Last December, Washington Huskies quarterback Jake Locker journeyed up to his coach’s office.
Despite having a month to declare for the NFL draft, he, with his chocolate lab appropriately named “Ten” in hand, gave coach Steve Sarkisian the greatest Christmas gift he could have imagined.
“You know, coach, I’m staying,” Locker said.
Stunned, but more than delighted, Sarkisian waited until Locker left to let the inner child on Christmas morning out of him. “[Offensive coordinator Doug] Nussmeier and I started high-fiving and jumping up and down with each other,” the second-year coach noted with a chuckle.
Despite the five-game turnaround from the season before, Sarkisian had—and still has—a greater vision than winning five games, and Locker wanted to finish what he started. With each other, Sarkisian and Locker figured to further progress on a promising beginning. The questions that then lingered were more about the Huskies defense.
However, a year later, Locker has seen his place as a near lock to be a top 10 pick in the NFL draft fall to suspicion he may not even be selected in the first round. After making noteworthy improvement in nearly every offensive category and leading the conference in total offense last season, his completion percentage, touchdowns, QB rating and overall development as a quarterback have not only stunted but, in most regards, even receded.
This is namely due to two factors not exactly in his control: injuries and sluggish offensive line play.
Before the season started, Sarkisian stated his goals for Locker: "We really need to see the touchdown-interception ratio go from 2 to 1, where he's sitting right now, to 3 to 1 and I'd like to see him at about a 65 to 68 percent completion percentage."
Those goals haven’t been reached, but Sarkisian admitted recently, “We haven’t protected Jake.”
Injuries were not completely new to Locker. He broke his thumb in 2008 and sat out the last eight games of the Huskies' 0-12 nightmare season a year before Sarkisian arrived. But the frequency and longevity of lingering injuries have been new and no doubt hindering.
In a 35-34 overtime win against Oregon State on October 16, the jubilation quickly subsided for the Huskies when Locker was diagnosed through x-ray to have torn rib cartilage. The injury later evolved into a hairline fracture in one rib and then two weeks later, after taking some more hits against Stanford, a full break.
He sat out the next week in the Huskies' 53-16 loss to Oregon before returning the next week in a 24-7 win over UCLA. However, the clearly hampered Locker completed just 10 of 21 passes for 68 yards with one interception. It was the third game this season that Locker failed to pass for at least 72 yards.
Ironically, one of those games was against Nebraska, who Washington will be facing in a rematch in the Holiday Bowl. The early contest went decisively to the Huskers, 56-21.
However, while far from an easy task, a stout defense against which to prove himself one last time and a national television slot extends an opportunity to the wounded but talented quarterback, who, while not outright admitting it, has to have his sights set on securing a first-round selection.
Even though a consensus reached by ESPN draft analysts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper is he’s not.
Still, the humble Husky seems to be undeterred by where draft analysts, or “those guys,” as he refers to them, have him slotted. “It is not what is important to me right now,” he said about his falling draft stock.
But when you count the millions, it is hard to not think about. A second-round selection or even a slot at the bottom of the first round will net him far from the $78 million windfall Sam Bradford received last season and what Locker, somewhat comparably, could have received had he entered the draft after last season.
Of course, there are still those that believe in Locker. A chance at redemption exists in the Holiday Bowl, and no doubt scouts at workouts will be impressed his size, quick feet and huge arm. When it comes to physical tools, Locker has all the tangibles to be a starting NFL QB. He’s also stated he’s improved on his timing and footwork under center.
Not to mention a backup plan exists in the form of baseball, where the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim selected Locker in the 10th round of the 2009 draft and hold his rights for the next six years at a price of $250,000.
But his first attempt will no doubt be the NFL, and while looking at the odds and the necessary climb, there are many doubting Locker’s draft status and pro prospects.
Locker has stated no regrets about his decision, as he wanted to see how things turned out at Washington. He’ll also have the chance to prove himself in due time. Plus he remains positive and has shown commitment, the correct outlook and attitude for a player to have. Hopefully for Locker, that’s worth something to NFL teams...even if things appear to be working against him.