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Healthy Locker leads Washington’s return to prominence

Michael Bryan | Friday, October 2, 2009

When the Irish visited Husky Stadium last year, the hapless Washington offense barely avoided being shut out and didn’t enter Notre Dame territory until there was 5:50 to go in the game.

A year later, that seems like an entirely different team. With a new, offensively-minded coach in Steve Sarkisian and the return of healthy junior quarterback Jake Locker, the Huskies offense is dangerous again for the first time in years.

“Coach Sarkisian and [defensive coordinator] Nick Holt came up from USC and really have changed the mentality of Washington in a hurry,” coach Charlie Weis said. “I think part of the turnaround obviously is Locker coming back.”

Just a week after ending a 15-game losing streak that stretched over parts of three seasons, Sarkisian and Locker led the Huskies to a 13-10 win over No. 3 USC. Trojans coach Pete Carroll had high praise for Locker and his former quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Sarkisian after the game.

“I think the difference in this game was Jake. I thought he was able to come up and make the plays when they really needed it in the last drive,” Carroll said. “That’s a great player. He didn’t surprise me a bit. I thought we kept him under wraps for a while but when he had to have it he made it. That’s what a great player does.”

Locker emerged as a star in 2007 after redshirting his freshman season, and was named the Pac-10 freshman of the year. The Washington native led his hometown school to a huge win over No. 20 Boise State and became only the 19th player in NCAA history to pass for more than 300 and rush for more than 100 yards in a game in a loss to Arizona.

Locker rushed for 983 yards on the season and tallied 27 total touchdowns.

Expectations were high for Locker entering his sophomore campaign in 2008, and for four games Locker struggled to lead the Washington offense behind a porous offensive line. 

He nearly led the Huskies to an upset of BYU, but after a Locker touchdown run with two seconds remaining, a celebration penalty and missed extra point left Washington one point short of overtime.

In the fourth game of the season Locker then broke his thumb against Stanford and missed the rest of the season.

In four games under Sarkisian’s tutelage this season Locker has shined as a passer, throwing for 1,002 yards and six touchdowns. While his rushing numbers are down, Locker is running a pro-style offense and has become a much more accurate passer.

“In the last system, he was a read option type of guy with that spread,” Weis said. “But you can see that he’s settled in nicely into the old USC system that they have right now. And I think he’s a heck of a player.”

Sarkisian took over the Washington program in the offseason after the dismissal of Tyrone Willingham midway through 2008. The quarterbacks coach at USC from 2002-2004 and offensive coordinator from 2006-2008, Sarkisian mentored two Heisman-winning quarterbacks, Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.

Since bringing his system north, Sarkisian has already made vast improvements to a Huskies team that finished 0-12 without Locker last year, and started recruiting talent that was lacking under Willingham, who was head coach for Notre Dame from 2002-04. 

Weis was careful to take note that Sarkisian has not simply taken the USC system to Washington.

“I think Steve is a very, very good coach, and I think he is going to have his own personality,” Weis said. “He is not going there to be a USC North. The things they did, you know, he is running their offense and Nick [Holt] is running the defense that they had great success with so why would you change that? 

“You apply it to the players you currently have, and they’ll definitely branch off like everyone does. And I think there’s a bright future there.”