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Originally published September 22, 2009 at 8:11 PM | Page modified September 23, 2009 at 11:24 AM

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Quarterback Jake Locker's stock skyrockets along with Huskies'

Quarterback's ability to throw has lifted Washington into the Top 25 and gotten the attention of opponents and NFL scouts.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

UW @ Stanford,

6 p.m.

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Jake Locker was the subject of the great debate the last few years, but never a participant.

So now that it's over — now that there is no longer any doubt that he can play the position of college quarterback at the highest level — he shrugs the same way he did when that question seemed to loom over all else at Washington.

"I've always believed in myself," Locker said this week. "I've always known at some point I could get there. I've known from the beginning, I guess. So it doesn't matter to me now. Just like it didn't matter to me when they said I couldn't do it, it doesn't matter to me now that they say I can."

After three sterling performances to start the season, Locker powers a passing attack that leads the Pac-10, is hitting the stated goal of his coaches by completing 60 percent of his passes, and most important, has shown he can lead the team to big-time victories.

Now comes another question: Can Locker be among the best quarterbacks in the country?

USC coach Pete Carroll gave credence to that thought this week when he said that Locker was the best quarterback the Trojans had faced in his nine years as head coach.

Carroll elaborated on that statement Tuesday, saying that he has been impressed since he first saw Locker.

"I thought he was the best guy to come into our conference," he said.

Carroll said Locker's performance Saturday in leading UW to a 16-13 upset of the Trojans only reinforced that thinking.

"I think what you saw of him was when the game was on the line, he figured out a way to win it, which is how I pictured him," Carroll said.

What might have been most surprising, though, was how he won it — more with his arm than with his legs.

Locker completed 21 of 35 passes for 227 yards while rushing for minus-15 (he gained 18 yards on four carries but lost 33 yards on four sacks).

And after three games — including two against Louisiana State and USC, traditionally among the best defenses in the land — Locker is completing exactly 60 percent of his passes (63 of 105) this season. That's precisely the goal Steve Sarkisian set for Locker upon taking over as Huskies coach. Locker had completed 48.7 percent his first two seasons, and no UW quarterback since Damon Huard in 1995 has reached 60 percent for a season.

That's another number that draws mostly a shrug from Locker.

"I expected to be completing this many passes," he said. "I always have. I just haven't done it the last couple of years. To be able to do it now is nice. But the funny part about it is you go back and look at the game film and I'll probably see five, six, seven throws that were easy throws I could have made. So you look at that and go, 'Gosh, I could have been 65-70 percent if I just would have made these throws I am very capable of making.' "

Locker's improvement is based on several factors, most notably Sarkisian's new offense, which not only focuses on higher-percentage throws but also allows more receivers to be primary targets, increasing Locker's options on each snap.

But there are other reasons. Locker's in better shape after spending the summer concentrating solely on getting ready for football, having toned his body more to fit a quarterback's physique. And his throwing motion has improved, thanks to work not only with Sarkisian but also Steve Clarkson, a former quarterback at San Jose State who is now a private quarterback coach whose clients included Sarkisian back in his playing days.

"He had been playing in the spread offense for so long he was in desperate need of how to do the more traditional stuff," Clarkson said. "We worked on shortening up his throwing motion, trying to get his body to move as one unit so he was using less stress on his elbow and shoulder and put more of an emphasis on his legs for his drive balance and follow through."

That work began when Tyrone Willingham was still UW's coach. When Clarkson heard of the opening at Washington, he encouraged Sarkisian to pursue the job, knowing he could work with Locker.

Clarkson says what he sees now is a perfect fit of Locker's talents and a Sarkisian offense that added more sophisticated passing while keeping some elements of quarterback running plays from the previous regime.

And defenses still have to worry about Locker, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound athlete with 4.4 speed, running with the ball.

"Now it's a lot harder to defend because you know it's a threat but you never know when it's going to come because it could come at any time," Clarkson said. "And because of that you have to defend the whole field, where before you could line up 8-9 men in the box and gear to stop him. Now you have to gear to stop the system, and that's opened up opportunities for him he hasn't had in the past."

Chris Mortensen, an NFL analyst for ESPN, wrote on his Twitter page following Saturday's game that Locker was emerging as potentially the top quarterback available for the 2010 draft. Locker predictably wanted no part of that debate this week, saying "all that other stuff will take care of itself" after the season.

Rob Rang, a senior draft analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, says that as of now, he would expect Locker to be advised to return for his final season. But he adds that Locker "has absolutely improved his stock so far. You can start to see that this is an NFL quarterback where before he was just an NFL athlete who can throw." ...

Added Rang, "He is night and day from where he was last year."

Little coincidence that so, too, are the Huskies.

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