Angels woo Jake Locker; he focuses on Washington-USC game

Put aside for a moment the issue of Jake Locker’s strong arm and quick feet, his knack for making things happen on the football field. Skip past his showdown with the USC defense this afternoon.

Go directly to another sort of question.

Hey, Jake, when’s the last time you swung a bat?

In addition to the Washington quarterback’s impressive statistics, which put him atop the Pacific 10 Conference in passing and total offense, Locker was recently drafted by the Angels as a center fielder.


Last month the team paid him a bonus of about $300,000 in hopes that he might someday leave football behind. The thing is, he hasn’t played baseball in more than two years.

“I swung a softball bat this summer at the Old Settlers tournament,” he said.

That would be the tournament at the annual picnic in his hometown of Ferndale, population 11,000, up where Washington state ends and Canada begins.

“We took second,” Locker half-grumbled.

Second place at the local park and he gets a big league bonus? If nothing else, the money is a clue that Locker is a special athlete.

Here’s another clue: At least one coach who has game-planned against both him and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow of Florida sees a resemblance.

“Jake is probably faster in a 40-yard dash,” Les Miles of Louisiana State said. “But they’re big and strong and they’re very capable throwers and have the ability, when they run, to run hard.”

Further praise comes from USC Coach Pete Carroll, who counts Locker among his favorite players.

Coaches are given to praising opponents the week before the game, but Carroll has been talking this way for several years, since he recruited Locker to play for the Trojans.

“He’s a guy that really carries the program,” Carroll said. “There aren’t many guys like that.”

The 6-foot-3, 222-pound Locker was a freshman All-American in 2007, passing for 2,062 yards and rushing for 986, the latter a conference record for quarterbacks.

That fall, he almost beat USC, running for two touchdowns as the Trojans barely escaped Seattle with a 27-24 victory.

But not everything was perfect. Locker was a promising talent on a bad team slipping further and further south. He needed to fix his 47% completion rate, his 15 interceptions.

The 2008 season did not offer much chance for improvement, the redshirt sophomore breaking his thumb while throwing a downfield block against Stanford. Almost as painful: He stood on the sideline and watched his team stumble to a historically bad 0-12 record.

By the time the injury healed, Washington had a new coach -- former USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian -- and a new system.

“We’ve changed him because we’re not shotgun, quarterback-runs-like-crazy anymore,” Sarkisian said. “We’re dropping back, doing all the stuff you’ve seen for years at USC.”

The switch to a pro-style offense emphasized accuracy and footwork in the pocket. Spring practice was a learning process.

“It was new to me and I wasn’t getting it as fast as I would have liked,” Locker said. “I don’t like being bad at things, so it was frustrating.”

Sarkisian had some experience with this predicament as USC’s graduate assistant in 2001, when he helped Carson Palmer acclimate to Norm Chow’s scheme. Locker and Palmer have similar career trajectories.

“Two guys who played as freshmen, got all the praise and got injured,” Sarkisian said, referring to Palmer’s broken collarbone in 1999. “Now they had to come back with a new system in place.”

By the final spring scrimmage, the offense felt more comfortable, Locker completing 16 of 18 passes. His development continued through summer camp and into the first two games.

In the opener, Washington battled heavily-favored LSU into the fourth quarter, Locker passing for 321 yards and two touchdowns before his team fell, 31-23.

“They designed a nice scheme that complements what he does,” Miles said.

Last week, the Huskies swamped Idaho, 42-23, to snap a 15-game losing streak, the longest in the nation. Locker threw for three touchdowns and ran for one.

Idaho Coach Robb Akey noted that although the Huskies have an improved passing attack, defenses still have to worry about the scramble.

“We had a third-down opportunity that keeps points off the board, we’ve got the opportunity to sack him, and we lose contain, he gets out,” Akey said. “You can’t do that against a quarterback like that.”

The Trojans don’t have to be told.

They have a history of struggling against mobile quarterbacks. Though they held Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor to 36 yards rushing last week -- and enter today’s game as 18.5-point favorites -- Carroll worries.

“Jake’s different,” he said. “He’s a different athlete.”

The kind of athlete who gets drafted in a sport he hasn’t played in a long time.

Locker says he was a little surprised when the Angels selected him in the 10th round this June, a little more surprised by the contract they offered.

Maybe he didn’t know the organization has a history of looking for talent on the gridiron, previously drafting but not signing West Virginia quarterback Pat White.

Angels scouting director Eddie Bane called Locker “a great leader with great ability. We want to keep the taste of baseball in his mouth until he makes a final decision.”

With the Huskies expected to finish near the bottom of the Pac-10 again, Locker might have bailed for the money and the promise of a new start.

Yet, walking off the practice field on a warm day beside Lake Washington, he seems uncomfortable answering questions about baseball.

Yes, he surrendered his scholarship and the Angels agreed to pay his tuition. (That’s right, maybe the best quarterback in the conference doesn’t have an athletic scholarship.) No, he doesn’t know when he’ll next swing a bat.

Locker would rather talk about honing his drop back and reading defenses, all the things he has learned the last few months.

“Right now,” he said, “I’m focused on football.”

That’s not especially good news for the Trojans.