Sept. 14, 2010
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - The biggest weapon in Washington's big-play offense, the leading receiver on the West Coast ranked third in the nation in yards receiving per game this early season, was on the Huskies' bench this time last year.
And get this: Football isn't even his best sport.
"I feel I am better at basketball," Kearse said, in his characteristically quiet tone. "But I felt like I could go a lot farther in football."
He's already come a long way.
Last September, he was a mostly idled power pack waiting for an opportunity from a new coaching staff unfamiliar with him. Saturday, he will be a key to Washington's efforts against eighth-ranked Nebraska at Husky Stadium.
Kearse is the Pac-10 player of the week after setting career highs with nine catches, 179 yards and three touchdowns passes from Jake Locker in last weekend's 41-20 race past Syracuse. He caught a short pass, broke two tackles and sprinted for a 57-yard score that changed the tight game on the first play following halftime.
Opponents so far have found they have no one big enough to match up with Kearse. Against Syracuse, he barreled like a fullback through initial contact, then sprinted for touchdowns like a track star.
He's starting to fill the same role for Washington that freakishly big and fast Mike Williams - now on a NFL career rebirth with the Seattle Seahawks -- had on USC's Rose Bowl teams, when now-Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian was Pete Carroll's assistant head coach for those Trojans a few years ago.
"Night and day," Sarkisian said, when asked to compare Kearse from 12 months ago to now.
And the Washington second-year coach meant he has been the one enlightened.
"I didn't give him enough credit when I first had him. I thought he was a nice, smart player, a nice catcher. I didn't realize he had as much versatility as he really has in his game, and that's a credit for him to continue to work at it," Sarkisian said.
"He's earned everything he's gotten. Very proud of him. He embodies a lot of the characteristics we would love all of our players to embody."
Most believe Kearse seized his place atop Washington's group of receivers that may be the Pac-10's best in the third game last year. He caught two passes on the game-winning drive as the Huskies upset USC at home.
But the former high school All-America from Lakes High School in Lakewood, Wash., thinks he truly arrived the following week when Washington played poorly and lost at Stanford.
"That was when I showed in adversity I could come up and make play," he said.
Despite starting only nine of 12 games in 2009, Kearse led the Huskies with 50 receptions and was second-team All-Pac-10.
"I didn't have any doubts at all," he said this week. "I just knew once my opportunities came to make the best of it. Our coaching staff - whether you are a senior or a freshman - the person who makes the most plays plays the most. That's the way it should be."
Then Kearse quickly points out that he has not finished his journey from the bench to being a breakout player. He forcefully says "I'm definitely not complacent. I want to do better things. "
He's been humbled as recently as two weeks ago. He had five catches for 108 yards and the season's first touchdown at Brigham Young, but dropped a few passes he normal gobbles up in the Huskies' 23-17 loss. He says now he was too anxious that day, beginning a season for the first time as a starter.
Sarkisian took Kearse aside in the days after the BYU loss and simply said, "Don't try too hard."
"He took it upon himself to really come out and be dominant (last) weekend, and he was," Locker said. "It was really, really fun to watch. He expects a lot out himself."
Now Kearse gets his toughest assignment yet. At 6-1, 205, Nebraska senior cornerback Prince Amukamara can match Kearse's size and is likely to be shadowing him on Saturday. Football's National Scouting Service rates Amukamara as the top collegian eligible for the 2011 NFL draft.
Another strong performance against Amukamara and Nebraska's uniquely aggressive defense, which beat Idaho 38-17 last week by nabbing five interceptions, and the entire nation will gain the realization Sarkisian and the Huskies have already about Kearse.
"This is definitely going to be a great challenge for me," Kearse said.
"But we've got some players. We've got a lot of weapons."