Jake Locker is one of the most interesting players we have had to consider at the end of July in a long time. If the NFL Draft were to happen today then the quarterback from Washington would likely be the first to hear his name called. He’s big, he’s got a rocket where his arm is supposed to be, and he can run like the wind. He’s what scouts dream of when they close their eyes and think about the ideal quarterback.
So, what makes him so interesting? Well, he hasn’t really accomplished anything. He has earned his position atop the NFL mock drafts at this point on the basis of hype, endless potential, and flashes of brilliance. That hype is only going to climb to new levels this year - people are talking about big things for Washington and Locker. The challenge for bettors is to figure out if all the hype is warranted, or if there is going to be value in going against public predictions and betting against the Huskies.
Locker hasn’t done a lot of winning while at Washington, but that’s not really his fault - he’s been stuck on a pretty lousy team for much of his career. He had to play two seasons for Ty Willingham, after all. That’s a sure-fire career killer. The biggest issue for Locker right now is that his numbers aren’t where they need to be. Scouts look for a quarterback who completes more than 60 percent of their passes in their last year in college. That’s no guarantee of success - Tim Couch and JaMarcus Russell topped the accuracy charts for the last 10 No. 1 overall quarterbacks, and they hardly turned into stars. Still, that kind of accuracy in the easier college game is a sign that the challenges of the NFL will be within their capabilities.
Locker has yet to reach that level - 58.2 percent last year is his best. He’s also thrown 26 interceptions and just 36 touchdowns in his career, and his career best yards-per-attempt last year of 7.1 is acceptable but far from exciting. In order for Locker to do what it’s thought that he can he’ll have to improve his performance significantly. Luckily, there are several reasons to believe he can. Here are five:
Coaching - Steve Sarkisian took over the program last year, and that’s a very good thing. Not only is he a very competent coach, but he’s also a former quarterback who put up huge numbers in college before playing pro ball. He made massive improvements in the team in just one year, and with another summer under his belt to work with Locker the progress is going to be significant. The one thing they always talk about with Locker beyond his athleticism is his football intelligence. Sarkisian and his staff will have found ways to maximize what they have in Locker.
Progress - Locker has made big steps forward every year. His completion percentage has climbed from 47.3 as a freshman to 53.8 in is second year and 58.2 last year. That’s moving in the right direction. His yardage and TD/Int ratio has also been on the right path. If he can continue on the course he has already been on - and there is no reason to believe he can’t - then he’ll get to where he needs to be and beyond.
Pseudo-senior - Locker is a senior,but he’s really had a lot less experience than a lot of other players in his position. He started right away as a true freshman - probably before he was really ready. The team around him was lousy and he struggled. Unlike Sam Bradford and many others who redshirted or eased into the role, Locker had no apprenticeship. His sophomore season was mostly a write-off - he was injured in his fourth game and missed the rest of the year. Last year was a full season, but you could really argue that in terms of his experience and maturity it’s like he’s just a junior. When you compare him to where other top quarterbacks were at entering their junior year he looks much better.
Finished strong - His last game last year - a home game against a reasonably tough Cal team - was by far the best of his career. He completed 83 percent of his passes for three touchdowns, and ran for two more scores. It was a very impressive, complete game. If that’s how he finished off a tough season then it’s hard not to be optimistic now.
The ‘it’ factor - It’s hard to definite what ‘it’ is, but Locker definitely has it. Washington and the Pac-10 have paraded Locker around New York a couple of times this summer to promote the league and boost his Heisman campaign. It’s been a bit of a bizarre exercise, but Locker has looked totally in control of it. Every top quarterback gives off that sense that he knows exactly what is going to happen and he is in control. Locker has that aura as well.
That’s a lot of things in favor of a big performance from Locker this year. So I’ll be betting heavily on Washington right out of the gate, right? Not exactly. As good as Locker could be, he will be playing a very tough schedule. Brutal, really. He starts out with a tough trip to BYU. That would be tough at the best of times, but it will be especially intense because Coach Sarkisian was a star with the Cougars in college. After an easy second game against Syracuse, they play another brutal game against Nebraska, and then have to travel to USC in Week 4.
The whole Pac-10 schedule could be tough, and it certainly won’t be made easier by the fact that three of the last four games are on the road - including the last two. I expect big things from Locker, but if the team around him doesn’t get off to a big start he might not be enough to get them to seven wins. It’s going to be fun to watch, though.