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Originally published Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Sophomore Jake Locker carries UW hopes

Jake Locker says he's more comfortable, now that he has a year of experience. And the Huskies think they have better talent to support him this season. Will it add up to a breakout season for Locker?

Seattle Times staff reporter

The obvious take is that it's all about Jake.

Since he arrived at Washington in 2006, Jake Locker has been the focus of most of the attention, the one around whom the program's hopes have revolved.

Now, with a year's experience, the expectations will be even higher. If he reaches stardom as a sophomore this fall, he might not only pull the Huskies through one of their most pivotal seasons in recent memory, but also begin to truly climb the ladder of great Washington quarterbacks.

"Jake has the ability to surpass them all," said former Huskies quarterback Hugh Millen.

Locker gave evidence of that throughout his freshman season, scattershot at times (47.3 percent passing, 15 interceptions to 14 touchdown passes) but also scintillating enough (986 yards rushing, a 98-yard TD pass that was the longest in school history) to give credence that all the hype was more than just hype.

The added experience and maturity could be all it takes to smooth out Locker's rough edges.

"He's got control of himself better," UW offensive coordinator Tim Lappano said after a recent practice. "He's just a lot more comfortable. He was getting all the way to three today [the third receiver in the progression]. He wasn't panicking. It was 1-2-3. He just sees things better and he's more comfortable, and that's experience. That's what experience does for you."

Locker says he hasn't made any drastic alterations to his passing form — other then attempting to curb a bad habit of overstriding — insisting instead that a season of playing and another year with his nose in the playbook will make all the difference.

"I feel a lot more comfortable than I was in the past," he said. "Just being able to throw the ball with more confidence and poise and just knowing that I'm going to the right spots."

He confidently said before training camp began that his goal was to complete 65 percent of his passes this season and that there was no reason why he couldn't do it.

If only it were really all about him.

In what is the ultimate team game, some wonder if the Huskies will have enough around Locker to allow all of his talents to shine.

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While the Huskies seem to have amassed a solid array of young skill-position players, the operative word remains "young." The Huskies will start a freshman tailback, Chris Polk, and three of the top four receivers are freshmen.

"There's no doubt that with his experience he will get better," said former Huskies quarterback Brock Huard, now an analyst for ESPN. "But he needs everybody else around him to get better and get better quickly. He's going to be relying on a lot of very young kids to be distributing the ball to."

Huard doesn't have to look far to find proof of the value of a supporting cast.

As a sophomore in 1997 and with a veteran running back, tight end and receiving corps, Huard set a school record with 25 touchdown passes and spent much of the year leading the nation in passing efficiency. The next season, with talented but young skill players around him — many of whom would later help lead the team to the Rose Bowl in 2000 — almost all of Huard's numbers were worse and the Huskies endured a 6-6 season that ended with the firing of Jim Lambright.

"To basically start over that last year was a real challenge just because of the timing, the anticipation, all of those things that go into quarterback play," Huard said. "You are greatly aided by the guys around you, and I say this not to be a Debbie Downer because the kids, they have a lot of talent. It's just how quickly can they ascend the learning curve.

"[A quarterback's] most success comes at times when everyone around them is improving and talented, and that will be a major point of emphasis for that football team and Jake and his development. If the entire burden is on Jake Locker and his hamstrings, it will be very difficult."

Locker missed 10 days of camp with a strained hamstring, but says he'll be fine for the opener at Oregon on Saturday.

Lappano cites the improved speed and playmaking ability of the youngsters, notes that the receivers and Locker worked avidly in the offseason, and thinks Locker could have more support than a year ago.

"I think we have a group of guys who will take pressure off him and make plays," he said.

And despite the experience last season — five senior receivers and senior running back Louis Rankin — that didn't always happen. Coaches say a conservative estimate would be about two drops per game from the receivers, which by itself would put Locker's completion percentage in the 54-percent range.

"It wasn't just him, now," Lappano says of Locker's accuracy issues a year ago. "It's everybody. It's [protection issues] up front. It's guys breaking off routes."

The protection, coaches think, should be better with four starters back on the line, which looms as maybe the strength of the team. Along with giving him more time to pass, added protection could also save some of the wear and tear on Locker's body.

Huard also points to Locker's 172 rushing attempts a year ago — for sake of comparison, the most Marques Tuiasosopo ever had in a season was 149 — and says it's no wonder he sometimes was off-target.

"I give the analogy of imagining you are on a [golf] tee and you do 100 sit-ups and 100 push-ups and 50 jumping jacks and then you go hit your drive," Huard said. "When you run as much as he does, it's tough to keep your fundamentals and rhythm and timing. I believe the less he runs, the better passer he will be."

So does Lappano: "I don't want him carrying the football as much as he did a year ago, but I also know he's a huge weapon for us with the ball in his hands. We've got to take advantage of that, but I don't want to take advantage of that to the point where we get him beaten down."

Some of that will rest on Locker, who says he will be smarter about choosing his spots this year. When he was injured last year at Oregon State, for instance, it was on a scramble, not a called run, something the coaches will ask Locker to consider more carefully this season.

Millen points to the career of Steve Pelluer — one of only two UW quarterbacks to win the Pac-10 player of the year award (Tuiasosopo was the other) — as a possible comparison. Pelluer completed 47.5 percent of his passes in 10 games as a sophomore in 1981 but gradually improved to reach 65 percent, a school record, in 1983.

One thing no one wonders about is Locker's belief in himself.

He lost more games last season than he likely had in his entire career, and despite his exalted status as the program's savior, had his abilities questioned, also likely a career first. But coaches and teammates say they never saw Locker sweat.

"Obviously, coming out of high school and everybody talking about him, it had to be a shocker [having] everybody talking about his passing accuracy," center Juan Garcia said. "But to me, he didn't show it. That's the thing about him — when he's in the huddle he's going to give you everything. He says 'I'm here for you, good or bad.' "

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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