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Originally published Sunday, December 26, 2010 at 8:57 PM

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For Locker, it's all about postseason memories

It'll forever be debated if Jake Locker made the right decision to return to Washington for his senior season.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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SAN DIEGO — What price a memory?

Ultimately, that's what it comes down to when discussing Jake Locker.

It'll forever be debated if he made the right decision to return to Washington for his senior season, with many observers potentially missing the point.

Locker has insisted from the moment on Dec. 14, 2009, he made the announcement he was staying that it wasn't about the money.

It wasn't about improving his NFL draft status.

It was about the moments he is having in San Diego as UW prepares for the Holiday Bowl on Thursday against Nebraska — living the college bowl experience, something he had long established as a goal, with teammates he considers among his best friends, and able to share it all with his family.

"I think it's hard for some people to really buy into," his father, Scott, said earlier this year. "But Jake could put up the ugliest statistics this year and as long as we won games and got to a bowl game, as long as he did his part in that, he would be just fine with that."

That's almost exactly what happened. Locker didn't have the individual year that many expected, due in part to a midseason rib injury that held him out of one game and limited him in others.

But he and the Huskies did enough to make it to their first bowl game since 2002, and now Locker is getting that experience he dreamed of for years watching the postseason on TV.

"It's awesome," he said Sunday afternoon after UW's practice at the University of San Diego. "It's a great way to end a career and I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to do it in this fashion with this football team. It will be a memorable one."

He also hopes it will be a better one than the first time around against Nebraska.

The defining moment for Locker for many this year was his 4-for-20 passing performance, with two interceptions, in a 56-21 loss to the Cornhuskers in Seattle in September. That was the day his Heisman quest officially ended and the talk of whether he'd made a mistake in returning began in earnest.

"I hope he does better," UW coach Steve Sarkisian said with a laugh Sunday. "If he doesn't, we're in trouble."

But Sarkisian said UW's offensive issues in that game were far greater than Locker. He rarely had time to throw, and even when he did, he rarely had anyone to throw to as UW's receivers struggled to get open.

"I think you have to look at us as a team," Sarkisian said. "We didn't play very good football offensively in that game as a team. Ultimately, it ends up that you look at the quarterback, just like if a team scores 50 points the quarterback gets a lot of praise for it. But that just comes with the position. That's the nature of the beast.

"I think for us wanting Jake to play better the second time around we need to do a better job as an offensive staff and as an offensive football team in order to ensure his success when the game comes."

But while there are lots of reasons for Locker's numbers dipping this year — he threw for 2,209 yards compared to 2,800 in 2009 and his completion percentage dipped from 58.4 to 56.6 — NFL scouts have also grown a little more skeptical about his prospects at the next level.

He was considered a certain first-rounder when the year began, and was thought in some circles as maybe the first pick in the draft. Instead, some analysts now say he could fall into the second round.

A good performance against Nebraska, however, could help swing the pendulum the other way, said Rob Rang, a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com.

"It can be a big deal if he has a great game," Rang said. "He could change some perceptions quick."

Rang said the game serves mostly as an opportunity for Locker, though, with not a lot of downside because scouts understand the Huskies are outmatched up front against the Cornhuskers and won't hold that against Locker.

"Realistically, talking to NFL teams, (Locker) can only go up in this game just because of the lack of support around him," Rang said.

"But unfortunately for Washington, the Nebraska defensive line is just as dominant as it was before, as is their secondary, so I think the belief among scouts is that Jake could have a great game, but you wouldn't necessarily even know it because he's not going to have a lot of time and his receivers are going to struggle to get open against quite possibly the best defense in all of college football. I think a lot of people expect Locker to struggle a little bit, even if it's not his fault."

Locker insists making up for the first Nebraska game isn't high on his agenda, that simply playing in a bowl game is the bigger deal, regardless of the foe.

"It's another game, just like I always tell you guys," he said. "And I'm not lying when I tell you that. I'm excited to play it just like all the rest, and I'm going to go out and play it just like I always do."

That figures to mean running the ball without restrictions. Locker rushed for a career-low 27.5 yards per game this season, the Huskies seeming cautious at times early in the year to let him loose, and then the injury keeping him restrained later. But he said the rib injury is just about healed and many have speculated he may be turned loose as he rarely has been all season.

The bowl game, though, isn't the only reason he's smiling these days. Locker became engaged last weekend to longtime girlfriend Lauren Greer, a former member of the UW softball team. He proposed, he said, at Palisade restaurant in Seattle.

"I'd been thinking about it for a while, and it just worked out that I was able to get down and talk to her parents during the time we had off and was able to get the ring and make it work for that Saturday," he said. "It's an exciting time, a great month for me. Now I'm hoping to end it the right way."

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

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