Stanback, conversely, never really imagined being a quarterback until the day in the eighth grade when it was suddenly all he ever wanted to be.

His father hadn't wanted him to play football, having suffered a back injury while playing high school football.

"He was really protective of me," Stanback said. "He didn't want the same thing to happen to me."

So instead, Stanback spent his youth playing just about every other sport, particularly baseball. Sure, he'd throw a football around with the guys in the street, and he'd watch the occasional game. But when the helmets came out, he had to walk away.

"I was a baseball guy," he said. "I was always watching baseball."

Until the eighth grade, when Stanback finally won the annual argument with his dad.

"He finally said, 'Do what you want to do,' " Stanback said.

So he turned out for the Central District Panthers, a team in a youth league in Seattle.

"The first day they had a free-for-all to see who would be the quarterback," Stanback said. "I threw the hardest, so that was pretty much it."

From that point on, he's been a quarterback at heart.

And now, as a fifth-year senior at Washington, he gets to prove that he's a quarterback in name, as well.

"I know he knows it's out there that people in this area, alums and everybody, think he should be a receiver or that he's not really a quarterback," said UW offensive coordinator Tim Lappano. "There is a little bit of that, 'Yeah, I'm going to show you guys this year that I can play the position.' I know that's in the back of his mind."

But as the Huskies prepare for the season opener Saturday against San Jose State, the doubters stop where the locker room begins.

His coaches and teammates say there is no question this is his team, and his time.

"I'm proud of the way he has taken all the criticism he has gotten over the years, stuck through all the crap and the negative attention he was getting, and just come out and become a stronger person," said UW center Juan Garcia. "I know he's ready to prove people wrong."

Still, Stanback freely acknowledges he's given his critics ammo.

His first three years at UW featured two different head coaches and two different offensive systems, and Stanback admits he didn't buy in the way he should have, particularly in 2004, when he had his first chance to make the position truly his own.

When Lappano arrived in the spring of 2005 as part of Tyrone Willingham's new staff, he was stunned at how much Stanback didn't know.

The intricacies of the position — reading defenses, identifying coverage — just weren't there yet. Stanback didn't need them at Garfield High, where he had survived on his athletic ability. And the constant debate over position his first years at UW had proved distracting to learning to be a quarterback.

"He had no idea how to prepare to play the position," Lappano said. "When we met that spring, we just started taking it from step one to step 10 and talking about the fundamentals of the position because he really did not understand anything about defense, nothing at all about coverages or fronts. We had to start from point A."

But Lappano was sold when Stanback took the blame for previous failures and promised things would be different.

"I felt like he was going to be here," Stanback said. "It wasn't going to be a one coach coming in, one coach going out type of thing. It was a lot easier to sit and take in what he was saying because I knew I was going to have two years with him. Just knowing that he was going to be here allowed me to open up more to him."

Not that it's all gone smoothly from there. The high hopes of last fall crested quickly as the Huskies finished 2-9. Stanback likely would have been benched for the last two games of the season had not Johnny DuRocher suffered a broken wrist against Oregon State.

But this spring, knowing he had one last chance to make this team his, Stanback finally showed that what he was learning in the film room was translating to the field.

"In my opinion, this is just his second year of playing the position," Lappano said. "It's not like he's a seasoned four-year Pac-10 starter. There are still some areas where he's a little bit raw and we are never going to stop working on just the basic fundamentals of playing the position."

What Stanback has also had to develop is a proper way to lead. He's admittedly hard on himself — often too hard.

"I know it's a stupid cliché, but you can't let them see you sweat," Lappano said. "Because when your teammates see that, they panic, and you can't have that."

Coaches noticed Stanback beginning to fall victim to his old ways early in fall camp, causing Lappano and Willingham to call him in for a chat.

"That's just how I've been my whole life," Stanback said. "That's just me. So it's hard to change. But if I want to be where I want to get, I have to change it. I've got to adapt."

Since the talk, Lappano says he has seen an even better Stanback emerge.

"We got stuffed a couple of times in the scrimmage [last Thursday], and he got the offense over on the sidelines and got them going in a positive way, not a negative way," Lappano said. "In the old days, he would have gone over to the sidelines and dropped his head down and stood away from everybody and not said one word. Now he's going over there and getting vocal the right way and that's huge progress. We really need that type of leadership out of him, and he's made gains just in the last three weeks."

But it hasn't been just Stanback doing the learning. After last season, Lappano altered the offense to make better use of the talents of Stanback, putting more of an emphasis on plays where the QB has the option to run.

"The changes we've made in the system are really going to take a lot of pressure off of him," Lappano said. "We're not going to have to depend on him to throw the ball as much as we did a year ago. We're really taking his strengths and blending them into this offense."

Stanback looks at the revamped offense as an indication of acceptance.

"That's an honor to me that they trust me to make the right decisions and make plays," he said.

Lappano sees it coming together well enough to say, "I think he can be one of the better quarterbacks in this league."

Still, the naysayers will be there until Stanback begins to lead the Huskies out of the mire. And with Jake Locker waiting in the wings, it won't take much for impatient fans to ask for a call to the bullpen.

Stanback says "I couldn't care less" about his critics.

"I just felt like I hadn't been given a fair chance to play the position yet," he said. "If I try something and fail at it, I will move on. But I didn't feel like I had been given that opportunity yet."

Come Saturday, he'll get his biggest chance yet to show that he's learned the biggest lesson of being a quarterback.

"All he wants to do is win," Willingham said. "He wants to leave here as a quarterback who led his team to a championship, to a bowl victory, to a hell of a season. That's what he wants."

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

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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