SEATTLE — Jake Locker had reason to celebrate Thursday afternoon.
It had nothing to do with the St. Louis Rams or any multi-million dollar contract negotiations. Rather, the senior-to-be at the University of Washington was chest-bumping with fullback Austin Sylvester after throwing a 14-yard touchdown pass in a spring practice.
While the NFL draft went on without him, Locker was doing what he loves Thursday. He’s just not getting paid for it.
“I’m kind of happy he stayed,” teammate Devin Aguilar said Thursday. “He stayed to learn more. That’s why he’s going to be a better quarterback when he does come out (for the draft in 2011).”
Locker said after Thursday’s afternoon practice that he planned on going home to watch the end of the first round — not because he could have been a part of it but because he was hoping to see friends like Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen and former UW teammate Donald Butler get picked.
“I have no regrets with the decision I made,” he said of returning for his senior year, “and I won’t be (watching the draft and) thinking that I wish I could have been there — no way.”
More than four months have passed since Locker announced his intentions to delay the NFL draft and play one more season at UW. Since then, he has emerged as the odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft — ESPN commentator Mel Kiper Jr. recently said in a conference call that Locker would be the top pick next April — and former Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford legitimized the one-more-year decision by being taken first overall Thursday night. The Rams chose Bradford, the Heisman Trophy winner in 2008, despite an injury-shortened junior season last fall, one that many believed would hurt his draft stock.
“It’s a good lesson for everybody that you can come back and play your senior year and still fulfill your NFL dreams and aspirations at that level,” Locker said of the Bradford selection. “… It’s a good message for everybody in college football.”
Locker will take a similar path despite being projected as a sure-fire first-round pick, and perhaps the No. 1 overall, in this year’s draft. Instead of being in negotiations for a contract that could have paid him as much as $45 million in guaranteed salary, he’s preparing for one final season at UW.
“I don’t know if I would’ve turned (the money) down,” Aguilar said. “I don’t think I would. … He’s a great guy. He’s taking advantage of an opportunity to get better. He’s in a great situation right now.”
Head coach Steve Sarkisian admitted Thursday that part of Locker’s continued development will be to get him ready for the NFL.
“I feel like we owe it — not just to the quarterback, but (to) every kid on our football team — to get them prepared at least for the opportunity to play in the National Football League,” Sarkisian said. “That’s every kid’s dream growing up, and that’s what you strive for.”
Both Sarkisian and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said that the primary goal is to get Locker ready for this fall.
“We’re preparing Jake Locker to win football games at the University of Washington,” Nussmeier said, “and be the best quarterback he can be.”
Through three weeks of spring practices, Locker has already shown some improvement. Both Nussmeier and Sarkisian have been impressed with his play.
Aguilar said Locker is “becoming an all-around quarterback. There used to be things that he didn’t have, but he’s brought it all together now. You can see it out there: in his checks, running, throwing. I feel like he’s come along a lot.”
Of course, Locker has been far from perfect. While the Rams were announcing their selection of Bradford, he overthrew intended receivers on three consecutive passes in a mid-practice passing drill that didn’t include any defenders.
But Locker began to hit his stride during the 11-on-11 part at the end of Thursday’s session, leading up to the short touchdown to Sylvester.
“I though today was really one of his better days,” Sarkisian said after the practice, which saw the players work without pads. “He’s really trying to take his game to another level.”
And this time next year, perhaps Locker will get to the next level as the No. 1 overall pick.
So what does Sarkisian think they’ll be saying about Locker next April?
“Oh, that he’s the best quarterback ever,” Sarkisian said with a laugh. “I don’t know. I’m hoping that.
“I’m hoping they say he led his team to the championship and all the right things that you want them to say about a guy. But that’s a long ways away.”
As Locker himself knows, a year is definitely a long time.
“What’s said now could change drastically,” the quarterback said. “People said, when Sam (Bradford) decided to come back for his senior year last year, that there’s no way he would be taken in the same spot he was. And look at him now. So you never know.”
While there still is no official depth chart, Sarkisian said that tight end Chris Izbicki has moved ahead of Kavario Middleton so far. Middleton had emerged as one of Locker’s go-to receivers during the latter weeks of the 2009 season. … Freshman running back Jesse Callier sat out Tuesday’s practice because of a sprained posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Callier is unlikely to participate in Saturday’s scrimmage, and Sarkisian doubts that he’ll play in the “Friday Night Lights” scrimmage to end spring ball one week from today. … Edmonds native Daniel Kanczugowski, a walk-on who attended Seattle’s O’Dea High School, continued to work with the No. 1 offense Thursday. He’s holding down the right tackle spot until Cody Habben returns from a shoulder injury. … Defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu hurt his left shoulder late in Thursday’s practice, but Sarkisian said the injury is not serious.