MOBILE, Ala. - Jake Locker could easily have skipped the Senior Bowl, just as he might have bypassed being a senior altogether.
The former Washington Huskies star is among the candidates to be the first quarterback selected in the NFL draft after an up-and-down senior season. Instead of weighing the risk-reward of a top-tier passer competing in an all-star game with scouts, coaches and team executives scrutinizing your every pass and move, Locker thought it was a no-brainer to play in Saturday's game for senior NFL prospects.
"I just love playing football," Locker said. "It's an awesome game, and just the opportunity to come play against the best college players. It's an awesome opportunity."
Regarded as a potential No. 1 overall pick after his junior season, Locker now is vying with underclassmen Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Mallett to get the nod as the top quarterback taken in April.
He has spent this week competing with fellow seniors who boast impressive resumes if not quite the lofty draft stock. The other two North team quarterbacks are Nevada's Colin Kaepernick and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi.
The South is led by three Texans who faced each other in high school. Alabama's Greg McElroy and TCU's Andy Dalton both have led their teams to perfect seasons. Florida State's Christian Ponder ranks among the Seminoles' top five career leaders in passing yards, completions, total offense and completion percentage.
Other top prospects participating include Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller, Colorado offensive tackle Nate Solder and defensive ends Ryan Kerrigan (Purdue) and Cameron Jordan (California).
Locker at least put a nice punctuation to his final season. He led Washington - which had to win its final three regular-season games to become bowl eligible-to a Holiday Bowl upset over No. 17 Nebraska.
"That meant the world to me. That's why I came back," said Locker, who ran for 83 yards and a touchdown in the finale. "I made a commitment to that school and I wanted to honor that commitment. I had a great experience when I was at Washington. I wouldn't trade it for anything. I'm just happy that our football team was able to go out the way we did."
He completed 55.4 percent of his passes for 2,265 yards with 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season. Those numbers were down from his junior season but Locker said the extra year "made me a better person and player." Plus he got his history degree in December.
"I think I was able to mature as a person and as a player, in media situations, in the huddle, in the locker room," Locker said. "Just being a leader overall."
The quarterback derby became muddied when fellow Pac-10 Conference standout Andrew Luck of Stanford opted to return for his senior season, too.
Locker doesn't hide his ambitions to go first among quarterbacks.
"If you ask anybody, they'd want to be the first guy taken at their position," he said. "That's what you're working toward, but it's outside of all our control. The way I'm approaching it is I'm going to get better every day and I'm going to do my best to outwork the other guy every day.
"If that's enough, it's enough."
The other Senior Bowl quarterbacks have different focuses.
Ponder wants to put a better ending to his career after getting knocked out in the first half of the Chick-fil-A Bowl with a concussion.
"I definitely want to get out and kind of have a final game," he said. "That was definitely frustrating to leave early like that."
He and McElroy faced off in high school their senior seasons, while Ponder and Dalton met in a 7-on-7 game the previous summer.
McElroy and Southlake Carroll team beat Dalton's Katy team 34-20 in the state title game. Neither redhead was a prep starter until their senior season.
Dalton led TCU to an unbeaten season and No. 2 final ranking as a senior, while McElroy and the Crimson Tide won the national title the year before.
"He's just a great guy," McElroy said. "He's a guy I always rooted for. He's a guy I always knew would have immediate success just because of the way he applies himself, the way he works. I wasn't the least bit surprised that he had the success he did at TCU.
"Christian was in my district. I played him my senior year as well. He was kind of a one-man team. He was a stud then, he's a stud now. It's great to be back with these guys."
The trio are trying to follow Texans like Matthew Stafford, Chase Daniel - a former McElroy teammate - and Colt McCoy into the NFL.
"Texas high school football is obviously one of the best in the nation," said Dalton after exchanging a postpractice hug with McElroy's father. "It doesn't surprise me that we're all here."