SEATTLE — Don’t get it twisted.
Entering his second full season as starting quarterback for the University of Washington football team, Keith Price is hungry for more — more wins, more points, maybe even a few more school records.
But Price certainly isn’t hungry.
In an effort to become more durable than he was during his record-setting 2011 season, Price spent the summer hitting the weights … and the buffet tables.
“Eat,” Price said when asked what he did to add seven pounds to his lithe, 6-foot-1 frame. “That’s probably the only thing.”
Price, now up over 200 pounds for the first time in his life after playing most of last season at a listed weight of 195, likes to say that caloric intake is the only reason for his new, presumably more durable, body. But that’s only half the story. Along with UW strength coach Ivan Lewis, Price also spent a good part of the summer hitting the weights.
“I’ve seen him bust his tail in the weight room, I’ll tell you that much,” senior wide receiver James Johnson said when asked about Price’s food-driven bulk-up. “I’m not around him at lunchtime, but I know he’s gotten bigger and stronger.”
What remains is a different quarterback than the one who led UW to seven wins and an appearance in last year’s Alamo Bowl — even if Husky Nation is hoping for more of the same. Price believes his more durable frame, along with some extra time with Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian and a few days rubbing elbows with the NFL’s first family of quarterbacks, will help him be even better than he was as a first-year starter last fall.
“I actually didn’t feel like I played my best last year,” the junior quarterback said. “I think I can take my game to a whole other level.”
Price’s first test came Monday afternoon, when he stepped onto the practice field wearing the left knee brace that has become a permanent part of his armor. Midway through the session, he got drilled to the turf by teammate Nate Fellner during a non-contact drill. While Fellner was quickly banished from the drill, Price quickly hopped to his feet and celebrated a 20-yard completion to tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
Afterward, Price barely remembered the hit, even though it might have been the first time anyone has ever knocked him to the turf during a practice when quarterbacks are supposedly off-limits.
“You’re going to get hit,” Price said after Monday’s practice, chuckling at the thought of getting knocked down a few minutes earlier. “All quarterbacks get hit.”
Sarkisian said Price’s first camp session answered more than a few questions — not only about his durability but also about his footwork with the added weight.
“I thought he looked strong,” Sarkisian said Monday night. “I thought he looked good. So far, so good, as far as how he’s carrying the weight.”
On the field, Price spent the summer working with players both near and far to improve on his craft. He was especially tight with sophomore wide receiver Kasen Williams, who got together with Price at least three days a week this summer to catch passes and improve camaraderie. Williams got a first-hand look at Price’s improvement during the offseason months.
“He’s definitely better than last year,” the sophomore from Skyline High School said Monday. “Last year, he was that much better than everyone, and he’s definitely getting a lot better now.”
Price also got to throw with two of the NFL’s best — Peyton and Eli Manning. The sibling quarterbacks hold a camp each spring and invite some of the nation’s top signal-callers to help out. Price, USC’s Matt Barkley, West Virginia’s Geno Smith and Georgia’s Aaron Murray worked the camp alongside the Manning brothers.
“It was really great,” Price said, grinning. “A great experience.”
It all adds up to a more confident UW quarterback, yet some fans seem more concerned about Price’s health than they are happy about his improvement.
During a 2011 season that saw him pass for 3,063 yards, throw 33 touchdowns and set school records in completion percentage (66.9) and passer efficiency rating (161.09), Price endured serious sprains to both knees. He lost a lot of his mobility but missed only one start, a 38-21 loss at Oregon State during which Price entered the game in the fourth quarter and threw a touchdown pass on a gimpy knee.
Battling injuries for almost the entire 2011 season, Price knows he has something to prove in terms of durability.
“People say that I’m fragile or whatever, but I played in every game,” he said Monday.
The term “fragile” seems to come up a lot in discussions about UW’s junior quarterback.
”Everyone says I’m fragile,” he said. “Just walking around, ‘You’re skinny, man!’ It’s all good. All that matters is in here (pointing to his chest). If you’ve got a big heart, that’s all that matters.”
What’s clear is that no one inside the UW locker room believes Price lacks heart, or toughness. His ability to play through injury, rather than the injuries themselves, is what has left an impression on teammates.
“Just go back and look at the film,” Johnson said. “To watch him sit in there and deliver the ball and take the blow. That’s a guy you want to make plays for. I look at him as a warrior, as a soldier.”
Sarkisian said Price’s gritty play last season gave the quarterback even more credibility as a leader.
“There’s a great deal of respect — on the entire team,” Sarkisian said. “It’s not just the offensive players; the defensive players, they know how tough that dude is.”
This time last year, the biggest question hounding UW football was how Price would fare in the starting role. Now the only thing people are asking about him is whether a clean bill of health could lead to some Heisman buzz.
Bigger, stronger and with a few more tools in his belt, Price might look different as another season approaches. But from a production standpoint, the Huskies are just looking for more of the same.
“He can be as great as he wants to be,” Johnson said. “It’s all on him, and how we do as a team. That’s the most important thing, how we build as one.
“He knows he’s the leader of our team, and the quarterback, so if he goes, we go. The sky’s the limit — for him and this team.”