Gregg Bell Unleashed: Inside Keith Price's Impressive Debut as UW's Starting QB
Sept. 14, 2011
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
Wednesday Notebook: Clutch Kicker Erik Folk
SEATTLE - Big Red's not going to be overly huge to Keith Price.
Oh, sure, there will be more than 85,000 Nebraskans screaming so passionately at the Huskies' sophomore quarterback Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln their faces will be the same shade as their clothes.
Yet even though Price is just three starts into his college career, the ridiculously poised young man with the smile as wide as a corn field has been in a similar situation. Last November, when Jake Locker had a broken rib, Price made his first UW start on national television as a redshirt freshman in a frenzied scene at No. 1 Oregon.
"I just know what to expect," Price said of Saturday's 12:30 p.m. showdown with the 11th-ranked Cornhuskers, the third Washington-Nebraska game in 12 months, on ABC plus the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with another live, exclusive-access game chat.
"Of course I am going to have those nerves, just me being anxious. But I know what to expect. And I'm ready," Price said.
"It will be all right."
His first two games as Washington's new, full-time quarterback have been far more than just "all right."
Statistically, they have been among the best debuts by a new starter at Washington in the last 45 years.
So much for the sky falling on UW now that Locker is gone to the NFL.
Price, who has been a quarterback since he was eight years old playing for the Bellflower Broncos just south of Los Angeles, has completed 70 percent of his throws (35 for 50) for 417 yards in wins over Eastern Washington and Hawaii. He has seven touchdown passes and just one interception. He was 18 for 25 for 315 yards and four scoring throws last weekend in UW's 40-32 win over Hawaii.
Mark Brunell's completion percentage through two games as a Husky starter was 35%, half of Keith Price's.
His NCAA quarterback rating of 182.3 is 13th-best in the nation and third in Pac-12. Washington State's Marshall Lobbestael has a 217.1, against Idaho State and UNLV, and Arizona State's Brock Osweiler's is 188.2, after beating UC Davis and Missouri.
Turns out statistically -- and in the bottom line of winning -- Price has bettered the starts to the tenures of Rose Bowl QBs and Husky Legends Marques Tuiasosopo and Mark Brunell. He's been better than national-championship passer Billy Joe Hobert was to start out, better than eventual All-Pac-10 passer Steve Pelluer was to begin 1981 -- even better than an eventual NFL Hall of Famer passer, Warren Moon.
I'm not saying he's going to end up better than any or all of them.
I am saying he's pretty well-adjusted to his new gig.
Don't believe me? See the accompanying chart comparing Price's numbers.
I went way back -- so far back I couldn't use a computer, resorting to hand-written scorebooks in archives (kids, ask your parents) -- to Moon's debut as Washington's quarterback in 1976. Seventeen Huskies have taken over the full-time starting job at the sport's most important position since Gerald Ford was our nation's president. Comparing the passing statistics over the first two games for those 17 debut seasons, Price comes out ahead of every one except Brock Huard in 1997 and Tom Flick in 1980.
And to me, what Price has done may be more impressive. The only new, full-time Huskies QBs to throw for as many touchdowns (Huard in `97) or for a higher completion percentage (Flick in '80) through two games each had far more previous game experience than Price had entering this month.
Huard started nine games in 1996 after Shane Fortney, who began the `96 season running the offense, injured his knee. Flick split the 1979 job with Tom Porras, starting five games after Porras began that season as the starter.
That's 13 more games of starting experience than Price had entering his full-time debut.
And neither one of them did what Price has done while being so efficient and successful: Play through a sprained knee.
Price and Huard (1997) have the most touchdown passes (seven) through the first two games of their tenure since 1976, and are the only ones to have a four-TD day in their first two weeks in the job. Huard is the only new full-timer to throw for more yards through two games than Price, by 55 yards.
Price's completion rate of 70 percent is second only to Flick's 74 percent that began 1980, and Flick had 16 fewer attempts and five fewer touchdowns than Price has at this point. Plus, Flick was a senior taking over, not a sophomore.
Imagine how much better Price's already remarkable efficiency would be if he had the experience of four or eight additional starts.
Or if he had two fully healthy legs.
Price's three-touchdown day against Eastern on Sept. 3 was among the best openers for a new, full-time QB at Washington in the last half century, matching the three touchdown passes Huard threw at Brigham Young on Sept. 6, 1997.
Keith Price has shown poise and confidence in his first two games as the Huskies' starting QB.
And Price played the majority of that opener on only one good leg. He sprained his knee in the first half. To keep him in the game, trainers slapped on a bulky knee brace that felt like a pair of 2x4s restricting his leg when he tried his usual game of roll outs and throws on the move.
The knee was better last week against Hawaii and has been even better this week in practice. Yet coach Steve Sarkisian says he still hasn't called all of the playbook he wants to use with the dynamic Price, a former shotgun quarterback in the spread offense at St. John Bosco High School outside Los Angeles.
Nine of the previous 16 seasons in which the Huskies have debuted a full-time quarterback have ended in a bowl game. Washington reached the Rose Bowl three times with those new QBs: In the 1991 season with Hobert; the 1990 season with Brunell; and the 1980 season with Flick.
What might this foreshadow? Who knows - I realize the Huskies have played just two games, with one of their toughest challenges of 2011 awaiting them Saturday.
But Price is the 10th of UW's 17 new, full-time quarterbacks since 1976 to begin his tenure 2-0. Washington failed to reach a bowl just twice after those season starts, with Locker in 2007 and with Cary Conklin in 1988.
`NOTHING SEEMS TOO BIG FOR HIM'
Fellow quarterbacks marvel over Price's smooth release, one he recently lowered and quickened through extensive work with his position coach, Doug Nussmeier.
But what makes Price unique is his uncanny poise.
"How could you not like the smile that's always on his face?" Damon Huard, Brock's older brother, told me over loudspeakers blaring crowd noise through the ears of Price and the UW offense at Tuesday's practice.
"Keith Price, nothing seems too big for him," Huard said.
Damon Huard was in the same spot in 1993 that Price finds himself in this week: The Huskies' new, full-time quarterback as a sophomore, preparing for a mammoth game on national television at a college football heavyweight and intruding into a hallowed venue with 85-95,000 rooting against him.
Eighteen years ago last weekend, Huard led 12th-ranked Washington into the old "Horseshoe" in Columbus to play No. 16 Ohio State. Just like Price is this week, Huard was coming off a big game - a three-touchdown day in beating Stanford.
"Certainly, going back to Ohio State was an eye-opening experience," said Huard, who went on to play 12 seasons in the NFL for the Dolphins, Patriots and Chiefs, and is now the color analyst for the Huskies' radio game broadcasts. "It was a night game on ABC. Brent Musberger and Dick Vermeil were the announcers. They had (Dan) `Big Daddy' Wilkinson playing on their defensive line. They had (College Football Hall of Famer) Eddie George. I saw that game replayed recently on TV and I could not believe how many future NFL guys played in that game.
"It was a great experience for me, a young guy playing in a great college atmosphere like that."
Yet Huard admits that walking onto the Ohio Stadium turf that night and having 94,000 roaring at him was a daunting, almost overwhelming feeling. He went on to complete eight of 16 throws for 79 yards and an interception against the Buckeyes, and Washington lost 21-12.
"I think my mullet was dragging me down," he joked.
"No," Huard said, seriously, "I don't have nearly the same poise Keith has."
This week at Nebraska, Price will be using the same silent calls and silent snap counts he used in his only other road start, that one at Oregon.
Amid that sea of yellow and green and the notoriously, um, mannered crazies inside Autzen Stadium last Nov. 6, Price just smiled. He grinned in the huddle before the game's first play - and then missed a stunning touchdown on a home-run throw to Jermaine Kearse by inches. He even smiled during plays, as the Ducks chased him all over the field.
Damon Huard, sitting in the radio booth upstairs that day next to Bob Rondeau, couldn't believe it.
"We got a good taste of his makeup last year at Oregon," Huard said. "It was very loud that day.
"This will be a very similar situation for him - just with 40,000 more people screaming at him."
I asked Huard, who quarterbacked UW for three seasons through the 1995 Sun Bowl before he went to the NFL, if he was surprised like many Huskies fans are at Price's blazingly efficient start to this season.
"No. Not at all," Huard said. "If you watched him last year, if you watched him all spring and in preseason camp, I mean, he can really spin a football. He has that beautiful, high release, that tight spiral.
"He has a coach (Sarkisian) who has coached four quarterbacks who have gone top 10 in NFL drafts. Throw in his added weapons -- he's got two senior weapons at wide receiver (Kearse and Devin Aguilar) and a running back (Chris Polk) who is one of the best in the country right now - no, it's not a surprise.
"It's just his poise, the maturity, of the guy to see the field the way he does. He has great vision. He does a great job keeping his eyes downfield, buying time when things break down around him."
All this is not to say things won't break down for him Saturday, and that Price is simply going to rip through Nebraska like a cyclone through the Heartland. The Cornhuskers will be as ready for this game as any of their non-conference ones in recent years, because of the way Washington handled them in December's Holiday Bowl.
Then again, Price might.
I do know he certainly will be the pulse of Washington's first trip to Lincoln since 1998.
"I think the players really enjoy playing with Keith," Sarkisian says. "He has a lot of energy. He is a lot of fun. Loves what we do. And the guys respond to him, without a doubt."
For Price, Thursday's flight to Nebraska can't come soon enough.
"Oh, yeah. I'm excited," he said, with a huge smile, of course. "I want to see how good our football team is."
No, Keith Price isn't exactly shying away from this huge challenge Saturday at Nebraska.
By now, are you surprised?
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.