By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — He’s straight out of Compton … well, except for that four-year detour in Long Beach.
So why would Keith Price be intimidated by an environment like Autzen Stadium?
The University of Washington’s new — albeit temporary — starting quarterback is going into the proverbial hornet’s nest when he makes his first collegiate start this Saturday in Eugene, Ore. Price and the Huskies will face a top-ranked Oregon team that has been making mincemeat of opponents this season.
But if you think Price is scared, you don’t know Keith Price.
“I’m going to go out there and just have fun and play, just like high school,” the eternally-grinning redshirt freshman said Wednesday evening.
Price grew up in Compton, a section of Los Angeles known for its crime. It wasn’t the most conducive environment for a kid so dedicated to the game of football that he slept with a pigskin at night.
“It was rough, hanging out with the wrong crowd of guys,” he said. “My parents didn’t like that too much.”
And so Price’s parents moved him in with his Mee-Maw — grandmother Gail Manuel, along with grandfather Bob Manuel — in Long Beach so that he could get straight out of Compton. The family scraped together enough money for him to attend a private school, St. John Bosco in Bellflower, and Price eventually found the discipline he needed — both on the field and in the classroom.
“I wanted to pay them back for what they’ve done for me,” he said. “That was my main goal.”
Playing in the same league as No. 1 national quarterback prospect Matt Barkley, Price generated enough attention to get offers up and down the West Coast. UW, Oregon and Arizona State were his final three choices, and the Huskies won out because of their coaching staff.
During a recruiting visit to Oregon, Price made his first trip to Autzen. But he wasn’t taking snaps for the opposing team on that day, so he knows Saturday will be a different story.
“I know what it’s going to be like,” said Price, who will replace injured starter Jake Locker on Saturday but isn’t expected to be needed beyond that game. “I’ve already been getting (text) messages, you know. I can already see it coming, but I’m going to try and tune all that stuff out.”
The text messages from Oregon fans were surprising, and yet they helped open his eyes to what a passionate fan base the Ducks have.
“I don’t even know who they are,” he said of the people who have been trash-talking through social media this week. “They’re getting in contact with me, I don’t know. I guess they’re texting me, trying to send me Facebook (messages). I don’t know how they got (my cell phone number).”
Through it all, Price has maintained his sunny disposition.
Nothing seems to rattle the happy-go-lucky kid from Compton. He grew up in a tough neighborhood and, as a senior in high school, had one of his closest friends get shot in the neck.
So preparing for his first collegiate start isn’t enough to shake Price’s spirits.
“He loves the game, he loves playing it, and that’s what he shows,” wide receiver Jermaine Kearse said. “He has fun with it, and he loves it.”
On the field, Price has shown an ability to play without fear as well. When an injury forced Locker off the field early in the fourth quarter of a game at USC last month, Price stepped in and threw a short touchdown pass on his first snap. While Locker has been hobbled by quad and rib injuries in the weeks that followed, Price has aptly run the No. 1 offense at nearly every practice.
But playing at Autzen Stadium is an entirely different animal.
“I think the whole key to this thing is: not being distracted,” said Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian, who was part of the USC staff when Trojans quarterback Mark Sanchez made his first career road start at Oregon. “At times at Autzen, you can be distracted — not only by the noise, but the frantic atmosphere that is there.
“I think what’s key is to hone in on what we want to accomplish, focus on the task at hand, but also enjoy the experience of it. You’re not going to be oblivious to it, so you better be able to embrace it and enjoy it, but also focus on the task at hand.”
If anybody’s ready to step into the hornet’s nest that is Autzen, it’s the kid from Compton with the never-ending smile.
“Keith’s just excited to be out there,” Kearse said. “He’s been waiting for his chance, and he’s ready to show his talent.”
For the second day in a row, Sarkisian played quarterback with the scout team Wednesday. With a sore arm and an ailing back from the previous day’s work, the 36-year-old coach and former quarterback threw five interceptions while trying to run the Oregon offense. Sarkisian wanted to run the Ducks’ offense so that he could show UW’s starting defense what the tempo will be like in Saturday’s game. “I felt better today,” he said after Wednesday’s practice. “I was a little exhausted (Tuesday). I was just tired today.” … The Huskies appear ready to make another switch on their offensive line, with seniors Gregory Christine at guard and Cody Habben at tackle stepping in for true freshmen Colin Porter and Erik Kohler. Both seniors replaced their younger teammates in the first quarter of last week’s loss to Stanford, and they have continued to run with the No. 1 offense at practices this week. “It’ll be a great challenge for them,” Sarkisian said of his offensive line facing the Ducks. “Oregon is very good up front.”