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September 13, 2007

Locked and loaded for a Washington revival

The story seems too good to be true.

A star quarterback with an awesome arm and an aw-shucks demeanor turns down offers from elite programs across the nation to stay near his family and help his home-state program return to prominence.

Washington quarterback Jake Locker just might turn this Disneyesque script into reality.

After emerging as a matinee idol at Washington before he took a snap, Locker has wasted no time justifying all the attention. He ran circles around Syracuse in his debut performance, then ended Boise State's nation-best 14-game winning streak in his second start.

If Locker finds a way to knock off No. 10 Ohio State on Saturday, Washington probably will return to the national rankings for the first time in four years.

"Quarterbacks have such a tremendous impact on a program," Washington coach Tyrone Willingham said. "If you find the right one, his impact is just unbelievable."

Washington fans have pinpointed Locker as the right one for quite some time. Almost as soon as he signed his letter-of-intent, Locker was billed as the guy who could lead the program back to respectability

Although Washington entered this season with an 8-26 record over the past three years, it once ranked among the nation's most successful teams and featured arguably the West Coast's most passionate fan base. The Huskies won a share of the national title in 1991, went to three consecutive Rose Bowls from 1990-92, finished third in the Associated Press poll in 2000 and didn't have a losing season between 1977 and 2003.

As one of the greatest quarterback prospects ever to play high school football in the state of Washington, Locker has earned a reputation as the Huskies' potential savior. That became obvious when fans showed up for the Boise State game wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Locker 3:16. In Jake We Trust." Many of the fans who weren't wearing those T-shirts instead decked themselves out in one of Locker's No. 10 jerseys.

One fan even offered a Locker 3:16 T-shirt to Locker's father, Scott, who politely declined.

"I'd like to keep him as a football player,'' Scott Locker said. "We don't need to make those kind of references, or we're getting a little bit out of the realm of reality."

The fascination with this freshman phenom actually began a few years earlier. Ferndale (Wash.) High athletic director Vic Randall remembers how fans would come from across the state to pack the stadium for Locker's high school games.

"He's probably gotten more attention than anyone else I can remember in the state,'' said Randall, who coached Ferndale's football team for more than two decades.

The trick was getting him to stay in state.

Locker was rated the No. 4 dual-threat quarterback in the nation by Rivals.com after leading Ferndale to an undefeated record and a state title his senior year. Just about every school in the country wanted him, and he never really got caught up in the Husky football hysteria - despite growing up less than two hours north of Washington's campus.

"Husky football was never like a huge thing in our house," Locker said. "We never had one team we rooted for."

A look at freshman quarterbacks who have started a game this season:
Player Key passing stats
Sam Bradford, Okla. 40-for-48, 568 yards, 8 TDs, 0 INTs
Jimmy Clausen, N.D.* 21-for-38, 178 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT
Andy Dalton, TCU 41-for-67, 413 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Travis Dixon, UNLV 35-for-56, 399 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Cody Hawkins, Colo. 34-for-74, 363 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs
Case Keenum, Hou. 14-for-27, 179 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Jake Locker, Wash. 27-for-44, 335 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Kevan Smith, Pitt 17-for-26, 220 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Trevor Vittatoe, UTEP 18-for-47, 261 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs
Adam Weber, Minn. 41-for-71, 459 yards, 6 TDs, 3 INTs
T.J. Yates, N.Carolina 33-for-50, 562 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs
Wayne Younger, FIU 20-for-47, 198 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs
*-Clausen is a true freshman; the rest are redshirt freshmen. Michigan's Ryan Mallett and Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor, both true freshmen, will start for the first time this week.
So why did he decide to sign with a floundering program instead of leaving the state to join a national-title contender?

For one thing, Locker developed an instant rapport with Willingham's staff. He felt he could trust the coaches. Washington also benefited from Locker growing up in a tight-knit, athletic family.

His father and three uncles played football at Western Washington University. One uncle, Patrick Locker, still owns the school record for career total yardage. Jake Locker wanted to go somewhere close enough for his relatives to see him play.

Scott Locker said that 20-30 immediate family members attend each of Jake's home games. About 250 other people showed up last week for the family tailgater, with the vast majority of them coming from Ferndale.

"It's like going to a Ferndale game on Friday night," Scott Locker said. "We just have to drive a little farther now."

They had to wait a while to watch Jake's first collegiate game.

Brady Quinn won the starting job midway through his true freshman season during Willingham's Notre Dame tenure, but the Washington coach resisted the temptation to play Locker immediately. Even when starting quarterback Isaiah Stanback suffered a season-ending foot injury midway through the 2006 campaign, Willingham held firm on his decision to redshirt Locker.

"If you can, the wise thing is to wait as long as possible for that quarterback to be ready to go," Willingham said. "The good ones are really ready all the time, but you want to get them armed with as much information as possible."

Locker didn't necessarily like Willingham's decision at the time, but he now sees things from a different perspective. Locker spent the year traveling with the team, studying each game and figuring out the adjustments he eventually would have to make.

When he finally got his chance to run the offense, Locker was prepared.

"At the time, it was hard because you always want to be on the field," he said. "Looking back, it was the best thing for me. I'm glad I got the opportunity to sit and watch last year."

Locker went 14 of 19 through the air and rushed for 83 yards and two touchdowns as Washington won 42-12 at Syracuse in his debut performance. Locker completed only 52 percent of his passes and threw an interception last week, but he also passed for 193 yards and rushed for 84 more in a 24-10 upset of Boise State.

He generally has avoided making ill-advised throws while also ranking seventh among all quarterbacks in rushing.

"He's got great command for a young guy," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "He sees the field extremely well. I think he's got a very quick release. He's got good stature and good size. He can see things unfold and brings that bonus card with his great mobility. You've got to account for him, or he's going to run up and down the field as he has the last two weeks."

Ohio State defensive tackle Doug Worthington offered Locker an even greater compliment by saying he reminded him of Troy Smith and Vince Young.

If that seems like awfully high praise for a quarterback who has played all of two games, consider that Locker has received the same types of plaudits from guys who have seen quite a bit more football than Worthington.

Here's what Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson had to say about Locker at the Pac-10 preseason Media Day function.

"To me, coming out of high school, (he's) probably as good as I've ever seen," said Erickson, who began his head-coaching career in 1982.

That kind of talk could inflate the ego of someone twice Locker's age, but his former coaches insist he hasn't let it change him. Throughout his much-ballyhooed high school career, Locker always deflected the credit to his teammates while working harder than any of them.

Locker's unselfish nature developed as soon as he started playing football, says his father - who coached him until high school. Maybe it's because Locker started out as a tailback and linebacker who didn't move to the more glamorous position of quarterback until high school. Maybe it's just part of his personality.

Washington quarterback Jake Locker has shown a propensity to hurt opponents with his legs as well as his arm. These 10 quarterbacks rank among the nation's top 100 rushers through the first two weeks of the season:
Player Att. Yds. Avg. TD
Stephen McGee, Texas A&M 25 245 9.8 2
Pat White, West Virginia 26 222 8.5 3
Dennis Dixon, Oregon 31 217 7.0 2
Michael Desormeaux,
40 217 5.4 1
Julian Edelman, Kent State 42 210 5.0 1
Adam Weber, Minnesota 34 169 5.0 1
Jake Locker, Wash. 26 167 6.4 3
Shaun Carney, Air Force 27 163 6.0 0
Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, Navy 28 137 4.9 2
Travis Dixon, UNLV 37 134 3.6 1
Whatever the reason, Locker always knew not to take all the credit for his team's success. And after a few lessons from his father on the importance of moving forward instead of dwelling on mistakes, Locker soon adopted the level-headed approach to the game that has helped make him such an immediate success in college.

"He tries to make everybody feel good about who they are while he's doing his job,'' Scott Locker said. "That's just kind of the way he's been since he was little. We got pretty lucky with him."

In an era when so many star athletes have begun specializing on one sport to the exclusion of others, Locker is a throwback to an earlier time. Locker was the state's baseball player of the year in his school's size classification, yet he still arrived early to school each morning during baseball season to undergo sprinting workouts that would build his football speed.

"He's a very, very good football player," Ferndale football coach Jamie Plenkovich said. "And he's a better person than he is a football player."

Locker has tried to stay grounded even as all the praise and expectations have soared into the stratosphere. For all the hoopla that has accompanied the start of his college career, Locker realizes he can't lead Washington anywhere if he attempts to do too much.

"I don't really pay attention to what the whole world is telling me," Locker said. "I know I have 10 other guys on the field with me on every snap. They're all gifted athletes who are very talented. My job is to get the ball in their hands."

Whether he likes it or not, Locker will have to continue dealing with the spotlight that comes from becoming one of the most famous people in his state. His celebrity status started years ago and continues to grow with every victory. Husky fans can't help wondering what their favorite son could mean to their favorite team.

"There are a lot of pieces to it," Randall said. "It's the fact (Washington's) been down a little bit, the fact he plays quarterback and how he carries himself, the fact he's genuine and likeable and has great leadership skills. He's a very likeable man. And he's used to winning."

Washington would love to get accustomed to winning again. The Huskies just might have found the guy who can make it happen.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

(Kevin Noon of BuckeyeGrove.com contributed to this report).

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