Jake Locker is a natural athlete.
Whether it was football, baseball or basketball, the Ferndale phenom produced winning results.
But to learn how to be an efficient quarterback – a prolific passer ready for the NFL – Locker has undergone several transformations.
It started in his high school days leading a Wing-T offense. He then learned the nuances of the spread offense from former University of Washington coach Tyrone Willingham, and finally started mastering the pro-style offense under second-year UW coach Steve Sarkisian.
Because Locker’s passing has started to catch up to his athleticism, he could become the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
“He’s one of the few quarterbacks of my lifetime coming up who can become a great quarterback in the NFL,” said Greg Barton, one of the top quarterback gurus on the West Coast, who operates out of Beaverton, Ore.
1. HIGH SCHOOL YEARS: GROUNDED ATTACK
Pros: Arm strength, athleticism
Cons: Passing accuracy, style of offense
When Jamie Plenkovich became the coach at Ferndale High in 2004, he kept the Wing-T offense that long-time coach Vic Randall ran.
That was no excuse to ignore the passing game entirely, especially with a strong-armed junior quarterback in Locker running the show.
So, in practice, Plenkovich set up drills for Locker – and had the backup quarterback track his completions and attempts.
Some days, Locker finished at a 50-percent clip. Other days, he was at 25 percent – or worse.
“After certain sessions, I’d tell him, ‘You were this-for-this.’ He’s so competitive, once he knew somebody was paying attention to that, you had to tell him what his (statistics) were,” Plenkovich said. “I was doing it to make sure he knew it was important.”
Said Locker: “My first year of playing quarterback was my freshman year of high school. It was a big transition for me. I had a lot to learn, a lot to improve on.”
In games, especially in 2004 when Ferndale made its run to the 3A title game, Locker wasn’t asked to read defenses, mainly because he was learning a new way to run the Wing-T. When the Golden Eagles did throw, it was usually far down the field, utilizing Locker’s strong arm.
The next summer, in 2005, Locker attended the invitation-only Elite 11 Quarterback Camp, founded by former NFL quarterback Andy Bark. One of the coaches was Bob Johnson, the father of Rob Johnson, an ex-NFL passer who played at USC.
“He was exposed to some phenomenal coaching, and realized … that was what he wanted to do at the next level,” Plenkovich said. “After he came back, he started doing some throwing with his receivers – something we had not done before.”
As a senior, Locker ran the Wing-T mainly out of the shotgun so opponents could not crowd the line of scrimmage.
“We ran a lot of play-action – stuff down the field, or shorter passes,” Locker said. “Our passing game wasn’t too developed.”
The goal was to win a 3A state title, which Ferndale did in 2005, not develop Locker for the rigors of playing quarterback in college and beyond.
“A lot of people will say he wasn’t very developed as a pro-style quarterback, or even as a college quarterback – which is probably true,” Plenkovich said. “Reading defenses, and throwing the three-step and five-step stuff, he was certainly behind those other guys going to (NCAA) Division I.”
2. HUSKY UNDERCLASSMAN YEARS: RAW BUT WILLING
Pros: Natural throwing motion, willingness to learn
Cons: Footwork, balance, overall knowledge of craft
Locker’s trek to Montlake started a string of daily instruction sessions with quarterback gurus – notably Steve Clarkson, out of California, a former star at San Jose State.
“I met him at a (Pacific-10 Conference) media day, introduced by Tyrone Willingham,” Clarkson said. “We reached out. He worked a few of my camps for me, and we struck a relationship.”
One early impression never left Clarkson: Locker made him think of a modern-day Billy Kilmer, the hard-nosed running quarterback from UCLA and the San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins in the 1960s and 1970s.
“I thought he was talented enough to play in a spread offense,” Clarkson said. “But I knew he had the skill set for an accomplished pro-style offense.”
There were mechanical “tweaks” Clarkson emphasized – shortening Locker’s natural throwing motion and synchronizing it with his body movement, especially his legs.
“It was more or less trying to eliminate … his wasted motion,” Clarkson said.
As integral as his private instruction was, so too was the training Locker received at UW.
“Coach (Tim) Lappano taught me about playing the quarterback position, the Xs and Os of it,” Locker said.
Critics constantly harped on Locker’s completion percentage – 47.3 percent as a redshirt freshman in 2007 (with 15 interceptions and 14 touchdowns), then up to 53.8 percent in four games in 2008 before he was injured.
Willingham was fired following that season. Sarkisian, the mentor of two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks at Southern California in Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, was hired.
One of the first members of Sarkisian’s staff was Doug Nussmeier, the standout dual-threat quarterback at the University of Idaho in the early 1990s, as offensive coordinator.
“People told me when I first got here, this guy (Locker) can’t be an accurate passer,” Nussmeier said. “When I turned on the film of him, I saw he wasn’t giving himself a chance to be an accurate passer.”
Minor suggestions, such as keeping his elbow up in his throwing setup, were smaller lessons for Locker. The primary emphasis was his overall alignment.
“It was the footwork, and the timing,” Nussmeier said. “We needed to continue to work with him on his eyes and his rhythm – his eye placement in relationship to his feet.”
Last season, even while learning a new offense, Locker had his best season with the Huskies – 230-of-394 accuracy (58 percent) for 2,800 yards with 21 TDs and 11 interceptions.
3. SENIOR SEASON: ONE MORE YEAR TO REFINE
Pros: Poise, confidence, ability to make all types of passes
Cons: Consistency in making proper reads
At the outset of fall camp, Sarkisian declared his goals for his senior quarterback: Completing passes at a “65 to 68 percent” clip, and throwing three times more touchdowns than interceptions.
The mechanics are there now. So is Locker’s understanding of Sarkisian’s pro-style offense. All that is left is ironing out some of the wrinkles.
“He continues to get better, he continues to develop,” Nussmeier said. “He also now is to the point when things aren’t right, he can self-correct. … Now, we can make progress really quickly.”
The marked improvement is readily noticeable to the keen eye of many of the best instructors. One throw – a 21-yard completion to Jermaine Kearse in the final minute of the Huskies’ 13-9 upset win over USC in 2009 – convinced Barton that the UW leader was on his way.
“He had the ball high in his pocket. Two hands were on the ball, and all of a sudden, the ball was gone with very little effort,” Barton said. “What he needed was a coach like (Nussmeier) or Sark – consistent work every single day. He did. It was like a golfer going to a really good golf pro, every single day.”
Who knows what is in store for Locker this season. The smart bet, given what has happened already, is that he makes more progress in his development.
“You have to give him the credit, the guy has been relentless,” Nussmeier said. “He’s invested the time to make himself the player that he is.
“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I really believe his best football is still a couple years ahead of him.”
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 firstname.lastname@example.orgABOUT THIS SERIES
Part 1: Aug. 8
Part 2: Today
Several coaches have had a hand in shaping Jake Locker’s development into an NFL-caliber passer.
Part 3: Aug. 22
Jake for Heisman? The University of Washington is doing its part in publicizing its quarterback’s name nationally.