Faced with the daunting task of replacing injured Jake Locker and starting against top-ranked Oregon, Keith Price continues to be at ease with the situation.
Those who know him best describe Keith Price as the kind of person who always has a smile on his face.
And he also, he revealed Wednesday, always has a football in his bed.
“It’s my Pop Warner football,” Price said. “I always wanted a little brown NFL football (as a kid), and we couldn’t quite get that. They got me the little rubber ball, and I still have it to this day.”
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Then he smiled and asked reporters not to tell anyone. “Keep it on the hush,” he said.
Too late for that as Price is now being thrust into the spotlight, football fans wanting to know just who is this redshirt freshman forced to step into the starting lineup for the Huskies to replace an injured Jake Locker.
And this could hardly be called a soft landing as Price will get his first start Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at Autzen Stadium against the No. 1-ranked Oregon Ducks.
It would be a daunting task for any quarterback, let alone someone taking over a UW offense that hasn’t scored in 97 minutes and 50 seconds and who has thrown just nine passes in his college career.
But UW coaches and teammates say the same laid-back personality evident in the ever-present smile will enable him to handle the chaos of Autzen.
“He doesn’t seem nervous,” said teammate Will Shamburger, who like Price, grew up in Compton, Calif., and has been friends since elementary school. “He’s the same Keith. He’s always just joking around.”
Not to say he’s not taking this chance seriously. As Shamburger says, “This is his opportunity to show how good he is to everybody.”
As his sleeping arrangements might indicate, Price said football “has always been my first love.”
He played it at every level, becoming a quarterback in junior high, and then taking over that spot at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, Calif., a private school about 15 minutes from Compton. He lived with his grandmother in Long Beach during that time, his parents wanting him away from some of the dangerous elements of Compton.
“I was able to attend private school and kind of change my life and play sports,” said Price.
In the high-caliber Trinity League, Price was the Co-Offensive Player of the Year, a quarterback named Matt Barkley — now at USC — winning MVP honors.
But by then, he’d already earned the attention of scouts with a strong arm and a knack for running — UW coach Steve Sarkisian says his quickness is as much of a threat as his speed — that made him a perfect fit to the fill the role of dual-threat quarterback increasingly called for in college football. He had offers from Arizona State and Oregon, taking a visit to Eugene, so Saturday won’t be the first time he’s stepped foot in Autzen Stadium.
But he decided on UW in July 2008, the first player to commit that year to then-coach Tyrone Willingham.
When Willingham was fired a few months later, he briefly reopened his commitment. But a quick visit from Sarkisian, who knew all about Price — who had attended a camp at USC — kept him in the fold at UW.
When Nick Montana committed to UW in summer 2009, before Price had yet to enroll at UW, many assumed that Huskies QB mantle would pass quickly from Locker to Montana.
But Price worked on his passing mechanics last fall, lowering his arm a bit to make his throws more consistent, impressing coaches with his improvement. And having an extra year in the system also had him that much further along than Montana — son of Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana — in knowledge of the offense, all of which helped him earn the backup job out of fall camp.
“He really did a nice job in the summer with his workout program and the stuff the players do in the offseason, of getting themselves ready for camp,” said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier. “Mentally, he took some big, big strides through camp.”
He was thrown into the fire when Locker was knocked out of the game briefly at USC and threw a touchdown on his only pass, a stint that, while brief, only increases the confidence of coaches in what he can do.
And while the Huskies face long odds — listed now as 35-point underdogs with the line steadily moving in Oregon’s favor since the news of Locker’s injury broke — that also allows the Huskies to play with a nothing-to-lose attitude that seems a perfect fit for Price.
“I’m having fun, that’s the main thing,” he said of running the team this week. “It’s unfortunate what happened to Jake and I’m just trying to go out there and do the best I can. I know a lot of people are not giving us a shot in the world. I’m just going out there to try and prove them wrong.”