December 15, 2009
Quarterback Jake Locker will be back at Washington for his senior year, and there was much rejoicing: Locker passed up a shot at millions as a top 10 pick in April's draft -- possibly No. 1 overall, depending on who you ask -- to finish as one of the most prolific players in school history while leading the Huskies to their first bowl game since 2002. The official "Locker for Heisman" blitz is already underway.
Locker's 2009 numbers ranked third on the single-season list for passing yards and fourth for touchdowns at a program that's produced half a dozen NFL mainstays at quarterback over the last 25 years. Given that kind of apparent star power, Locker's production should easily stand out in a crowd -- in fact, go ahead and pick the would-be Heisman candidate out of the following lineup:
Piece of cake, right? If we were talking about Qb.A (Stanford's Andrew Luck) or Qb.B (Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli), maybe. In Locker's case, though, we're talking about Qb.E -- on paper, only the fourth or fifth-best returning quarterback in the conference next fall. (And that's if you don't account for the likely sophomore leap by USC's Matt Barkley, listed here on Locker's heels as Qb.F.)
Obviously, Locker's perceived value doesn't derive from the stat sheet. To the scouts, it derives from the same raw athleticism that also makes Locker such a coveted baseball prospect -- he's big, fast and possesses a renowned arm despite the mediocre results it's produced to date. He looks like a quarterback out there; at the very least, he can be molded into one if surrounded with adequate talent.
As a college star, the lack of surrounding talent at Washington may be Locker's greatest asset: If he is in the Heisman race next year, it will be as the quintessential MVP of an otherwise hopeless outfit that would fall flat on its face without him -- which, of course, Washington already has. The only apparent difference between the historic flop that stumbled in at 0-12 in 2008 and the resurgent '09 outfit that upset USC, Arizona and California en route to finishing 5-7 while averaging two more touchdowns per game this year was Locker's return from injury under new coach Steve Sarkisian's "pro style" system. Locker led the game-winning drive over the Trojans, took the Huskies the length of the field to force overtime at Notre Dame, sparked the comeback win over Arizona with three touchdown passes and dominated with 325 total yards and five touchdowns in the season-ending blowout over Cal. One way or another, he was at the center of everything good that happened to the Huskies this season, after a season in 2008 in which nothing good happened in his absence.
Just as often, though, Locker was struggling right alongside his obscure teammates. He threw two interceptions apiece in the blowout losses against Stanford and Oregon and in the last-second heartbreaker at Arizona State, failing to top 20 points in any of them; he was held to a season-low 140 total yards in the blowout loss at Oregon State, adding a pair of garbage time touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pad one of the worst outings of his career. Against the three Pac-10 opponents that landed in the AP's final top 20, the Huskies were outscored by an average of 42-18. Locker can't be expected to win those games all by himself, and the lopsided finale against Cal is a glimpse into just how frightening his upside can be. But if All-America teams and No. 1 draft picks are in his future, that gap against the top of the league has to close considerably.