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July 24, 2008
LOS ANGELES ? Washington quarterback Jake Locker practically scoffed at his coach after a reporter asked Huskies coach Tyrone Willingham if he planned to have Locker run as much this season as he did in 2007.
"The preference is to have him not run at all," Willingham said.
Locker muffled a short laugh at the prospect of hanging out in the pocket. Willingham then added that taking Locker's legs out from under him would eliminate a major threat of his offense.
"We'll try to figure out the right balance for that and we'll let the game dictate that," Willingham said.
Odds are the game will dictate that Locker run. He's the leading returning rusher in the Pac-10, with 986 yards and 13 touchdowns. His 172 carries aren't astronomical, especially when run-pass threats such as Florida's Tim Tebow (210 attempts), USF's Matt Grothe (198) and West Virginia's Pat White (197) carried the ball more.
Willingham would just like to protect the best player of his short tenure in Seattle. Or maybe he'd just like to see him pass more.
Locker completed only 48 percent of his passes as a redshirt freshman starter. He threw 15 interceptions and 14 touchdowns. His improvement as a passer could mean the difference between a bowl game and the end of Willingham's tenure at Washington.
The improvement in the passing game will come with time, Willingham said, as Locker gets more accustomed to the offense. When he wasn't playing baseball this summer, Locker hoped to build his confidence through voluntary workouts. Once that happens, Willingham said Locker's abilities as a natural passer will shine.
"When I'm throwing the ball confidently, I'm accurate," Locker said. "When I'm questioning or second-guessing where I'm going, it's sporadic."
It's his running that has drawn the most attention, and he has been called the "Tebow of the West Coast." Both have the build of a linebacker and a willingness to take defenders head on. Locker admires Tebow, but cringes at the comparison.
Perhaps a better parallel would be to Oregon's Dennis Dixon. Like Dixon, Locker spent much of the summer on a baseball field. Unlike Dixon, he stayed in town to play amateur baseball and only on the weekends over the course of two months. Locker hit .273 in 10 games with the Bellingham Bells but returned during the week to work with receivers and study film.
Dixon's indulgence in baseball didn't hurt his football career. He returned from his minor-league experience and had the Ducks on track to possibly play for a national championship ? until Dixon was injured.
No one is expecting a championship run out of Locker, but he may be on the verge of a special season nonetheless.
"One of the foremost keys to being a successful quarterback is experience," Willingham said. "He has one year under his belt and because of that he will see things he didn't see last year and anticipate things he didn't last year. You will see his natural ability to throw the football and be precise with the football."
The Pac-10 is known as a quarterbacks' conference. This season, it's a season of quarterback question marks going into fall practice.
The Trojans are one of the few teams with a new quarterback. California, Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA and Stanford had to use their backups some last season, and still are trying to sort out this season's starter.
A decision at Cal could come right before the first game. Vying for the job are Nate Longshore, who has started 26 career games, and Kevin Riley, who was the MVP of the Armed Forces Bowl against Air Force. Cal coach Jeff Tedford expects both to play.
"Nate has won a lot of games for us and Kevin showed very well," Tedford said. "It's going to be very competitive. We will probably pick a starter the week of the first game."
Oregon goes into fall camp in a similar situation, with Nate Costa and Justin Roper competing. Ducks coach Mike Bellotti said Costa could have run the same offense Dennis Dixon ran last year, but he was injured and redshirted before Dixon was lost for the season in November. Roper salvaged the position with an encouraging performance against USF in the Sun Bowl, but didn't wrap up the job in the spring.
Things at UCLA might be a little more dire. When Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel was asked about the quarterback situation, he shot back to the reporter, "Do you have any eligibility?"
It might not be that bad, but it seemed close on one day in the spring when both Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson were hurt during non-contact drills. Cowan is out for the season with a torn ACL, but Olson is expected to recover from a foot injury in time to play this fall.
Barren in Berkeley?
Cal had as much turnover at the offensive skill positions as it can handle with the departure of the entire receiving corps, a starting tight end and 1,000-yard rusher Justin Forsett.
Tedford, though, isn't concerned with much of a drop-off. Jahvid Best was one of the fastest players in the Pac-10 last season before a dislocated hip put him on the sideline and kept him out of spring practice. Best now is healthy, Tedford said, and should form an impressive tandem with redshirt freshman Shane Vereen.
"This is the most explosive backfield we've had since we've been here," Tedford said. "Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen are guys with explosive speed that are versatile, that can block and make the big play with the ball in their hands."
As for the receivers, what the Bears lack in experience, they make up with size. Last season's top three receivers were 6-0 or shorter. The projected top two in 2008 ? Michael Calvin and Nyan Boateng ? are 6-2, to go along with 5-11 Jeremy Ross.
"We've had a lot of smaller, speedy guys," Tedford said. "We have a lot of bigger, speedy guys now."
Bowl snub still stings
Some people complain there are too many bowls. Arizona coach Mike Stoops needed just one more in 2006.
The Wildcats went 6-6 that year, including three wins (and two against ranked teams) in the last four games, but did not get a bowl invitation. That meant they also didn't get the extra practices and didn't have the boost of confidence that comes from postseason play. The hangover played a part in a 1-3 start to the 2007 season.
Winning three of the last four, including a 34-24 win over a Dennis Dixon-less Oregon team, may have helped Stoops' job security but couldn't land Arizona (5-7) in a bowl.
"We should have gone to a bowl game two years ago," said Stoops, who hasn't been to a bowl at Arizona. "If we had the same package we have now, we would have played. Not having that experience kind of hurt our development a little bit and we still had that shadow we weren't good enough."
Those concerns might be moot now. The Wildcats' schedule is a little easier this season. It starts off with Idaho and Toledo in Tucson, followed by New Mexico in Albuquerque (though the Lobos beat Arizona 29-27 last year). The Pac-10 also added bowl tie-ins with the Hawaii and Poinsettia bowls to bump the league's guaranteed bowl bids from five to seven.
That depth could be even better if Washington gets a healthy season from sixth-year senior Juan Garcia. He was a second-team All-Pac-10 selection but battled a foot injury that threatened his season.
Willingham expects him back this year, but beyond that, Garcia's future is a mystery. Garcia opted out of surgery with hopes of playing this season, but further injury could require he undergo a season-ending procedure.
"We're hoping we will have him back at some point during the year," Willingham said. "We didn't do the invasive surgery procedure, so we're hoping the natural healing process will take place. If it does, we're hoping he will back sooner than later."
Garcia's return would further boost a line that is the strength of Washington's offense.
Spreading the word?
First-year Washington State coach Paul Wulff earned the reputation of an offensive mastermind while at Division I-AA Eastern Washington. He often has been identified as a no-huddle, spread coach, but that might not be the case in Pullman.
"We're not a quote 'spread offense,' " Wulff said. "We'll be in shotgun about 50-60 percent of the time, maybe sometimes more, sometimes less. We'll be pretty multiple. You may see us with two backs or no backs and five wide receivers.
"We'll hopefully give illusion of a lot of different things, but simple plays - we're not pass first, run second. We will try to run the ball first. We may do it multiple different ways with running backs, receivers and quarterback."
That's a far cry from what Wulff ran when he played center during his career at Washington State. The Cougars ran the veer under Jim Walden before Dennis Erickson was hired in 1987 - Wulff's sophomore season - and installed a one-back offense.
Whatever offense Washington State runs, Wulff will have a major weapon in wide receiver Brandon Gibson, who spurned the NFL after leading the Pac-10 with 1,180 yards.
"I didn't feel I was ready to compete at the NFL level. I felt another year would help me mature," Gibson said. "I heard some good things about (Wulff). I had some friends at Eastern Washington who said it was a receivers' offense."
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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