The phone call from a former colleague came last December. We talked about a few things and then turned our attention to the Washington Huskies. At that time, Jake Locker was wrapping up his career as Husky quarterback, and was soon to move on to the NFL.
We discussed life after Locker. I mentioned how the Huskies might be in good hands with sophomore-to-be Keith Price. My former colleague balked.
“Derek, you’re not being serious?”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “He had that one start against Oregon and he looked good considering the circumstances. Solid poise. Confident. Nice mobility and a decent arm. I dare say he fared about as well as the beloved but ove-rhyped Jake would have in that environment.”
“C’mon, you can’t be serious,” he said. “You know what (insiders) are saying about Price don’t you?”
I said that I didn’t.
“There’s no way he will beat out Nick Montana.”
Maybe my acquaintance thought ill of Price's inexperience. Maybe he considers his athleticism not up to par. Maybe he was given bad information. But fast forwarding to the present moment, the Huskies are in Day 3 of Fall Camp 2011, and sophomore Keith Price is the starting quarterback.
Redshirt freshman Nick Montana might be looking good and competition for the job remains ongoing. But Price stands at the brink of being the signal caller when the Huskies open their season against Eastern Washington on September 3rd.
Playing as a freshman last year, in his only start against Oregon, Price was 14 of 28 for 153 yards and a touchdown. The scoring pass was to Jermaine Kearse early in the third quarter, which pulled the Huskies to within 18-13 of the No. 1 team in the country. For a brief moment, the folks at Autzen Stadium got a little antsy.
Of course, Oregon immediately hit the accelerator and blew the game out of the water, winning 53-16. But Price demonstrated coolness under pressure that seemed to foretell good things.
Given his inexperience, it begs the question: Can a sophomore quarterback lead the Huskies to a successful season?
At first glance, it might seem that history is stacked against him. But reaching back into Husky history, we can pull up several examples of greatly successful sophomore campaigns.
In 1981, Steve Pelluer led the Huskies to the Pac-10 championship and Rose Bowl. There were times when he was shaky, including his performance in a 31-0 loss to UCLA in Los Angeles. But surrounded by a great defense, Pelluer was efficient enough to guide Washington to a 10-2 record and a Rose Bowl triumph over Iowa.
In 1985, sophomore Chris Chandler took over for a struggling Hugh Millen and led the Huskies on a miraculous 98-yard drive to beat USC 20-17. Chandler’s athletic ability propelled UW to a 20-17 win over Colorado in the Freedom Bowl. That win salvaged a season that had been sinking miserably back in October.
In 1990, sophomore Mark Brunell had issues with his accuracy. But his fleet-footed style of athleticism enabled him to lead a Washington team armed with an awesome defense to a 10-2 record and the Rose Bowl title.
In 1991, after Brunell suffered a devastating knee injury during spring ball, sophomore Billy Joe Hobert emerged when the team needed it most. With immense bravado and confidence, as well as a periodic propensity to overthrow open receivers, Hobert guided the Huskies to a 12-0 record, Rose Bowl and National Championship.
Lastly, in 1997, sophomore Brock Huard threw for 2,140 yards and 23 touchdown, leading Washington to an 8-4 record that might have been much better had Huard not sustained an injury against Nebraska that cost him much time during the season. That year concluded with a 51-23 decimation of Nick Saban's Michigan State Spartans.
For 2011, the Washington defense is projected to be a strong suit for the first time since the program's glory days. Potential superstar tailback Chris Polk should provide a strong running game that will mitigate the pressure on Price.
If head coach Steve Sarkisian and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier earn their paychecks and groom Price appropriately, there’s no reason to expect him to lead the team to anything less than eight or nine wins this season.
Derek Johnson is the author of three books including his latest, Bow Down to Willingham: How White Guilt Enabled a Secretly Malicious Coach to Destroy the Once-Mighty Washington Huskies. You can read a free excerpt at derekjohnsonbooks.com