Locker’s draft stock is rising

SEATTLE — Saturday’s action did more than just dampen the bowl chances of the University of Washington football team.

It might have put the Huskies in a bit of a quarterback quandary.

Junior Jake Locker is fine, despite taking a big hit late in Saturday’s 24-17 loss to Arizona State. It’s the health of a quarterback halfway across the country that might put the future of the position in doubt for UW.

After Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford hurt his shoulder for the second time this season on Saturday afternoon, some scouting services have moved Locker to the No. 1 position among quarterback prospects for the upcoming draft. ESPN’s Todd McShay reported over the weekend that Locker, not Bradford, is now the top pro prospect in the country after Saturday.

While there is still no guarantee that Locker would come out early, the likelihood of being a top-5 or top-10 pick would certainly be tempting.

Locker admitted Monday that he’s seen some of the draft buzz surrounding him, but he maintained that he is not thinking about anything beyond his current season at UW.

“When it’s on, I hear it every once in a while,” Locker said of his name being brought up in television conversations about the upcoming draft. “But it’s not something I’m focused on right now.”

Heading into the 2009 season, Locker looked like — at best — a second- or third-round pick. And that’s if he waited until after his senior year to go out for the 2011 draft. Fellow juniors Bradford and Jevan Snead (Mississippi) were held in higher regard than Locker, as were seniors Colt McCoy (Texas) and Tim Tebow (Florida).

But Bradford’s shoulder, McCoy’s inconsistency, Snead’s slow start and Tebow’s style of play have helped propel Locker to — in some people’s eyes — the top of the class.

On ESPN earlier this month, McShay said that scouts “love the fact that he’s playing in a Steve Sarkisian offensive system that NFL teams can look at and say: ‘They’ve got a lot of great quarterbacks from it, and it translates to the NFL.’”

Of course, the person who has been most responsible for Locker’s rise has been Locker himself. The thumb injury that kept him out of the final eight games in 2008 is a distant memory. His accuracy problems have also been left in the past, for the most part.

Locker has proven on the field that he is not only the best running quarterback in the country — with apologies to Tebow and Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor — but that he is also capable of making all the necessary throws.

Locker continues to show things to the scouts on a weekly basis. Such was the case during an otherwise forgettable play in Saturday’s loss to ASU, which saw Locker escape pressure and heave an off-balance pass across the field to receiver James Johnson near the right sideline. While the play resulted in only a three-yard gain, it was a difficult throw that, for most quarterbacks, would have resulted in disaster. Locker made it look easy.

“Definitely, passing, he’s been way better,” said wide receiver Devin Aguilar, who has caught three touchdown passes from Locker in the past two games. “He can still use his feet great, but his reading the defense and finding other options have been profound. He’s been doing really well.”

When Sarkisian took over as UW’s head coach last winter, one of his priorities was to bring out the best in Locker. Sarkisian took aim at molding Locker into a future NFL quarterback.

What may have happened in the process is that Sarkisian’s work is paying off a bit too soon.

“I’m not worried about that stuff,” the 35-year-old head coach said Monday. “We’ll deal with that at the end of the year. I just want to make (Locker) as good of a football player as he can be. He’s a great kid and he deserves everything he gets.”

Sarkisian has seen probable first-round picks turn down the riches before. When he was a quarterbacks coach at USC, Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart opted to return for his senior season despite projections that he might go No. 1 overall in the 2005 NFL draft. He was chosen 10th in the 2006 draft, and Leinart’s career has yet to take off.

Two quarterbacks who made opposite decisions last winter have proven the value of leaving early.

USC’s Mark Sanchez, who played under Sarkisian, went against the wishes of head coach Pete Carroll and went pro as a junior. He was drafted fifth overall, won the New York Jets’ starting job and has had some immediate success.

Then there was Bradford, who looked like a probable top-10 pick in the 2009 draft but decided to return for his junior season. Bradford suffered a third-degree sprain in his throwing shoulder in the season opener, then re-injured the shoulder in Saturday’s loss to Texas.

“Obviously, it’s an unfortunate deal that he got hurt, and I feel for him,” Locker said on Monday. “It’s something you can’t control. It’s part of the game, and it happens.

“But (I already) talked about it after the second or third week — (the draft) is not something I’m thinking about now. I feel bad for him, and I think he’s a great player.”

Only time will tell whether Locker follows in the footsteps of Sanchez, or whether he’ll take his chances following guys like Bradford and Leinart on their delayed paths to the NFL.

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