Oct. 19, 2011
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - A-ha!
Turns out, Keith Price's meteoric start to the Huskies' 5-1 season, being second in the nation with 21 touchdown passes and on pace to shatter UW single-season passing records, goes beyond the sophomore's indelible smile and uncanny poise.
It goes beyond his sugar-sweet throwing motion. Deeper than his unique skill at extending plays and maintaining focus downfield with chaos all around him.
The hidden keys to Price's startling success, which is getting national attention this week before he leads the No. 22 Dawgs into seventh-ranked Stanford (6-0, 4-0 Pac-12) on Saturday in a showdown for first place in the conference's North division?
A room list. A summer staff meeting. And a coach.
Of course head Husky Steve Sarkisian had a hand in this. But so did, uh ... a defensive backs coach?
Safeties coach Jeff Mills is in charge of assigning roommates for the Huskies' fall training camp. In August the players move out of their apartments, shared houses or wherever else they live off campus and spend the month in campus dorm rooms.
Mills sent his 2011 camp list to Sarkisian, who held a staff meeting before camp. In it, the coaches finalized pairing players that don't usually co-mingle, to strengthen the team's bonds. Offensive players with defensive ones. Inner-city kids with rural guys.
Sarkisian and Mills put Price with Cort Dennison.
It seemed like the Huskies' ultimate odd couple.
Price, a kid from Compton, hard off the often-treacherous south end of Los Angeles, a redshirt sophomore who grew up living part time with his grandmother to avoid gun shots around his parents' home, rooming with a veteran middle linebacker who graduated from a private school in Salt Lake City and made a college recruiting visit to West Point.
"It was something different," Price said, chuckling to me this week. "I never thought I'd room with Cort."
First things first, though.
"I showed up in my room one day and I made sure I got the bed I wanted - seniority thing," Dennison said, also laughing. "But, yeah, we got put together."
The pairing ended up being anything but odd. More like awesome.
It's another, hidden gem in a slew of uniquely Sarkisian moves that have revitalized the Huskies program, one that has soared from 0-12 to a bowl winner and a nationally ranked co-leader of the Pac-12 in just 2 ½ seasons.
"It was just, you know, a leader on the offensive side and a leader on the defensive side. I put together the room list, and Coach OKs it," Mills said of Sarkisian.
Sarkisian saw Mills' original list and changed it to match Price and Dennison, the two most important players on the team.
"We moved it at that staff meeting for that reason," Mills said. "Just because he was the quarterback, and Cort's the linebacker directing things on the defensive side.
"There was a rhyme and reason."
It was a first for both.
Dennison had roomed with wide receiver Devin Aguilar last year in fall camp, and fellow linebacker and mentor Mason Foster before that.
Price's roommate during the season is Chris Polk, who like Price is from Southern California and is a leader of the offense.
"He's a great kid. I'm not surprised with anything Keith Price has done,"
SUMMER SCHOOL IN McCARTY HALL
Despite playing the first six games on two sprained knees and then a twisted ankle, Price is tied with Kellen Moore of Boise State for second in the country in touchdown throws, one behind Baylor's Robert Griffin III. Price's 21 scoring passes already tie him with predecessor Jake Locker for fourth-most in a UW season, and these Huskies still have six regular season games remaining.
Price's pass efficiency rating of 177.9 is far ahead of Brock Huard's Washington season record of 153.8 from 1997. And it is fifth in the nation, behind Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, Griffin, Andrew Luck - his opposite Saturday night at Stanford and the presumed No. 1 pick in the next NFL draft - and Moore.
Price's 69.4 percent rate of completions is far above Steve Pelluer's UW record for a season of 65 percent in 1983.
This wondrous half season has had Sports Illustrated writing about him. ESPN and USA Today called this week.
Price just smiles and scoffs at all the new attention.
"I'm all about the team. None of that stuff concerns me," he said at the start of preparations for Stanford. "I'm just ready for this week. That's it."
Dennison saw this phenomenon forming in August during those late-night chats in their dorm room in inside McCarty Hall. It's on the hill overlooking Montlake Boulevard at the north edge of UW's main campus.
"He's a great kid. I'm not surprised with anything Keith Price has done," Dennison said. "I knew he was going to do this."
Here's why: Price and Dennison didn't play video games, immerse themselves in their own iPods or just conk out each night during preseason training camp. Price - who at that point had one career start, last November at Oregon, when Locker had a broken rib - stayed up and quizzed Dennison on what he was seeing defensively in practice. Price was gathering intelligence in that dorm room, learning how a defense shifts, what it was trying to do and how it was likely to react to the plays he made and looks he gave.
"Oh, man, it was really helpful," Price says now, "because there were certain looks that I didn't know what they were. He was just helping me out. I was just getting little tips."
"Oh, it was great."
It was summer school in McCarty Hall. And it made Price that much more confident, that much better prepared to go out and throw three touchdown passes in the opener against Eastern Washington to begin September, then four against Hawaii, then four more at Nebraska.
He hasn't stopped since.
"The kind of thing that makes Keith so good is, Keith would always ask me in camp, `What are you seeing as a defense when I come out in this play?'" Dennison said. "Or, `When you give us this look and my eyes go here, what are you guys (on defense) thinking?'
"He was always asking me questions as a defensive player. When you've got a kid who is as talented as he is, and then he's trying to get better in the mental aspect of the game, that's just going to make him that much better. It going to make our offense that much better. It's going to make our team that much better.
"That's the character of Keith Price."
Dennison played three seasons with Locker, who was the eighth overall pick in last spring's NFL draft, so he's seen a great quarterback up close. Yet he was so impressed with how conscientious and dedicated Price was to mastering all parts of quarterbacking that by mid-August, "I'd just tell him, `Don't let it shock you when you are doing so well this year.'"
"And he knew it," Dennison said. "He's had a big belief in himself, always. He's got a big confidence in him, a swagger, that allows our team to go. He's a leader on and off the field. I couldn't ask for a better quarterback."
"THE THOROUGHNESS OF COACH SARKISIAN"
I joked with Mills that he gets an unlikely assist for Price being a national revelation, that perhaps some of Price's 21 touchdown passes and just four interceptions through six games are his. The assistant coach got a big laugh out of that.
"Unbeknownst," Mills said.
"I will say this: It's the thoroughness of Coach Sarkisian. He doesn't miss a thing.
"I will say this: It's the thoroughness of Coach Sarkisian. He doesn't miss a thing."
"That was his staff meeting, overlooking what the rooming list was."
I asked Price if he knew who was responsible for pairing him and Dennison. He laughed.
"I have no clue," he said.
Then he gushes in admiration for Sarkisian.
"Oh, man, he's so smart," the quarterback said.
And not just because his coach bunked his offensive and defensive signal callers together.
"It's crazy. I think he just dreams of plays or something, I don't know," Price said. "He comes out with crazy stuff. But it works."
Just like almost everything else in his soaring program right now.
Including room lists.
Mills sounded happy - and proud - that something as seemingly small as who roomed with whom in training camp could have aided the Huskies' season.
"First I've heard of that," Mills told me Tuesday after practice at Husky Stadium. "I didn't know that. That's good to hear. Cort's sharp. They both are very intelligent. And, first of all, great people."
Then Mills smiled and added, "That's pretty cool."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.