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May 14, 2008

Legend of Washington's Locker growing

Five minutes isn't a long time.

Usually.

But five minutes can seem like hours when you're injured and unable to move.

One instant Jake Locker was running for 5 yards as he tried to lead the visiting Washington Huskies back from a 13-0 deficit against Oregon State last Nov. 10. The next, he was lying on the Reser Stadium turf wondering if he ever would take another step.

"When I was on the field, I couldn't move for a good five minutes or so," Locker said this week by phone. "I couldn't move any part of my body. I figured I'd never be able to walk again. There were a lot of things I thought I'd be missing out on."

Instead, he missed just one game.

At Ferndale (Wash.) High School, Locker was an all-state football player who passed for 27 touchdowns and rushed for 24 his senior season. He was a four-star rated football prospect. He also was named the state's Class 3A player of the year in baseball. Then, last season, he rushed for 986 yards and passed for 2,062 as a redshirt freshman for the Huskies. Yet his single most memorable physical achievement may have been squeezing a doctor's hand that day in Corvallis.

"I was able to squeeze my hand and then move my legs," Locker said. "At the time, it was like taking your first steps. It was a big thing and it was awesome."

You want awesome? Two weeks later, Locker was the starting quarterback against archrival Washington State, running for two touchdowns, passing for another and adding to a growing legend that one day might rival Big Foot's in the Pacific Northwest.

He has started just one season a season in which he completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and the Huskies finished with a losing record. But Locker is idolized by an adoring fan base that vehemently objects when he's not mentioned among 2008's top Heisman Trophy candidates. He is being counted on lead the once-proud Washington program back to a spot among the nation's elite and may be the key to saving coach Tyrone Willingham's job.

That's a lot of pressure and unfair responsibility to put on a quarterback who threw more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (14) last season. But the way he bounced back from such a frightening injury makes Huskies fans feel he can accomplish anything.

Locker's father, Scott, admitted he was terrified seeing his son motionless on the field, but expected him to come back strong once he saw Jake move.

"I honestly thought he'd play the next week," Scott said. "I credit the coaching staff for being as thorough as it was. He's such a competitor, I thought, 'Well, he might give it a go.' He told them he was good, but I'm thankful the way they handled it."

But the Huskies need to handle the stress of close games better. Enduring a 4-9 season in 2007 was bad enough, but it was more frustrating because five losses were by a touchdown or less. Three games were lost in the final two minutes.

"It's tough when you get that close, especially with the teams we played, and are not able to win those games," Locker said. "I attribute a lot of that to not having enough confidence in ourselves. When the game is on the line we've got to know we can win, and that's something we're trying to instill this year.

"A lot of our winter workouts were based around that. We would do the whole workout and at the end we would do something extra to push guys beyond what they thought they had to give. At the end of the game, one or two plays can make the difference."

Locker is aware he needs to make those plays. He only completed 47.3 percent of his passes, a statistic he readily admits must improve dramatically.

"I didn't throw a whole lot in our offense in high school because we ran a Wing-T," Locker said. "I have to keep working at it and throwing the ball and having confidence from being in the film room and know where I'm going with the ball and delivering it."

Locker said he developed a good rapport with his receivers this spring, so he's optimistic the passing attack will be much better in 2008. But he can only do so much.

The Huskies' defense, which returns six starters, was one of the most porous in the nation last season, allowing an average of 31.6 points per game. That also has to improve dramatically if Washington is to avoid a fifth consecutive losing season.

Still, Locker remains optimistic better times are coming. He remembers when Washington went 11-1 and won the Rose Bowl in 2000, and thinks the Huskies can get to that level again.

"This was one of the best programs in the country," he said. "That's one of the reasons I chose to come here and play. I have no doubt at some point we'll be back to where it was."

Trivia question

Michigan's Jake Long was the first player selected in the NFL draft and joined Tom Harmon (1941) as the only Wolverines to be selected first overall. Two teams share the distinction of having the most players taken No. 1 overall, at five each. Which two teams? And name the players. (Answer at the end of the column.)

Quick hitters

Duke starting offensive tackle Cameron Goldberg, who was suspended April 15 for violation of team rules, has been reinstated by coach David Cutcliffe.

Penn State cornerback Knowledge Timmons, charged with disorderly conduct and defiant trespass after October, is going into a probation program for first-time offenders. If he completes the program and avoids further charges, the charges can be dismissed. Timmons was suspended this spring, but coach Joe Paterno has allowed him to resume working out with the team. Cornerback could be a problem spot for the Nittany Lions this fall.

Correction

It was erroneously reported last week ("Perrilloux dismissal addition by subtraction," May 9) that former Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips assaulted his ex-girlfriend in 1994. The incident occurred in 1995 and he missed six games, though he was not dismissed from the team. He returned to the field and rushed for 165 yards and scored three touchdowns in Nebraska's 62-24 Fiesta Bowl victory over Florida.

Trivia answer

USC and Notre Dame each have had five players selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft. The USC players taken first: OT Ron Yary (1968), RB O.J. Simpson (1969), RB Ricky Bell (1977), WR Keyshawn Johnson (1996) and QB Carson Palmer (2003). Notre Dame's first picks: QB Angelo Bertelli (1944), QB Frank Dancewicz (1946), E Leon Hart (1950), QB Paul Hornung (1957) and DE Walt Patulski (1972).

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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