By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — He’s worked with two Heisman Trophy winners, four Pac-10 champions and a quintet of quarterbacks who are currently employed by NFL teams. And that was in just five seasons as an assistant coach at USC.
So does that make new University of Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian the right person to bring out the best in Huskies quarterback Jake Locker?
“I don’t know that I’m the right guy,” Sarkisian himself said in all modesty late last week. “There are a lot of great coaches out there.”
By all accounts, the Sarkisian-Locker relationship has the makings of a match made in heaven. Sarkisian, a former quarterback himself, has been instrumental in developing USC signal-callers like Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Matt Cassel, John David Booty and Mark Sanchez. Locker has the physical skills to develop into a first-round NFL draft pick.
Whether or not the pair can turn potential into production is the biggest question of Sarkisian’s first UW training camp, which begins Monday.
The 35-year-old coach, despite his public modesty, believes all the elements are there for a breakout season for his junior quarterback.
“Fortunately for us, he’s a talented kid physically,” Sarkisian said of Locker, who has a career 48.7 completion percentage and as many interceptions (15) as touchdown passes at UW. “But better than that, he’s a tremendous human being. He’s got great work ethic, he’s very bright, and he’s got tremendous leadership skills. … I think all those components combined, I think Jake’s just going to take off in this system.”
For Locker, who was the nation’s fifth-rated quarterback when coming out of Ferndale High School in 2006, several factors have prevented him from performing like fellow ‘06 recruits like Tim Tebow (Florida), Matthew Stafford (Georgia) and Jevan Snead (Mississippi) at the collegiate level.
The most obvious is the lack of talent surrounding Locker. The Huskies have failed to recruit nationally ranked wide receivers, and his protection up front has been shoddy at best. The Huskies hope that a young, athletically gifted receiving corps made up of guys like junior D’Andre Goodwin, sophomore Jermaine Kearse, sophomore Devin Aguilar and sophomore tight end Chris Izbicki might be ready to give Locker help in the passing game.
Locker’s other problems at UW have been related to passing accuracy and health.
Strong-armed and with such impressive running ability that he’s been compared to Tebow, Locker is still trying to find himself in terms of touch and location. Accuracy has been an area upon which the 21-year-old has committed himself to improving.
Because of his uncanny footwork in the open field, Locker has also been prone to injury. He missed eight games with a broken thumb in 2008 and sat out one game the previous year after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit at the end of a run. Locker has dedicated himself to taking less chances in the open field in an effort to prevent injuries in the future.
“You never want to take away the natural athletic instinct of a player like Jake,” offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said last week. “But what you’re trying to do is let him know that he has to take some hits off his body. It’s a long season, and we want him to play every snap of the season.
“There’s a difference between third-and-7 scrambles and first-and-10 scrambles — a big difference.”
Nussmeier spent five seasons as an NFL backup and, like Sarkisian, he has a history of developing quarterbacks. He worked with the St. Louis Rams’ Marc Bulger during a Pro Bowl season in 2006 and was Michigan State’s quarterbacks coach with Spartans signal-callers Drew Stanton and Jeff Smoker during the three seasons preceding that.
Nussmeier said that Sarkisian will “definitely” keep a closer eye on the quarterbacks than he will other positions at practice, and he believes the Huskies’ new head coach can bring out the best in Locker.
“Steve has coached so many great players,” Nussmeier said. “He’s very, very demanding, and he understands the position.”
Sarkisian and the rest of the Huskies’ offensive staff are hoping to help Locker understand the position like never before.
“It’s very exciting,” Nussmeier said of what the future holds for Locker. “Anytime you have the opportunity to coach someone who really wants to be coached, and who has unlimited athletic ability, it’s an unbelievable opportunity for everyone involved.”