September 18, 2009

For the first half of his career, Washington's Jake Locker was an awe-inspiring marvel playing for a sympathy-inducing team. A rocket-armed quarterback known for bowling over linebackers and blazing past safeties, Locker frustrated and fascinated opposing coaches while leaving fans -- in Seattle and all over the Pac-10 -- with mouths agape.

But still, the script failed to change. Locker shined. The Huskies lost.

And lost.

And lost.

Locker earned freshman All-America honors in 2007 after rushing for 986 yards, fourth among Division I-A quarterbacks. His passing was inconsistent, however, as he completed 47 percent of his throws for 2,062 yards and 14 touchdowns to 15 interceptions. The Huskies finished 4-9. In 2008, things got worse. A broken thumb forced Locker to the sidelines for eight games. The Huskies went 0-12, posting the first winless season in program history.

But under new coach Steve Sarkisian, Locker has shined for a suddenly dangerous Huskies team. Washington nearly stunned LSU in a 31-23 season-opening loss, then finally snapped its school-record 15-game losing streak with a 42-23 win over Idaho last week. In those games, Locker has shown more polish as a passer, and he leads the Pac-10 with 574 passing yards heading into this week's home game against USC.MANDEL: USC ripe for upset against Washington

"I think Jake -- and I'm going to keep saying it -- has all the tools to be as special a player and quarterback as there is in the country, if not the best," said Sarkisian. "He keeps showing it. He shows it to us every day, and I think as we keep moving forward here, he's going to keep showing it to the rest of our conference and the rest of the country."

Trojans coach Pete Carroll drew attention this week for saying, only days after USC's defense contained explosive Ohio State signal-caller Terrelle Pryor, that Locker was the best running quarterback the Trojans would face this season.

"I think Jake is one of the best players I've ever seen in this conference, in all the years we've been here," Carroll said. "He's the most extraordinary athlete we've ever seen, and I saw that as a freshman."

Locker's athleticism extends beyond the football field to the baseball diamond, where his exploits prompted the Los Angeles Angels to draft him in the 10th round of June's MLB draft. A pitcher and center fielder at Washington's Ferndale high school, Locker was the state 3A baseball player of the year in 2006. An anonymous scout recently told Baseball America that if Locker focused on baseball he could be a future Hall-of-Famer. Locker signed a contract with the Angels in August that gives them his rights for the next six years, should he decide to pursue baseball at any point during that time.

But for now, Locker is committed to the Huskies. And to football.

"My focus is to play football right now, and we'll deal with everything else after it," Locker said.

Growing up, Locker's efforts were always split between the two sports. A family rule kept him from playing tackle football until the sixth grade, but as soon as he traded his flag football belt for a set of full pads, Locker was smitten.

"I just loved to hit people," he said. "Football was just different from any of those other sports. It was legal to run at somebody and hit them as hard as you could. It's a different kind of adrenaline and attitude and feeling to the game. I always enjoyed that."

Hardball was the true love of Jake's father, Scott, who coached his son (and later, his two daughters) in multiple sports throughout his youth sports career. So as Jake grew into a two-sport prodigy, Scott hoped his son would choose the diamond over the gridiron.

"My expectation was that he might love what I love," said Scott. "I had to get a grip on that. When he decided to pursue football and showed that he was willing to buck me, I actually gained more respect for him. He's not going to give in to anyone if he doesn't give in to me. That's a special thing."

With a bruising running style, improving passing ability and an off-the-field demeanor that always seems to compel those around him to use the word "special," Locker has earned the moniker "the Tim Tebow of the West." Locker is still a couple national championships shy of earning Tebow-like adulation, but he's hoping to spark a renaissance in Seattle.SCHROEDER: Sarkisian infusing UW with hope

"It would mean everything to be a part of a real turnaround here at Washington," Locker said. "If we can get it on the right track, it can be a national powerhouse. It was something I thought coming in we could accomplish with my class. It's what I came here to do."

The highlights, stats and otherworldly praise will likely continue. Only now, they should come with wins.

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