I have been as critictal of Washington quarterback Jake Locker's struggles as anyone. He entered this season as a prohibitive favorite to be the first senior selected in the 2011 draft and now I do not currently project him among the Top 32 in my first round mock draft.
Part of the reason for Locker's downfall has been the expectations placed upon him after what appeared to be a breakout junior season under Steve Sarkisian. Locker made such strides in his first season under Sarkisian that it was natural to believe he'd make similar gains year two.
It hasn't happened. Locker is still too often fooled by coverages and is highly inconsistent with his accuracy. Those two facts, regardless of how athletic a quarterback might be, have historically translated into struggles at the NFL level.
Scouts can't just write off Locker as a project, however. That's because, as he again demonstrated last night in a thrilling Apple Cup victory over state rival Washington State, Locker has shown the ability to make accurate throws when the pressure is highest.
Now, let's be clear. Locker was bad -- not just bad, abysmal - in home losses this season to Nebraska and Stanford, the two best defenses he faced all season long. Considering the expectations placed on him, one could argue those two games were the ones he faced the most "pressure" and therefore my argument doesn't appear to hold water.
However, anyone who has watched the Huskies play this season knows about the struggles they've had on the offensive line. This isn't an excuse for Locker. Washington has started a staggering six different lineups along the offensive line. Teams with physical defensive lines -- like Nebraska and Stanford -- have so thoroughly dominated UW up front that Locker had no chance.
Rather, by "pressure," I mean that Locker has been able to make accurate throws when the game is on the line. He's demonstrated this ability often after he's been average (or worse) throughout much of the rest of the game. It is a big reason why, as Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times notes, four of Washington's six victories this season have come in the "final minute or in their last possession of the game ."
Locker demonstrated this ability to make legitimate NFL throws in critical moments in Washington's upsets over USC and Cal each of the past two years and the win over Washington State last night. Folks, that may not sound like many games, but when you've been as bad as Washington has been (Duke and Baylor are the only BCS teams with a longer bowl game drought), there haven't been many opportunities to scout Locker in "pressure" situations.
Again, don't get me wrong. Locker was fair from great last night. It was the Huskies' redshirt sophomore running back Chris Polk who won this game. His jaw-dropping 284 rushing yards and two touchdowns made life much easier on Locker and will be a featured component Monday in my Weekly Rewind feature . Locker, in fact, wasn't even the best quarterback on the field last night. The Cougars' sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel was spectacular, providing ample evidence that WSU head coach Paul Wulff is doing an admirable job of turning around WSU's program.
But, on the 4th quarter drive to earn a bowl game or end his collegiate career, Locker threw a perfect 27-yard fade to Jermaine Kearse with 44 seconds left to win it. Peyton Manning doesn't throw that pass with better touch, timing or placement than Locker did on that critical play. Here is the link to watch the throw.
And that, in a nutshell, is why Jake Locker is the most frustrating quarterback I've ever scouted. He made some of the same errors in this game that he's made throughout his career. In calling for eight consecutive running plays (six by Polk, two by Locker) on that final drive, scouts are left to wonder whether Sarkisian simply trusted his running game or didn't trust Locker's passing to put the Huskies in position to kick the game-winning field goal.
But, when the play was called to go for the throat, Locker delivered. As Football Outsiders and Sports Press Northwest's writer Doug Farrar noted on Twitter , "That's the throw they're going to show through the entire pre-draft process when everyone's debating Locker's NFL QB ability."
With that one throw, Locker again proved that he can make accurate throws in critical moments. I, like A LOT of scouts I speak to, am not convinced that Locker will ever get past his struggles reading coverage or inconsistent ball placement and be a successful NFL quarterback.
But throws like that one - in moments like that one - provide the evidence that perhaps he can.