April 6, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - So what's Jake Locker been up to since you last saw him, in his final game as a Husky three months ago?
He's has had fewer days off than Seattle's rain.
He's been in Southern California at a sports performance center. He's been in weight rooms getting sleeker and stronger. He's been the subject of two documentary films due out soon. He's been on a field adjusting his throwing grip. He's been flying to another visit with another NFL team.
And he's waited.
At combines and workouts and UW's Pro Day last week, he's stretched. He's loosened his throwing arm and shoulder. He's gotten ready to show off his more fluid footwork and the tutoring he's received from former NFL quarterback and first-round pick Ken O'Brien.
And then he's waited some more.
"I was telling (my former Huskies teammates), the whole process is kind of a hurry-up-and-wait process," Locker said when I asked him what's he's learned most about preparing for the NFL draft. "You are doing a bunch of things, then you get to that day and you are waiting for a while. Or you are warming up for an event - and then you wait until your name is called. Same thing on draft day: You've done all this to get to that point, then you are just going to wait until you hear your name's called.
"That's something I didn't hear from a lot of people going into it, and it's something that's been the biggest surprise for me."
Even at the magazine photo shoot ESPN did especially for him and no one else inside Marv Harshman Gym at UW's Alaska Airlines Arena two weeks ago, Locker waited. When I walked in about 90 minutes into it, one of the most famous and popular athletes in UW history was dressed in his full, all-white Huskies road uniform with his gold helmet. He was up on a scaffolding sitting on a two-by-four spread across blocks, eating a lunch out of a cardboard box.
He looked antsy, trapped even, on that odd, makeshift perch. It was way more production than the understated Locker likes.
Even one of the more exceedingly polite and accommodating guys you'll meet seemed at his limit of patience.
"How much longer do you think this might take?" Locker asked politely but pointedly to the photo director running the shoot.
Yet it wasn't that Locker just wanted out of the get-up to move on with his world. He was coming up on his appointed time to pick up his fiancée, former Huskies softball player Lauren Greer. They are getting married in July.
Still selfless. Still the same ol' Jake.
(The ESPN magazine issue is coming out this week, by the way. Locker is on the cover - in shadows. All that waiting, and you can't even tell it's him).
No, not much has changed about Locker since he led Washington to the Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska Dec. 30 in the final game of his four-year career as a college starter. It really doesn't surprise me he won't be inside Radio City Music Hall in three weeks to hear the commissioner call his name and then put on a team cap and pose for photographs, like all the other stars of the draft will be.
"I'm going to be at home," Locker said of the small town of Ferndale, Wash., up near the Canadian border that has thrown parades for him and had a Jake Locker Day this past July.
"It's an honor, and I appreciate the invite, but for me, I want to be with the people who have been with me my whole life and have helped me get to this point, to share that experience with them. And of course not all of them would be able to be in New York with me. So for me, it makes more sense to be home where I grew up, and where this all started."
Some things have changed since we all saw him play last, though.
O'Brien, the former New York Jets quarterback, works for Athletes First. That's the agency with which Locker signed to represent him for his first NFL contract. O'Brien has stressed more fluidity in the footwork of Locker's in one-, three-, five- and seven-step drops.
Those drops weren't always so fluid at UW - mostly because Locker was often running for his life behind a porous and shuffled offensive line.
O'Brien has also tweaked Locker's throwing motion. It's nothing near the scale of the almost-complete overhaul Tim Tebow made between his final college season at Florida and last year's draft, when Denver took Tebow in the first round. But it's enough of a difference to greatly help Locker. He used the change to complete 38 of 40 passes at last week's UW Pro Day. The only misses were on throws of 55-plus yards just out of the reach of former Huskies receiver D'Andre Goodwin.
"One thing I worked with Ken O'Brien on was bringing my hand over the top as quickly as I could, rather than dragging my hand. I had a tendency to do that sometimes," Locker said. "When I bring my hand over the top, and really point that finger at my target, I've been spinning the ball better. It's been coming off my hand a lot better. throwing it a lot better."
He says his hand is in the same spot on the ball as it's always been, "it's just kind of letting my wrist go a little bit."
The comparison to Tebow is inevitable. Both were mobile, running/throwing quarterbacks with outstanding character that includes a record of public service and selflessness that make them legends in their communities. Like Tebow, Locker is being knocked for his throwing accuracy, especially from inside the pocket. Some doubters predict Locker will fall to the third round in the draft that begins April 28 - just like they did with Tebow.
Like Tebow, will Locker go in the first round, after all?
Just as he's been since he turned down tens of millions last year to come back for his senior season at Washington, Locker truly is not preoccupied by where he'll get drafted. In fact, it seems to me he is enjoying this whole ride for its here-and-now, the new experiences it's bringing him each day.
Just like he dreamed it would be when he was growing up in Ferndale.
"Every year since it's been on I've watched it, and tried to guess who was going to be taken in each spot. To have the opportunity now to be part of this now is a special thing, and something that I'm going to enjoy," he said.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and to have the opportunity to go through it is something I've dreamed about since I was a little kid. I'm going to make the most of it."
OK, Jake, so guess where you are going to get picked. By your hometown Seahawks at No. 25 overall, the same spot from which the Broncos drafted Tebow last year? How about the even-more quarterback-needy Jaugars at 16? Or Vikings, at 12.
"Nah," Locker said, smiling, "this is one guy I won't guess on."
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.