Finding Locker's Replacement Will Take Time

SEATTLE - Of all the things Steve Sarkisian could have done during vacation, he watched football instead. For a coach, especially at the BCS level, the 24/7 aspect of their profession is a hard one to walk away from, even when you're supposed to. But there he was, sitting with his family, watching a show on Bill Walsh and the West Coast offense during his time with the San Francisco 49'ers.

Sarkisian may have been relaxed watching Walsh talk about the nuances of his drop-back passing philosophy, but in talking with the press Monday, he was visibly energized and motivated by the thought of getting Washington's drop-back passing game geared toward what he saw from Walsh on TV.

"You know, the beauty of a drop-back passing game is the fluidness of it and the precision of it," Sarkisian said. "Our efficiency's not great. We are spotty. We make some plays here and there and then it just doesn't feel good. It's ugly. It's choppy."

With the loss of senior signal-caller Jake Locker to graduation, the emphasis on efficiency has become a focal point as the Washington Huskies begin their third spring under Sarkisian. Sarkisian, who called quarterback the 'most important position in sports', will have his hands full guiding Keith Price and Nick Montana as they battle for the right to be Locker's replacement.

"My view of Jake Locker right now, as a true pro-style quarterback, is that he is a redshirt sophomore coming out early going into the NFL draft," Sarkisian said. "He's had two years in a pro-style offense, of learning the nuances of this thing, to the drops to the protections, to the coverages to the route recognition to the reading to the things that all have to take place, the fundamentals that it takes."

No longer will the Huskies be able to rely on Locker guiding them during fourth quarters in tight games with winning drives; now they'll have to approach their offensive efficiency with a team approach that might just take the center of attention away from who is calling the plays.

"The (QB) battle, in a sense, is a little overhyped, to me," Sarkisian said. "They are going to be part of an offense and part of a team where they have a role in place, and their job is to go out and execute that role. And we'll monitor their ability to do that."

Price and Montana have one career start between them, but they do have one thing Locker never had at Washington - a head start. "These guys have been groomed, since they were in junior high, that they were going to be a passing quarterback, in a sense," Sarkisian said. "That doesn't necessarily mean that they play better or they play worse, it's just from a comfort level, they're definitely more comfortable doing some of the things we're doing."

So that means, in essence, Keith Price received the exact same amount of coaching as Locker did from Sarkisian and UW Quarterbacks Coach Doug Nussmeier. Of course Locker took the lion's share of the reps in practice, but Price was there every step of the way, absorbing everything around him.

Here's the Year One to Year Two improvement of USC's Mark Sanchez when Sarkisian was Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach for the Trojans:

2007
PASSING GP Effic Cmp-Att-Int Pct Yards TD Long Avg/G
Sanchez, M. 8 123.2 69-114-5 60.5 695 7 48 86.9

2008
PASSING GP Effic Cmp-Att-Int Pct Yards TD Long Avg/G
Sanchez, M. 13 164.6 241-366-10 65.8 3207 34 63 246.7

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Clearly for a quarterback already schooled in the fundamentals of a drop-back passing offense in high school - like Sanchez, Price and Montana - the 24-month cycle of development can produce significant results.

But here's the downside; if projected out, those numbers would only come good for Price or Montana in 2012, not 2011. So does that make this next season simply one where the Huskies will have to rely on running back Chris Polk for a large chunk of their offense, with only sporadic contribution from the quarterback? Sarkisian doesn't think so.

"These guys are different than what Jake was," he said. "They might not be the big-arm, play-action pass, throw-it-65-yards-down-the-field. They've got a little more feel, they like to be a little more spread out, and they like to play catch and utilize all aspects of the game. So we're going to tailor some things to what they do well as well.

"Both of these guys have improved immensely in the short amount of time that they've been here. I think that the job is important to them. They are both over 3.0 students. They both work extremely hard in the weight room and both are very well-liked by their teammates. They walk around, they are bright-eyed, they are smiling. At the end of the day I think they have a lot of intangibles that you want at the quarterback position. Now how that all plays out remains to be seen."

So does that mean Price and Montana might be given some 'training wheels' to work their way into certain parts of the offense? "No," Sarkisian said. "I never had training wheels, and my 5-year-old doesn't, either. You go down the hill, baby."

Speaking from his own experience going through quarterback battles at BYU, Sarkisian stressed the importance of each player to try and reach their own potential, instead of focusing on the competition. "If I go out and throw two picks tomorrow, and the guy next to me throws three, and I think I had a good day, that's the wrong mentality to have," he said.

The two quarterbacks aren't going to be the only ones thrown right into the deep end from Day One. Freshman tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins will get reps with the first team Tuesday during the Huskies initial spring practice. By NCAA rule, Washington can't go full-pads until next Tuesday, but that doesn't mean the first three practices won't include a lot of growing pains.

"I think it's a great benefit for him that he's here early for spring practice," Sarkisian said of Seferian-Jenkins. "But he's going to have his ups and downs. For a kid who just started his first day of college classes today, and he's got his first team meeting at four, and his first day of football practice tomorrow, it's not going to be easy. But I think if there is the type of kid that can handle it like a Nick Montana or a Jesse Callier or Deontae Cooper, I think Austin Seferian-Jenkins is that same type of kid."

Sarkisian also knows Price and Montana are going to be battling their own roller-coaster of emotions throughout the next 15 practices, so don't be surprised if a starting quarterback isn't named until right before the Huskies' Sept. 3 opener versus FCS National Champions Eastern Washington at Husky Stadium.

"I hate to rush to judgement on this thing," Sarkisian said. "Because they are so young and their ceiling is so high and there's so much room to grow, I don't want to make a decision based on a couple of practices and say, 'this is your role, and this is your role'. I think they could ultimately improve not only through spring, but into summer and fall camp.

"If the timing's right and it feels right to me, then we'll make a decision. I hate to pencil a date like they do for National Signing Day, where you have to decide by that date. I think kids make commitments and we make decisions when it feels right, and that's what we're going to do here as well."

In the end, Sarkisian stressed that while the position battle would yield a starter in time for the season - he's not interested in any platooning scenarios - he knows the team can't rely on just one of them playing well in 2011.

"This isn't just about Keith Price or Nick Montana," he said. "We're going to need both of them, and we're going to need both of them to perform at a high level. That's going to be the goal this spring."
Notes:
QB Must-Haves:
Sarkisian outlined the three fundamentals for both Price and Montana, the 'must-haves' when playing the position: 1) Take care of the football; 2) Ability to move the football; 3) Ability to manage the team.

An outline for spring:
Sarkisian outlined the areas of concern going into spring, and there are many. "Some areas where I think we need to improve this spring, the first is the ball," he said. "Our turnover ratio is not where we need to be to be an elite team in this conference or in this country, so our emphasis on taking care of the ball offensively, especially with two new quarterbacks, and our ability to create turnovers defensively, has got to be better. We have got to create more turnovers. And you see the value in that when you look at the Holiday Bowl and you look at the first series, our defense creates the fumble, our offense goes on the field and scores and boom it is 7-0 first series of the game because of the great field position, that's an area where I think we can improve.

"Another area where we really want to improve is our pass rush, our ability to rush the passer, not just on third down but on first and second down opportunities to see how far Hau'oli Jamora has come, to see what Josh Shirley looks like out there rushing the passer. To see what Alameda Ta'amu has been able to rushing the passer from the inside, we need to continually get better there, which really goes hand-in-hand that we need to improve offensively in our drop-back pass game. It's been poor, at best, and we pride ourselves on being able to drop back and throw the football, especially on first and second down, so that will be a point of emphasis for us.

"And then the fourth real key for us this spring is the return game and special teams, our ability to create more returns on punt and kickoff returns and then to continue down the road, I thought we got better as the year went on in covering kicks but it's got to be a real point of emphasis for us. So those will be some key areas for us as we head into tomorrow, and away we go.''

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