Sarkisian, Price look to further Washington's rise
When Steve Sarkisian took over as Washington's head coach in December 2008, the first recruit he called was Keith Price. A three-star prospect out of Bellflower, Calif., Price wasn't Washington's highest-rated target, but Sarkisian made him the program's highest priority. Consider it a former quarterback's hunch.
Sarkisian knew about Price from watching Matt Barkley, a more highly touted quarterback in the same high school league. Barkley was bound for USC, where Sarkisian worked as the offensive coordinator before moving up the West Coast to Seattle. From what he'd seen of Price while scouting Barkley, Sarkisian knew Price was worth keeping; he appeared key to the Huskies' hopes of sparking a turnaround, as they finished a woeful 0-12 in 2008.
"Forget what the stars and the rankings said about him," Sarkisian said. "We felt really good about what his potential could be here."
Luckily for Sarkisian, Price -- who originally committed to the school under then-coach Tyrone Willingham -- approved of Washington's hire. He knew of Sarkisian's history developing star quarterbacks for the Trojans. "I grew up a USC fan," Price said. "All of his quarterbacks ended up going on to play in the NFL, and that was my lifelong dream."
Four years later, Price is preparing for his third season as Washington's starter. The Huskies are one of just three Pac-12 programs to play in a bowl game in each of the past three years. But after improving from 0-12 in its final year under Willingham to 5-7 in 2009 and 7-6 in 2010, Washington has plateaued. It's gone 7-6 in both 2011 and 2012, unable to make the leap from average to elite despite three straight solid recruiting classes and a fourth set to arrive on campus in the fall.
Since Price honored his original commitment and signed with the Huskies, much has changed -- and his relationship with the program has flipped. The question is no longer whether Washington is good enough for Price; it's whether Price is good enough for Washington.
Price burst onto the national radar after his dazzling effort in the 2011 Alamo Bowl, when he arguably outperformed Baylor's Robert Griffin III by racking up 438 passing yards, 39 rushing yards and seven total touchdowns in an eventual 67-56 loss. And his Huskies raced to a hot start in 2012: They won seven of their first 11 games, including upsets over No. 8 Stanford and No. 7 Oregon State.
But a team that relied on mostly young talent crumbled in its final two contests, blowing an 18-point lead to Washington State and surrendering a field goal with 1:16 remaining to lose to Boise State in the MAACO Bowl. Although its 0-12 campaign isn't too far in the program's rear-view mirror, Washington's resurgence seems to be at a standstill. "It just feels like a disappointing season last season," Price said. "We had a chance to finish with nine wins, and we kind of blew it."
Price knows much of the blame falls on him. After former star quarterback Jake Locker's graduation, Price shined in 2011, throwing for 3,063 yards and a school-record 33 touchdowns. He was unable to live up to the expectations created by his own success in 2012, however; he threw just 19 touchdowns with 13 interceptions.
A still-confident Price believes he has diagnosed his setback from last season. He said he tried to do too much and didn't trust the players around him enough. The self-imposed pressure to do everything, all the time, led to poor decision-making. "Just stay within the system, stay within myself and trust my teammates, that's all I've been focusing on," Price said. "I know I can play. I've proved that. It's just a matter of me just being consistent this year and just having fun."
Price frequently cost the Huskies at the worst possible times last season: in the red zone. Whereas Price completed 74.1 percent of his passes in the red zone in 2011, he connected on just 55.6 percent of his red zone attempts in 2012. "I have to be careful with the ball," Price said. "The second is just taking sacks in the red zone. I feel like there were a lot of times when I could have thrown the ball away, and me trying to be Superman, I'd force something that'd end up getting intercepted or end up giving a fumble."
Indeed, after finishing tied for 19th nationally in red zone scoring in 2011, the Huskies tied for 19th worst in that category in 2012. In fairness to Price, he frequently had to make rapid-fire decisions behind an inexperienced offensive line. Washington gave up 38 sacks last season, tied for 102nd in the FBS.
The offensive issues negated vast improvements on defense under first-year coordinator Justin Wilcox. The Huskies progressed from one of the worst defenses in 2011 to a respectable 31st in the FBS in total defense last year.
Safety Sean Parker and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said Wilcox's straightforwardness has been critical to that development. Wilcox emphasizes a John Wooden-like attitude that focuses on practicing with the same intensity the team possesses during games. "That practice emphasis is going to spill over into Saturday's performances," Sirmon said.
With the core of last year's team returning -- including the leading passer (Price), rusher (Bishop Sankey), receiver (Kasen Williams) and top two tacklers (John Timu and Parker) -- and the completion of the $250-million renovations to Husky Stadium, Washington faces pressure to take the next step and compete for a Pac-12 title. Sarkisian has made no attempt to downplay those expectations.
"We've gotten to a point where we believe in our ability to go out and compete with the best teams in our conference and in the country," Sarkisian said. "Now we have to do that on a consistent basis so that we can ultimately win a championship."
Yet for that vision to materialize, the Huskies need to replicate both the offensive success of 2011 and the defensive growth of 2012. Parker is confident about the defensive part of that equation, especially now that the Huskies have played a season under Wilcox's system. "Since we have veterans, a lot of us know the defense," Parker said. "So it shouldn't be as hard, and the communication should be crisp."
Still, Price's ability to lead the offense will likely determine Washington's 2013 success. It may also determine whether he gets to retain his job. Sarkisian said Price is the starter for now, "but just like any position in our program, it's open for competition."
The competition behind Price is pretty stiff thanks to Sarkisian's recruiting efforts. Washington brought in three of the nation's top dual-threat prospects over the past two years, including Troy Williams of Harbor City, Calif., Rivals' top-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2013. Williams enrolled early at Washington, allowing him to showcase his skills this spring.
Sarkisian specifically instructed his staff to look for recruits who could produce with both their arm and legs. "That's where the game is headed," Sarkisian said. "We made a conscious decision here a few years ago to start to recruit the position that way."
The results of that emphasis have to leave Price looking over his shoulder, even if he insists he's not worried. "Coach Sark knows that I'm better when I have competition," Price said. "I think it's more of just trying to push me so that I won't get too lazy."
Price can at least feel comfortable with the Huskies' staff, which this year includes quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo, a onetime Washington standout and the MVP of the 2001 Rose Bowl. Tuiasosopo returns for his second stint in Seattle, after serving as the assistant strength coach in Sarkisian's -- and Price's -- first two seasons. Tuiasosopo provides a link back to Doug Nussmeier, Washington's offensive coordinator from 2009 to 2011, Price's breakout year.
"He's a details freak," Price said of Tuiasosopo. "He reminds me a lot of [Nussmeier], it's scary."
Since spring practice began on March 5, that duo has worked to establish familiarity. Price has committed himself to realizing his potential as a top-tier quarterback, and the defense has taken strides to continue its maturation under Wilcox. The Huskies have started to prepare for their season opener, a much anticipated Aug. 31 rematch with Boise State.
Above all, however, one thing is clear: Four years after taking over in Seattle, Sarkisian is done waiting. A 7-6 mark is no longer good enough. After turning down NFL interview requests in each of the past two offseasons, he's ready for his Huskies to contend with the elite.
"We came here with a plan in place to win a championship and we haven't done it yet," Sarkisian said. "We've recruited like crazy over the past few years. We've got a great coaching staff. The last thing I want to do is have somebody else come in here and reap the benefits of all the hard work we've put in."