SEATTLE -- Jake Locker takes the snap, eludes an oncoming defender, sets his feet and fires a perfect deep out. For him, it's just another day at practice at Husky Stadium. It is here, on the field in purple and gold, where the 6-3, 230-pound Locker feels the most comfortable.
He has grown accustomed to the barrage of attention that comes with expectations. He knows this is his last chance to lead a once-proud Washington program to a bowl game, which would be the program's first since 2002. He isn't fazed by the pressure of entering his senior season as the near-unanimous favorite to be the first pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. With trips to New York and Bristol, Conn., to meet the East coast media, he also realizes he is the face to the biggest Heisman campaign in school history.
|Jake Locker is working on hitting receivers in places where they can make yards after the catch. (US Presswire)|
On this day, Locker is throwing the ball with confidence. On his first pass during team drills, he lofts a perfect fade over the shoulder of junior wide receiver Jermaine Kearse for a 60-yard touchdown.
This summer, according to some of the local press, Locker appears to be much more in command of the offense. And Locker has every reason to feel confident, considering the strides former first-round picks Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez made while playing under "Coach Sark" at Southern Cal.
Locker's first season under Steve Sarkisian may have been impressive enough to have earned him the top spot in the NFL Draft over Sam Bradford last year if the UW passer left school early, as many expected.
Locker enjoyed career highs in nearly every passing category his junior season, completing 58.2 percent of his passes for 2,800 passing yards (the third-highest total in UW history) with 21 touchdowns against only 11 interceptions. With 388 rushing yards (and seven touchdowns) as well, Locker returns to the Huskies as the Pac-10's reigning leader in total offense (3,188) and touchdowns scored (28).
His progress throughout the 2009 season, undeniable upside and greater health over Bradford certainly would have led to some internal debate within the St. Louis brain trust, league sources have said. That was clearly the feeling among scouts who, like me, attended Washington's dismantling of No. 19 Cal in the 2009 season finale.
Locker earned Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week honors for his play in that game, completing 19 of 23 passes for 248 yards and three scores. He also ran for 77 yards and another two scores.
With the hype at its peak and prominent scouts in the stands, Locker was at his best. One highly placed scout in attendance compared Locker's "clutch" performance in what many were expecting to be his final collegiate game to the one enjoyed by Mark Sanchez against Penn State a year earlier in the Rose Bowl. That game, more than any workout, pushed Sanchez from a fringe first-round pick to the No. 5 overall selection. There was enough hype that Locker had to at least consider his options.
"[Leaving early] was something I thought about," Locker admits. "But it really wasn't about the money for me. When I had the opportunity to go home and talk to family and friends, it became a pretty easy decision.
"It came down to three things for me. For one, I was going to be able to graduate [he's a history major] if I came back. Second, I wanted to be able to help us get to a bowl game and by doing so, do what I had set out to do here by helping turn this program back into an annual contender in the Pac-10.
"And the third one, having another year in this offense with this coaching staff, I was going to be that much more prepared to take that step to the next level."
But what about the inherent risk of returning, getting injured and losing the opportunity for the guaranteed millions from the NFL?
"Actually, I think it was really good for everyone in college football how things worked out last year," Locker said. "For Bradford to get hurt, miss most of the season and still wind up going No. 1, it kind of proved that if I get hurt, it isn't necessarily the end of the world."
It might seem like the end of the world to some Husky fans. With the advancements he made in only one full season under Sarkisian and quarterback coach Doug Nussmeier, there is great optimism within the program that Locker's best football is ahead of him.
"They focus on the little details," Locker said of Sarkisian and Nussmeier. "They want me finding a good rhythm, improving footwork. I've been satisfied sometimes with just completing the pass. That isn't good enough for them -- or for me -- anymore. We want to complete the perfect pass to allow the receiver the best chance for gaining extra yardage after the catch. That is a little detail they harp about all the time that I probably didn't pay enough attention to prior to them getting here."
Some thought Sarkisian was the one not paying attention to details with his surprisingly candid answer to his expectations of Locker in 2010. The coach told reporters at the Pac-10 Media Day that he expects Locker to complete 65 to 68 percent of his passes and throw three times as many touchdowns as interceptions.
Those goals might be lofty even for Locker. Prior to his breakout 2009 season, Locker had completed roughly 50 percent of his passes and had thrown an equal number of touchdowns (15) as he had interceptions.
It wasn't just a tough standard for Locker. In the history of Washington football, no Husky quarterback has ever finished a full season with numbers in line with Sarkisian's stated expectations.
In fact, in the history of the Pac-10 conference, only five quarterbacks have ever completed over 65 percent of his passes and thrown for three times as many touchdowns as interceptions over a full season.
It just so happens, however, that two of them -- Leinart (who did it twice) and Mark Sanchez -- happened to be coached by Sarkisian.
While confident in his offense and his own ability, Locker is understandably a bit more leery of setting specific number goals for himself.
"My goal is to put this football team in the best position to win games and if I was able to put up numbers like that, than I think I would be accomplishing that goal," Locker said.
Locker notes, however, that his final numbers will be dictated just as much by the game plan each week and how defenses are reacting than by his own level of play.
"Our game plan is obviously going to change week-in and week-out," Locker explained. "Certain games we'll take more shots downfield. My completion percentage in those games might take a hit. In others, we might take what the defense gives us and my completion percentage might be real high.
"The important thing is to lock in to what our game plan is each week, what we're trying to accomplish as an offense."
Regardless of how well Locker plays in 2010, however, he knows that there are always going to be the baseball questions. From scouts. From media. From everyone.
Voted Washington state's 3A Baseball Player of the Year as a senior at Ferndale, Locker's range in center field and 95 mph fastball impressed the scouts of the Los Angeles Angels enough to draft him in the 40th round. Electing to play football for the Huskies instead, baseball appeared to be no longer in his future. However, the Angels took another shot at him in 2009; this time using their 10th-round pick and offering him a six-year deal that allowed him to play football. The deal, which gives the Angels exclusive rights to Locker until 2015 should he ever elect to play baseball, was just too good for Locker to pass up.
But that doesn't mean NFL teams have any reason to worry.
"If baseball was my goal, I wouldn't have returned [for his senior season]. Football is my love and what I want to play," he said. "As long as I have an opportunity to play football, that's what I want to do."
Rob Rang is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout, distributed by The Sports Xchange.