Commentary

Improving passing accuracy is one of Locker's main goals for 2008

Originally Published: August 18, 2008
By Ted Miller | ESPN.com

A scenario is presented to Washington quarterback Jake Locker.

USC linebacker Rey Maualuga, snorting fire, is rocketing on a beeline toward him. But Locker can gain a few more yards if he ignores the angry Trojan, puts his head down and bulls forward.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesThe Huskies and coach Ty Willingham would like to see Jake Locker run less in 2008.

Will Locker: 1. Fight for every inch no matter what?
or 2. Sacrifice the yards, seek safety out of bounds and avoid getting Maualugaed?

The scenario is imperfect, Locker says. He needs more information.

"Well, is it third-and-2 and I need another yard and if I run out of bounds I won't get the first down?" he asks. "Because, yeah, I'm going to get the first down."

So, if it's, say, first-and-10, will he step out of bounds instead of fighting for every last yard, as he did in 2007 when, as a redshirt freshman, his 986 yards rushing set a Pac-10 record for a quarterback?

"I'll get out of bounds," he said. "I didn't do that last year, but this year I will."

Yet there's a meaningful pause before his answer. And just a hint of a frown that suggests that using a specific defender -- the notoriously hard-hitting Maualuga -- has awakened Locker's competitive nature.

Washington coach Tyrone Willingham will need all of Locker's competitiveness -- and considerable skills -- this season. The overwhelming sentiment is that Willingham, 11-25 after three seasons, needs a winning season to remain coach. With youth and questions throughout his lineup, he'll need Locker to improve upon a 2007 performance that ranged from spectacular to sloppy, with both extremes sometimes showcased on the same possession.

2008 Pac-10 Preview

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SportsNation: Vote on Pac-10

The most glaring problem was Locker's accuracy. It doesn't matter that he owns a powerful arm if he repeats his performance from last year, when he completed only 47 percent of his passes and had more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (14).

Those statistics, paired with his phenomenal rushing numbers -- his 13 touchdowns on the ground were tied for second best among conference running backs -- had some folks calling him a running back who merely takes a direct snap.

"He's like a running back who can throw -- big, fast, strong," Oregon safety Patrick Chung said. "He's not really a quarterback. He's like a tight end who they put at quarterback. He's a great athlete."

Ducks coach Mike Bellotti called Locker "one of the most difficult athletes to defend in college football."

"He ran a quarterback sneak against us and knocked the pile back eight yards -- we couldn't tackle him," Bellotti said. "He'll run over you. He'll break tackles. He's a legitimate threat with the ball in his hands. He may be the best running quarterback in the nation. And he's fast -- he's 235 pounds running a 4.3. It's an amazing deal."

[+] EnlargeTy Willingham
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesWillingham is 11-25 after three seasons and likely needs a winning season to keep his job.

Locker is beyond polite, but he doesn't like getting pigeonholed. He has long resisted the comparison with Florida's Tim Tebow (even though offensive coordinator Tim Lappano has made that one himself), and he can't stand the notion that he's often viewed as a running back who's playing quarterback.

"Didn't I pass for, like, 300 yards against Oregon? I'm kidding," he said after being told of Chung's comments, which were intended to praise Locker.

He threw for 257 yards and four touchdowns against the Ducks and rushed for "only" 78 yards. But the catch is that he completed only 12 of 31 throws, and the Ducks rolled to a 55-34 win.

The first priority for Locker is improving that completion percentage. In the spring game, he was 13-of-17 for 159 yards with a TD and an interception, and reports are that accuracy will be mostly a nonissue.

"I know I'm going to throw better than I did last year," Locker said. "I feel confident in that."

What is an issue is Locker's supporting cast. The skill players around him -- the backfield and receiving corps  will be the least experienced in the Pac-10 (though California's situation is nearly identical). The leading returning tailback, sophomore Brandon Johnson, rushed for 196 yards in 2007, while the leading returning receiver, sophomore D'Andre Goodwin, hauled in six passes for 29 yards.

Locker needs to showcase another of his natural skills: leadership. He didn't find it easy to lead when he was a redshirt freshman surrounded by seniors. Now there's no question who's in charge.

"Part of it was I hadn't done anything last year. I didn't have any credibility -- no one knew what I could do in college," he said. "I feel like I've gained some respect now. Guys respond better to guys who have played than to guys who haven't."

[+] EnlargeJake Locker
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesLocker completed only 47 percent of his passes for 14 TDs and 15 INTs last year.

Another issue is that the green crew surrounding Locker will say howdy to Division I college football against No. 21 Oregon amid what surely will be a frenzied atmosphere inside Autzen Stadium on Aug. 30, then will play No. 16 BYU and No. 4 Oklahoma at home.

Even Locker admits it will be hard to predict how the youngsters will react to such stout tests. "We'll only know once we get there," he said. "It depends on how mentally tough those guys are and how much they can handle."

And how much can Locker handle -- physically, that is? It's hard to imagine he could again run the ball 172 times and avoid significant injury. Moreover, last year, experienced backup Carl Bonnell offered a solid insurance policy. This season, Locker's backup is redshirt freshman Ronnie Fouch.

Every time Locker runs, there's a risk. "We'll let the game dictate what happens there," Willingham said. "As far as a preference, it's obviously to have him not run at all. But that would take away a very valuable threat that opponents have to prepare for."

The plan is for Locker to run less and avoid contact more but also to force every opposing defensive coordinator to fret about his running as much as possible.

Perhaps he'll slide on occasion. But even after a summer playing baseball for the Bellingham Bells in the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League, he's not high on the slide. "I'm a terrible slider," he said.

That may be true, but a bad slide here and there probably will keep Locker -- and the Huskies -- in the game.

Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ted at tedmillerespn@gmail.com.

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