Sept. 12, 2012
|Washington vs. Portland State
Saturday, Sept. 15 | 1 pm PT | CenturyLink Field
TICKETS | TV: FX (Channel Finder) | Radio: KJR / Affiliates
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - Keith Price was all over the field last weekend at LSU.
Some of it was by design.
Some of it was by his own initiative, in his new, growing role as an upperclassman and Huskies' leader.
Most of it, though, was because he was running for his life.
Early last Saturday night in Baton Rouge, when UW's sputtering was beginning to get louder, the redshirt-junior quarterback was along the sideline during an ESPN TV timeout smiling like he always does. He was chatting up a teammate, even a member of the Tiger Stadium chain gang.
When it got to 20-3 LSU, Price was on the sidelines clapping and shouting encouragement to the Huskies' defense and then the kickoff-return team. He was directing his offensive linemen, which have recently been changing as much as UW's down and yards to go. He was moving a parade of young running backs, none of whom had started a game before this month, around different formations. He was trying to get on the same pages with his receivers, two of them freshmen playing their second college games.
He was trying to do all that - while most of all trying to stay upright and intact.
The relentless LSU defense sacked him four times. The Tigers hit him many more times than that. They put him in such a mental vice that minutes after the Huskies' 41-3 loss ended Price shook his head just off the Tiger Stadium field and said, without any hint of his trademark smile: "I felt it. I felt the pressure."
So I'm not even let you finish the question, "What's wrong with Ke..."
"Oh, man, it comes with the territory," Price said with a shrug and his characteristic, wide grin that was back following practice Wednesday. "I knew what I was getting myself into when I was eight years old playing this position (in the Bellflower, Calif., Pop Warner league).
"Definitely, you get frustrated, because you feel you should be performing at that (previous) level. But it's not just me. It's everyone around me that has to help out, too."
That's exactly the point.
He's been trying to be everything, to everyone, in his new role as upperclassman and undeniable leader of not just the offense but the entire team.
I knew what I was getting myself into when I was eight years old playing this position.
Yet more so than any team sport, football demands the complete, cohesive efficiency of an entire unit to consistently succeed. Basketball can have the one shooter that goes off for 30 and carries you to victory. A baseball pitcher can single-handedly shut down a lineup. A goaltender can stonewall an opponent all by himself to win a hockey game.
Football? I don't care if you are part Joe Montana, Tom Brady and Johnny Unitas. If a quarterback doesn't consistently have time to throw or men to catch or a full complement of healthy, available teammates he will not succeed with much, if any, regularity.
BEING JUDGED BY MOON-HIGH STANDARDS
Now, Price and his Huskies aren't exactly failing. They are 1-1 entering Saturday's 1p.m. game against Portland State (1-1) at CenturyLink Field, and then have 12 days off before hosting Stanford in the Pac-12 opener.
But it just feels worse because Price has set exceedingly high standards of excellence for himself and his Huskies offense.
So high, only he can complete 25 of 35 passes - a completion rate four percent higher than the UW season record of 66.9 he set last fall, in the first 25-completion game since Jake Locker in 2009 - then state he was "terrible." That's what he did opening night against San Diego State, when he was coolly efficient despite constant pressure by the Aztecs.
"Oh, they are high right now. Very high," he said of his own standards.
He was chuckling, as if he was thinking "you don't even know."
"Obviously, I didn't get off to the start I got off to last year, which is understandable. But it's a long season. We've only played two games," he said. "We'll make plays. I'm confident in our guys. And I know. We are going to make a lot of big plays this week -- and this season."
He has one touchdown and one interception through two games. Last season at this point, two games into replacing Locker full time, Price had seven TD throws and one interception on his way to a Huskies-record 33 scoring passes.
But in 2011 he didn't have injuries to 18 key contributors. He didn't have 66-80 percent of his starting offensive line changed because of injuries and the graduation of linchpin left tackle Senio Kelemete. That is what Price has been dealing with already this season.
Yet he is not going to offer that, or anything else, as an excuse. It's part of a new KP17, new as of a Monday sit-down with coach Steve Sarkisian.
He gets what you are thinking: Don't give me excuses about injuries. Or youth. Or pressure.
It's all about wins.
Asked about how hard it is to play with what's going on in front of him on the offensive line, Price chuckled.
"You know, that's not my job," he said. "My job is not what is going on with the offensive line. (My job is) when I need to get the ball out and make certain reads and make certain throws, make them.
"We've just got to make plays."
Control what he's tasked to control. Nothing more.
"Just keep doing what I'm doing, and not get caught up in what's going on around me," he said. "Just focus on myself."
HELP IS ON THE WAY
Sarkisian was a star quarterback in college at Brigham Young, the man who led the Cougars to the first 14-win season in major-college football history in 1996. But that was a season after he threw 14 interceptions with 20 touchdowns. So he's been where Price is now.
"When you're struggling and they are getting pressure on you it's understandable," Sarkisian said of Price's subpar start, by his standard.
Colin Tanigawa's absences from practice this week make him the third starting blocker missing time. Erik Kohler moved from right guard to right tackle when Ben Riva broke his forearm in the opener. Then Kohler's knee cap dislocated at LSU for the second time in a month. Sarkisian said he is out for this Saturday.
The fourth returning starting linemen, guard Colin Porter, had to retire from football in April because of degenerative conditions in both shoulders.
Sarkisian believes all the absences and changes on the offensive line in particular have been on the mind of Price during games, leading the quarterback to worry about real issues and even potential ones he cannot control.
In turn, the coach believes those worries have been cluttering Price's usually electric, free-flowing play. He spoke with Price about it on Monday.
"We'll do some types of things from a protection standpoint where he won't have to be as concerned about what's going on up front," Sarkisian said.
That may mean keeping extra tight ends and backs in to help "chip" on charging pass rushers. That may mean only two or three receivers go out in patterns instead of five.
"He has dealt with adversity before, obviously last year with injuries and things that he had to deal with. All of that adversity was from within, so he was focused on himself and ultimately played at a really high level," Sarkisian said.
We've got to get him to shift his attention to Keith Price, No. 17. And I think he understands that.
"Right now he's got some adversity that's going on around him. And I think he is trying to fix that adversity rather than focusing on himself. So we've got to get him to shift his attention to Keith Price, No. 17...
"And I think he understands that."
Price has been focusing on his new job as veteran team leader since talking about it an hour or so after he scored seven combined touchdowns in December's Alamo Bowl. He didn't spend a day - not a single one - at home in Compton, Calif., this offseason from January into July. Instead he sought to set the leadership example in formal and informal workouts on and off UW's campus.
That's why it's great for him that his mother, Shaundra, and his grandmother who helped raise him, Gail Manuel, come to all his games. They were even on the sidelines of East Field at Wednesday's practice, standing a few feet away and smiling as Price talked.
Manuel has helped raise Keith, his 11-year-old sister M-Kayla, and younger brother Kaelon, 16. She helped keep them out of the trouble other kids were finding in Compton on the ultra-hard, south side of Los Angeles.
"Oh, yeah, every week. Every week. They make it to every game," he said.
"I am fortunate to have them."
In July Price succeeded Locker and Chris Polk last year as the face of the Huskies when he represented them at Pac-12 media day in Los Angeles. That was his first time home since the Huskies' game at USC last fall. A few weeks later he was in Louisiana, joining USC's Matt Barkley as star counselors at Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning's annual summer passing academy for high school players.
So, yeah, when you are spending part of your summer with Super Bowl winners, NFL MVPs and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame - not to mention competing on and off the field with the presumed front-runner for this season's Heisman Trophy - your standards tend to rise.
I asked Sarkisian if Price's added efforts in trying to lead the entire team may be contributing to him wanting to fix any and all purple-and-gold adversity he sees, whether it's in his lane or not.
"I think so. That's all part of it," Sarkisian said. "And there's a fine line in there. He wants to do so well for his team and he wants his team to do so well that he just wants to help in any way that I can, where some of that is out of his realm of responsibility. And he can't control if the left tackle doesn't get out of his stance and he can't control if the running back doesn't understand what protection we are in and doesn't block a blitzer off the back edge. He can't control that stuff.
"He's got to control the things that he can control, and by doing so he'll perform at a higher level.''
So Keith, is it a natural thing for him as a leader to be worrying about all around him, more than just himself during games?
"I think the natural thing is when the offense is not going the way that I expect it to go that I push too hard," he said, flatly. "I just need to settle down and just let the offense work for me."
Price thought his fourth-down interception into coverage on a failed rollout in the second half at LSU was an example of pushing too hard.
I actually feel better. I feel like a better quarterback.
"If the circumstances were a little different I would have probably thrown the ball away. But we were down and I was trying to make a play," he said.
"It's just about not forcing things."
"I AM BETTER"
Here's something else: Last year, Price had veteran, go-to receivers in seniors Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar. They always ran the same depth on their routes, always cut at the same time to the same place. Price could rely on that like the sun rising and falling. He also had a 1,200-yard rusher now in the NFL in Polk that kept defenses from solely game planning to stop Price.
Now? Not so much - at least not this early in the season.
Though extraordinarily gifted with size, speed and leaping ability, sophomore Kasen Williams is still working on consistency in his route running. So is sophomore tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Sarkisian loves Jaydon Mickens and Kendyl Taylor for their speed, but the true freshmen are just two games into their UW careers - and Mickens got a turf-toe ligament injury at LSU.
And the Huskies lost their lead runner to replace Polk, Jesse Callier, to a season-ending knee injury in the first half of the opening game. Washington hasn't scored an offensive touchdown in seven quarters since.
Sure, quarterback is the most important position in sports. But like I said, it takes more than one guy to succeed.
"You know what, I will never give you an excuse of why we didn't play well," Sarkisian said. "It's obviously pretty clear we've dealt with some pretty significant injuries on our roster.
"That being said, when I look at our starting 22, I like those guys when we go take the field. And we are more than capable of going to win big football games. And I think we'll see that as the season goes on."
And, trust me, he likes no one more than Keith Price.
"I actually feel better. I feel like a better quarterback," Price said. "I am more confident in myself. I know what to expect from myself. I just believe I am better overall."
It's just a matter of time - and healing by others - before we see what he's talking about.
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.