BY Doug Farrar 02:12PM 01/22/2011

Locker, Foster face next hurdle at Senior Bowl

Thought Nebraska was tough? The real tests start now for Husky seniors

Jake Locker used his legs to win a bowl game in his final Washington appearance. (Drew McKenzie/Sportspress Northwest)

If Washington Huskies quarterback Jake Locker and linebacker Mason Foster thought that upsetting Bo Pelini’s Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Holiday Bowl was a tough order, the opponent they will face over the next three months makes Nebraska look like a Division III school with a high school quarterback.

It is the pre-draft evaluation process, it is the most daunting road any college football player will travel, and it starts … well, pretty much right now.

Specifically, the process already started for Locker and Foster and hundreds of collegians like them, working out kinks in technique, deliveries and mechanics, in order to look their best. The draft scouting system combines the inexact science of personnel evaluation with a meat market, and literally billions of dollars on the other side. Step one on this process for Washington’s two primary draft prospects is Senior Bowl week, which begins Monday in Mobile, AL.

Locker, with raw tools that rival those of any quarterback to come out in the last decade, has the most to gain or lose of any player during the Monday-Friday practices and Saturday game. With his physical abilities come serious questions about his pro readiness in all the important categories – accuracy, consistency, ability to read complex defenses, and composure to make stick throws under pressure.

Many view Locker as a perfect mold into which an NFL quarterback could eventually be poured. But the length of that process could seriously affect Locker’s draft position. For every beautiful fade route to Jermaine Kearse in the Apple Cup and stick throw in the Holiday Bowl, there were five awkward sandlot rollouts with iffy passes attached to them, as well as chuck-and-ducks out of pressure. Locker’s greatness is sporadic at best when graded at the level the NFL requires of its quarterbacks.

It’s just as easy to find experts who see Locker as an easy top-15 pick as it is to talk with those who believe that he could easily wind up in the late first or early second round. senior analyst Rob Rang, who has watched Locker closely since his prep days, is on the fence about the quarterback right now, and that’s how crucial the Senior Bowl is for Locker. No more “My guys weren’t good enough” excuses for Locker – not that he ever made them – but he’ll now have better players blocking for him, taking his handoffs, and catching his passes. It’s time for Locker to show how he stacks up as a quarterback in a neutral, and favorable, arena.

“With an ideal performance in this highly competitive setting, Locker could re-emerge as a top ten prospect,” Rang told Sportspress Northwest. “While this might seem unfathomable to those who have watched Locker make minimal gains over four years in terms of reading defenses and delivering an accurate ball, the reality is that the Husky senior is viewed as a safer pick by some clubs than Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett and Auburn’s Cam Newton.

“Should Locker struggle, there is certainly the possibility that he could slip out of the first round, entirely. Say what you want about Locker’s upside and intangibles, in the NFL, inaccurate quarterbacks are exposed… and quickly. Barring a major injury, he will not fall out of the second round; he possesses too much upside.”

Washington linebacker Mason Foster tackled everything he could get his hands on in his senior season. (Drew McKenzie/Sports Press Northwest)

It’s been so long since the Huskies produced a quarterback of first-round quality, Locker could be forgiven if he felt like a next-gen originator. Foster, who took control of the Washington defense when Donald Butler left for the San Diego Chargers in the 2010 NFL draft, at least has a recent predecessor. Foster also has a shot at matching Butler’s third-round pick status, but Rang pointed out the things he’s going to have to do if that’s to happen.

“Foster could actually have more riding on his performance in terms of the number of draft slots he could jump or slip depending on his performance in Mobile,” Rang said “Anyone who watched Washington play this season knows about Foster’s value to the defense. His instincts, quick hands to shed blocks and reliable open field tackling helped him produce one of the greatest seasons of any linebacker in the Huskies’ storied history. I expect him to perform well in Mobile, legitimizing himself as a solid mid second to mid third- round prospect.

“To improve his standing with NFL scouts, Foster will have to play with a greater degree of physicality and make some plays in coverage. This is the formula that helped Butler make his late rise up draft boards last year.

“As with Locker, there is some danger that Foster could struggle at the Senior Bowl, as well. Quite frankly, at least some of his eye-popping production at Washington was due to the fact that very few other Husky defenders were in position to make plays. Should Foster struggle to do the same at the Senior Bowl, some will argue that he was exposed as a good player who starred on a bad team, rather than a great player on an improving team. As such, his stock could settle back into the late third to mid fourth round.”

One of the main reasons that current Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian just received a contract extension is the high number of his recruits who project as future NFL draftees, Locker and Foster, on the other hand, are among the last survivors of the trip through purgatory with Ty Willingham, lucky enough to grab a little time with a qualified head coach before their opportunities expired.

Now, they must make the most of those opportunities.


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