By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Having to suffer through the worst season in the history of Washington football is enough motivation for the Huskies this weekend.
Not being a part of it? That’s what eats at Jake Locker.
The University of Washington’s junior quarterback isn’t thinking about his prospects for future NFL drafts, his recent contract with the Los Angeles Angels or even the possibility of the UW football program being resurrected over the next few months. Locker is just happy to be back playing football.
“It was hard to sit and watch last season,” he said earlier this week. “Getting out on the field again and being able to play with the guys is something I’m really looking forward to.”
Locker entered the 2008 season with big expectations, and a near-upset of BYU in the Huskies’ opener seemed to heighten those. But Locker’s season came to an abrupt end four weeks later when a thumb injury knocked him out for the rest of the year.
“It was difficult,” Locker said. “I had never been injured to point that I missed multiple games and wasn’t able to be on the field — in my whole life. So it was hard for me to have to sit and watch, especially with the struggles we went through last season.”
Since breaking his thumb, Locker has been a witness to the worst season in the history of UW football, he’s been surrounded by a new staff of coaches, and he’s signed a pro baseball contract.
But he says the one thing that matters to him most is what happens Saturday night. Locker will be back on a football field, trying to lead his Huskies to a monumental upset of 11th-ranked LSU.
While Locker’s game hasn’t changed much — his legs are still the quarterback’s biggest assets — he says he has grown a lot under the tutelage of a new coaching staff that includes head man Steve Sarkisian and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Both are former college quarterbacks. Sarkisian (a BYU alumnus) and Nussmeier (Idaho) have taken Locker under their wing in hopes of bringing out the best in the prized recruit from the Class of 2007.
Locker said that both coaches have been instrumental in improving his footwork in the pocket, as well as his rhythm within the offense. Locker could certainly improve on a completion percentage that stands shy of 49 percent for his career.
Locker has struggled with consistency this camp. His Wednesday night practice was particularly painful to watch at times, but he bounced back with a strong performance Thursday afternoon, and Sarkisian has been impressed with the overall body of work.
“As we’ve gone through camp, he’s understood that this is a fun offense when you allow it to work for you,” Sarkisian said during his weekly press conference last Monday. “It can be quarterback-friendly, and there are some opportunities there when you take advantage of them.”
Part of Locker’s progression has been to learn when to run and — more important — when not to. His legs helped Locker make plenty of big plays during his first two seasons at the UW, but his eagerness also has led to a string of injuries. The broken thumb he suffered last season came while trying to block for a teammate on an end-around.
“When he runs, it’s going to be in the right situations, for the right reasons, so that he’s not taking the unnecessary hits,” Sarkisian said. “On first-and-10, we don’t want him fighting for the one yard that’s the difference between second-and-5 and second-and-6.”
Whether he’s running or passing, Locker is just happy to be back on the football field. Missing the final eight games in 2008 was enough to make him realize how much he loves the game — and how much he hates being away from it.
On Saturday night, Locker will finally be back where he belongs.
“There is going to be a lot of adrenaline,” he said, “a lot of excitement just to be able to have the uniform on and knowing you are going to be on the field with the guys again.
“It’s going to be a great feeling and it’s different when you know your not going to play.”
Under the pile
The Huskies awarded scholarships to five walk-ons this week, including Edmonds-Woodway product Brandon Huppert. The junior linebacker won’t have to pay his own tuition this year, nor will starting guard Gregory Christine, reserve tackle Nick Scott and linebackers Justin Gage and T.J. Poe. “It’s great to be able to do that, to reward guys for their hard work and effort,” Sarkisian said. “I’m proud of those guys. They put in a lot of time and effort, just as our scholarship guys have.” … Punter Will Mahan, a junior-college transfer, has been one of the more impressive performers of the preseason. Mahan continually hits big punts, including a 59-yarder that stopped at the 1-yard line Thursday afternoon. “He’s done nothing but keep us exciting about what he’s been doing,” Sarkisian said. … Sarkisian is optimistic about the health of the team, with all of the players competing for starting jobs expected to play Saturday. Eight reserves, including linebacker Matt Houston (biceps) and offensive lineman Skyler Fancher (ankle), have been ruled out.