Athleticism. Leadership. Grit. The list of attributes that Jake Locker possesses is lengthy, which is the main reason that everyone from the fans to the media expected him to throw the Huskies on his back and carry them back to prominence when he pledged to the University of Washington out of high school.
Tabbed the starter prior to the 2007 after a red-shirt year, Jake knew that he had to catch on quickly with the schedule that the Huskies had on tap. And, when asked how he felt about being dubbed the “savior” of UW Football, he was realistic. “I might fulfill expectations, I might not,” Locker told the Seattle times in an article published the eve of his first game. “Nobody knows at this point. So I’m just going to go out and do as well as I can and play as hard as I can, and I don’t think there’s anything else I can do. I can’t worry about the expectations that others have for me.”
His first start was at Syracuse, a Thursday night game featured on ESPN, and the spotlight was on the redshirt freshman quarterback from Ferndale. The quarterback did not disappoint as Locker made good reads, good throws, and exhilarating runs on his way to 14 of 19 passing for 142 yards, and had 10 carries for 83 yards with 2 touchdowns. It was a story book beginning for a player and team hungry to compete for a Pac-10 championship.
9 days later, the first home game of his career against #22 Boise State was a chance to treat the home fans to a victory, and Locker delivered with an impressive encore performance: 13 for 25 for 193 yards and a t.d., along with 84 yards and a t.d. on the ground on the way to a decisive victory over a solid bowl-worthy team. With every play in that game, including one where Locker took a group of defenders into the end-zone, the legacy and expectations of #10 continued to grow.
Optimism couldn’t have reached a higher point than after the first half of the following game, a contest against national powerhouse and #10 ranked Ohio State. The Huskies held their own against the Buckeyes in the first half, and went into the locker room with a 7-3 lead. Husky nation, at that point in time, reminisced about the last time a high-ranked team came into the stadium and left with a loss. It had felt like decades since the game in 2000 when the Huskies upset a Miami team, then #4 in the nation and stocked full of 17 future NFL first round draft picks, 34-29, but at this point anything felt possible.
It was as if Husky Football was back….and then, in an instant, it was gone. Although Locker still impressed as he looked faster than the NFL-caliber players on the OSU defense, he and the Huskies fell apart in the second half in what would be a theme for the rest of the season. 2 costly interceptions and countless missed assignments led to being outscored 30-7 in the last 30 minutes en route to a deflating 33-14 loss.
But, it should be noted that the freshman quarterback still had 102 yards rushing on 14 carries and passed for 153 yards and a touchdown against a very formidable opponent. The outlook was still bright for most, as 2-1 after 3 challenging games was nothing to fret about and, after all, the quarterback looked more mature than his years on a team where 37% of the players were seniors.
Unfortunately, it didn’t go as Husky fans had hoped. The Huskies proceeded to lose another 5 games in a row, falling to 2-6 for the season. A close 3-point loss to #1 USC, along with frustrating second half collapses against Oregon, Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA torpedoed the once-promising season. Although Locker continued to put up gaudy numbers, including a 336 yard passing/157 yard rushing/4 touchdown performance in a loss to Arizona, the team couldn’t catch a break.
Following a feel-good victory against Stanford, the freshman leader suffered a scary neck injury after a controversial hit during a game vs. Oregon State. Locker was taken off the field in an ambulance, and with him went any chance to salvage a lost season. Luckily, he was okay and returned to the field in a neck brace later, but he would miss the following game and then would fight through the rest of a season that would see more near-wins and harrowing losses.
2008 was supposed to be the return of Locker and the Huskies. And, although having a sophomore quarterback that had been through a full season was reason to hold out hope, it was a youthful team that lacked game experience in key areas. And, Locker would need to acquaint himself with a wide receiving group full of freshman and one returning player, and would need to find his way without 6th year senior and starting center Juan Garcia, who did not return until the 3rd game of the season.
Amidst all of the challenges that come with getting a team to gel in a short period of time, a severe hamstring injury knocked Locker out of fall camp. But, he was not going to let anyone make a big deal out of his injury and maintained his excitement for the season, a season that everyone knew would come down to his success and leadership.
As he took the field less than 100%, the first game saw the quarterback struggle. Without his typical speed and without a lot of time to bond with the new freshman receivers, the Husky offense could not get on track. After the loss to Oregon on the road a controversial defeat against BYU followed, a game that saw the flash of Jake’s brilliance as he willed them to what appeared to be a game-tying touchdown. It was a disappointing loss that got people from coast to coast talking, but discussing the poorly officiated ending was no consolation for a team thirsty for a victory.
Less than 2 games later, Locker’s already challenging season was cut short after he broke his hand throwing a block. Always the consummate teammate and leader, the cruel twist of fate was fitting if not only for the reason he suffered his injury doing what most quarterbacks don’t do: block for their teammates.
As we look to next season, the Huskies aren’t even a blip on the radar of most. They open their season with a nationally televised night game against perennial powerhouse LSU, a game they are expected to lose. They bring in a losing streak of regrettable proportions. And they feature a quarterback that, outside of the West Coast, has been largely forgotten because of his abrupt departure last season.
Through the 2-year journey, Jake has seen not only what it feels like to quickly climb the peaks of success, but also how it feels to endure frustrating injuries and painful losses. This year may be a perfect opportunity, however. He will be able to approach a season with relative calm, a season where there will be optimism but few expectations. It will be with a team that lacks a large group of seniors but one that is packed full of potential. And even though there will be a gauntlet of tests on the schedule, it will provide great opportunities to recapture what has been recently been lost: in Locker’s words, we will once again see ”a more inspired football team.”
It could be said after the last 2 years (15 total games) that it would appear Locker is star-crossed or unlucky. Whatever conclusions are made, there is an old saying that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” If that is the case, the talented Mr. Locker may be stronger than ever, and with a healthy group of more experienced teammates and a coach known for developing quarterbacks, fans of college football should take notice: ”Montlake Jake” will be back.