BY Todd Dybas 06:38PM 03/28/2011

Huskies QB battle is one of belief

Little separates Price and Montana, making duel more about team confidence.

Washington quarterback Keith Price will compete for the starting job in 2011. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

Finally, there was a question regarding Jake Locker.

It took almost 45 minutes for Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian to be asked about Locker Monday during the opening press conference of the season. That’s about 44 minutes longer than the past two seasons.

Locker has just one hype-filled day remaining on the Washington campus. That is Wednesday when national scribes and scouts will show up for Washington’s Pro Day to watch Locker throw a football.

Meanwhile, Keith Price and Nick Montana will be taking reps that will determine how much each influences Washington’s 2011 season.

It’s odd not to have the hometown hero to analyze or complain about. Locker’s absence is a continuity rattling shift for the program.

The voice in the huddle, the respect from teammates, the running ability, those certainties are gone. It’s up to Price or Montana to replace them with fresh assurances.

The process starts Tuesday. Sarkisian said he’s not going to rush it, but that he’s not going to platoon quarterbacks either. He also said for one to worry about what the other is doing is likely a route to the bench.

“I think the moment you start to concern yourself with the other guy and you base your day of having a good day or a bad day, based on how it’s relevant to the other guy, you’re in trouble,” Sarkisian said.

That’s the way he approached his personal battles to take all the snaps. In junior college, at BYU, in the Canadian Football League, Sarkisian always had to fight his way to be the starter.

He worried about how much of his day fulfilled his potential. If he threw two picks, but his opposition threw three, he was not dumb enough to believe that was some form of back-handed success.

“That’s the wrong mentality to have,” Sarkisian said.

Who are the two youngsters grappling to take over post-Jake? Monikers aside, more is known about Price than Montana.

Price, a redshirt sophomore, has good feet, speed and demeanor. He laughs. A lot. He’s a positive kid. He’s able to wheel around and dust people when in trouble. He doesn’t have the same straight-line speed as Locker. He did have his mechanics, in particular his release point, altered by quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier, like Locker.

Nick Montana / University of Washington

Montana? Tough to provide an even-handed judgment. Pedigree, comfort in the pocket, rhythmic drops, those are in place. But he ran the scout team last season looking like a freshman quarterback who ran the scout team.

Sarkisian says each gained weight in the offseason. Most important, he said each will have a shot to be the starter.

“We have to continually put them in the settings where they can show off and show where they have those intangibles, and where they are deficient,” Sarkisian said.

Sarkisian harped Monday on Washington being a deficient drop-back passing team, saying he came to the realization while on vacation and watching a special on 49ers guru Bill Walsh. The anti-Locker crowd — in for a severe dose of don’t-know-what-you-got-until-it’s-gone this year — will take that as an indictment of Locker’s accuracy. It is, in part.

It’s also a shot at the wide receivers and offensive line. Up front, the pocket needs to be formed to allow the quarterback to have a ticking clock as opposed to time bomb churning through his head.

The wideouts need to get off the line. They need to make many of the catches they did not last season. Sarkisian wants to be the puppet master of a connected marionette.

How he is going to make it dance will also change this year. Neither Price or Montana can rival Locker’s arm strength. Both can challenge his intermediate accuracy, assuming someone is open within that range. They also will have an actual option at tight end.

Washington’s base offensive system, one predicated on running the ball then following that with play action, will remain intact. Perhaps more so than before since running back Chris Polk will be option one. But in addition to Polk’s rumbling, Jesse Callier‘s fly sweep and big shots down the field, the abilities of the new quarterback will surface and hide pages in the playbook.

Sarkisian said the quarterback measurements are simple: Who takes care of the ball? Who doesn’t crumble when it’s difficult? Which youngster conveys belief in the huddle?

To Sarkisian, Price’s experience (one start, an extra year in practice) will only help the sophomore if he shows its benefit. Overall judgment will come from where each was when they entered the program, to their current capability. A single mediocre day for either will not end the competition.

“I’m not going to rush to judgment to name a starter for the sake of naming a starter,” Sarkisian said. “We’re going to take our time, we’re going to allow these two kids to grow and evolve at the position, go through some ups and downs, and then when we get there, we’ll make that call.”

Though the team has a balance that was missing the past four seasons, the demeanor of the new quarterback can’t be overlooked. Will Polk believe what he says? Will the receivers believe he understands the call? Will the line believe he will sit when he needs to sit and run when he needs to run?

Will they all believe, the way they did last year, when the new quarterback tells them they are going to get it done on fourth down on the road?

Sarkisian better hope. There’s nothing like doubt in the leader to quell the momentum of a rising program.


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