Aug. 31, 2011
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
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• UW Game Notes
• UW-EWU Flipcard • Opener With EWU In Line With UW's - And Nation's - New Scheduling
• Eagles Not Standard FCS Fare For UW Defense In Opener
• Wednesday Post-Practice Notebook: Polk Practices
SEATTLE - The first Husky starting quarterback not named Jake Locker since 2006 has a doting mom who is making shirts back home this week bearing his name and UW colors.
She and family members will be up from Compton, Calif., this weekend wearing them proudly inside Husky Stadium.
The new trigger man on Washington's resurgence has a grandmother who is even rowdier than his mother. Word is she embarrasses everyone around her with how she supports her beloved No. 17.
And by now you already know your new quarterback smiles. A lot. So much, some of his Husky teammates affectionately call him "Teeth Price."
Known among his teammates as "Teeth Price," the Huskies' new starter at quarterback has a reputation for his unrelenting smile.
Then again, why shouldn't Keith Price look comfortable? When the sophomore takes over as UW's full-time starter on Saturday against Eastern Washington, he will be doing what he's done since he was eight years old.
"The first team I played on I was six years old, flag football. At seven I started junior clinic with the Bellflower Broncos. Ever since then, I've never missed a season," Price told me Monday, at the start of his first regular-season week as Locker's replacement.
"When I was eight I started playing quarterback, for Bellflower. And I have been a quarterback ever since."
So when he walks into the Huskies' huddle for the first time Saturday afternoon, under a brilliant sun with about 55,000 people roaring for him and his teammates, Price isn't going to be spooked.
And I can assure you he will not have the steely, intimidating look of a linebacker that Locker brought to huddle and to the position the last four seasons.
Price? He's liable to tell a joke.
"It's infectious, his personality. I think that's something we maybe haven't had on our team the last few years," Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian says.
Except for last Nov. 6 in Eugene, Ore.
That was the day Price, a redshirt freshman thrust into his first career start for an injured Locker at No. 1 Oregon, was smiling so broadly I could see his teeth through his facemask from the Autzen Stadium press box. I saw them after his first play of the game, a deep pass that would have been a Huskies touchdown had he not barely overthrown Jermaine Kearse. I even saw them while the Ducks' pass rush swarmed him. Yes, during plays, while he was scrambling.
Then there was this: Second pass of Price's career, first play off the bench at USC in the fourth quarter last Oct. 2. Price comes in for a momentarily woozy Locker, and faster than you can say "Teeth Price," the grinning backup throws a touchdown pass to Chris Izbicki. Without that, Washington doesn't eventually beat the Trojans for the second consecutive season on a last-second field goal.
Sarkisian now says that call wasn't just for that night in L.A. It was also for this season, and probably the next two.
Think that poise didn't earn Price some internal team cachet for this job, this week, this season?
"It's infectious, his personality. I think that's something we maybe haven't had on our team the last few years,"
"I think it was tremendous. It doesn't get any harder than at the No. 1 team in the nation," he said of the experience at Oregon in particular. "That's just going to better me.
"I know what to expect," he said of this game week. "It's not brand-new to me. That's key."
If he is like that on the road, on national television, against the nation's top teams with zero experience, imagine what he may be like Saturday against Eastern, on the same field on which he's been practicing as the starter for months.
Yet Sarkisian isn't exactly sure what to expect.
"Oh, I'm curious, like you are," Sarkisian said.
Sure, we miss Locker already. But I say the Huskies are in a good place with Price.
A happy place, certainly.
"It's just fun. It seems like the whole team is just having fun. It's not a job," Price said, smiling, of course. "I think that's the main thing. Everyone tends to focus on winning instead of just having fun. Winning is also important, but you can't win unless you are having fun."
`I JUST LIKE TO PUT A SMILE ON PEOPLES' FACES'
Price calls his mother, Shaundra Price, and grandmother Gail Manuel the biggest influences on his life.
Shaundra will be making her third trip to Husky Stadium Saturday, with grandmother Gail there, too. They will be wearing customized Huskies shirts honoring their hero quarterback. And they will be roaring.
"You guys will see them," Price said, laughing. "My mom tries to settle my grandma down. My mom gets embarrassed that my grandma is always the loudest one. So they will be at the game, having a lot of fun.
"They are EXCITED!"
Price's says his biggest football influence is his father, also named Keith. He played at Lynwood High School, just north of Compton and the 105 freeway on the ultra-hard, south side of Los Angeles. His dad went on to play wide receiver and return kicks at Compton Community College.
Keith has a younger sister, 10-year-old M-Kayla, and a little brother. Kaelon, 15, is the backup quarterback at Long Beach Jordan, the high school that has produced new Huskies starting linebackers John Timu and Princeton Fuimaono, plus defensive line coach Johnny Nansen.
Price is the first Husky starting quarterback not named Jake Locker since 2006.
"He's still getting his mechanics right, right now," Keith says of Kaelon. "But he's pretty good."
Price took over as the starter at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower in his junior year. He ran a shotgun, spread offense. So when we see Sarkisian employ that at times this season rather than the coach's preferred pro-style, conventional-snap sets, he may be trying to put Price in the offense with which he is most familiar.
By the end of that junior season in the spread at Bosco, the smooth-throwing Price was drawing college scholarship interest. He was throwing to Leon McFadden, a cornerback at San Diego State whom UW also recruited, and to his best friend, Will Shamburger.
Shamburger is now a backup safety for the Huskies. He owes even being here to Price.
"I've known him since I was 3 years old. We met each other at my grandparents' preschool, off (Compton's) Palmer Street. Optimal Christian Academy," Shamburger said in the west end zone of Husky Stadium following Tuesday's practice.
OK, Will, we have to know: Is Price's smiling a put on? Is it because he's nervous?
"Man, he's always been that way, since he was a little kid. He's always smiling," Shamburger said. "He smiles for no reason -- even if he is in trouble."
"Getting a whuppin' from his mom, for not doing his chores or whatever, he would still give his mom a smile. His mom would be like, `Why are you smiling? You about to get a whuppin' right now?'
"And Keith would be like, `I don't know, I just like to smile. Just like to put a smile on people's faces."
Back home around Compton, a place not exactly known for grins, they still call Price "Big Smiles."
"Teachers loved him," Shamburger said. "After class they would ask him, `Why do you smile all the time? What is that?' And it was the same answer: `I just like to make people smile.'"
He turned Shamburger's frown upside down, during their senior year of high school in 2009 at St. John Bosco.
Shamburger had shredded his knee early in his senior season. Boise State and Arizona State promptly backed off scholarship offers they had made to the standout receiver and defensive back -- but Washington didn't. Sarkisian called offering a recuperating Shamburger one soon after he took over the Huskies in January 2009.
He's a definite pocket passer, movement passer. I wouldn't think that his most dangerous and first threat is his legs, by any means.
Price had committed to UW months earlier, under the regime of former Huskies coach Tyrone Willingham. Sarkisian thought Price was so important to the future at UW that he re-recruited Price during his first day on the job, even though Locker still had two more college years to play.
Reassured that Sarkisian's program of competition and opportunity was the best fit for him, Price turned to his best friend.
"Keith said, `Yeah, you should come with me to the University of Washington. It will be a real good chance for you to come,'" Shamburger recalls.
He did. And now he and Price are part of the Huskies' revitalization, living two floors from each other in the same apartment building near the UW campus.
"He's always the same Keith," Shamburger said. "He always has the same personality. That's why I will always like him.
"He will always be my best friend, until the day we die."
SARKISIAN'S QUIET PROJECT
There is a distinct difference from this team Price is taking over and the ones Locker led for all but the very end of his UW career.
Whether by his bullish running, his throwing on the run or his steel will, Locker often took over games no other Husky could. Defenses keyed on him, assigned spies to him, spent days of weeks specifically game planning for him.
Opponents in 2011 will have to be much more honest to all Dawgs, beyond the quarterback. Sure, they will come after Price, like any defense does a new passer. But now Washington has 1,400-yard rusher Chris Polk (once he returns from arthroscopic knee surgery he had on Aug. 18) or Jesse Callier to run inside. Price can throw quickly outside, where UW is six-deep at wide receiver -- including 1,000-yard target Jermaine Kearse plus wondrous freshman Kasen Williams.
And for the first time in Sarkisian's tenure, Washington has a potentially game-changing tight end for the middle of the field in freshman Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
"Oh, yeah, it makes my job a lot easier. I don't have to throw the ball 45, 50 times a game," Price said of his weapons. "I can hand the ball off to Chris, or throw the ball long to Jermaine. I have options. I don't have to try to win the game by myself."
Here's another way Price is different than Locker: He is elusive when rushers charge in at him, but he is not the primary running threat Locker was. "I actually think of him more as a passer than a runner, without a doubt," Sarkisian said. "He's a definite pocket passer, movement passer. I wouldn't think that his most dangerous and first threat is his legs, by any means." He's 6-feet-1, and may be his listed 195 pounds. That's two inches and 35 pounds less than Locker. While Locker was finishing his legendary Huskies career, Sarkisian and UW offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier were quietly changing the throwing mechanics of his backup. They had Price drop his arm, creating more variety and versatility in his passing angles. "We've tweaked it a little bit -- without giving away what we're doing. I think we've done stuff that fits Keith Price within our system, and we've emphasized those things a little bit more," Sarkisian said. "He's got an extremely quick release. That's helped him, not being the tallest guy."
Coach Sarkisian calls Price "a definite pocket passer."
Sarkisian has said it has helped Price and the Huskies' 2011 offense that he's grown from Day 1 of his college career in this same offense, its terminology and this system.
"He's never known anything different," Sarkisian said.
All month, Nussmeier has stressed to Price tempo between plays. During the 40 seconds on the play clock, Price goes into hyper-processing mode. Sarkisian, the offense's play caller, gives Price a color that denotes the personnel grouping. Price receives a play signal from the sideline. Then he goes through the play in his head as he calls it to the team in the huddle. As he walks to the line, he surveys the defense and helps his linemen call out protections.
"Just the whole thing - and then still remembering what you have to do on the play," Price said, chuckling.
It became second nature to Locker in his four seasons at UW, even as he changed coaches and systems midway through. And Price says that after the just-completed preseason camp, the offense is now "like common sense to me."
The coaches are limiting the audibles with which Price can change a play to a few, for now. Yet Sarkisian talks of how aware Price is of teammates and defenders during plays, of his poise and command. In makeup, he likens Price to Charlie Ward, the former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Florida State who played in the NBA.
"I think he's awesome, awesome -- at least the way we want him to read (defenses), you know?" Sarkisian said. "From where he was the first day of training camp his freshman year to where he is now, he's been fantastic."
Of course there is the anxiety of wanting to get this season going. You feel it. Sarkisian feels it. Price feels it.
But ask Price if he has any concerns on this eve of the Huskies becoming his team, and he - you guessed it - smiles.
"Nah," he says. "I'm just ready to play."
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.