Nick Montana will start for the Huskies this week at QB, although Keith Price is expected back for the Apple Cup.
A timeworn cliché of football is that the most popular player on the team is the backup quarterback.
Give that player the last name of Montana and, well, it’s understandable why the anticipation among some Huskies fans to see exactly what they have in their backup quarterback has been off the charts.
The suspense will end Saturday as Nick Montana, son of Hall of Famer Joe Montana, will get his first start when the Huskies play at Oregon State at 12:30 p.m., subbing for Keith Price, who sprained his left knee last week at USC.
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Montana, a redshirt freshman, has played in four games, but has thrown just one pass in a non-mop-up role.
That, though, only whetted the appetite of many fans to see what he might be able to do in a full four quarters when he completed a 53-yarder to Kasen Williams against Oregon.
And for at least this week, the position is his while Price mends.
The move came as little surprise. Montana took every snap with the first team this week while Price watched.
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian confirmed it in a truly 21st Century manner, announcing it on his Twitter page shortly after 2 p.m.
Sarkisian had indicated earlier he might not tell the public, but said after Thursday’s practice that “it just felt right. I loved how Nick had looked the last couple of days.”
He said he made the decision after watching film of Wednesday’s practice and called Montana. He said he told the team before tweeting the news.
“Keith’s not 100 percent, obviously you can tell,” Sarkisian said. “I thought Keith looked much better today. He’s moving better. I think he’ll be available in emergency status on Saturday. For our team it’s the right thing to do. For Keith it was the right thing to do. Nicky’s earned it, he’s done a nice job.”
Sarkisian said the plan is for Price to recover enough that he could take over the following week in the Apple Cup.
“Yeah, that’s the idea,” Sarkisian said. “We just want to get (Price) healthy.”
The Huskies can only hope Montana’s first start for UW goes as well as his first start at Oaks Christian School in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
There, in September 2008 as a junior who had just transferred from De La Salle High in Concord, Calif., he led the Lions to a 35-7 win over a Bakersfield Christian team led by current Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr. Montana completed 7 of 12 passes for 131 yards and three touchdowns and ran 48 yards to set up a score.
“He’s very calm, and nothing seems to faze the kid,” said Oaks Christian coach Bill Redell. “Things like big crowds. At Oaks Christian you had 6,000, but the crowd doesn’t bother him. He’s very poised, great leadership skills, he knows what he’s doing.”
And yes, much of that sounds like his father, who won three Super Bowl MVP awards with the San Francisco 49ers en route to becoming one of the best ever to play the position.
The comparisons are unavoidable, if unfair, something Sarkisian seemed to hint at this week when he lightly admonished a reporter for asking a question along those lines, saying “(you’re) talking about the greatest of all-time. Jeez, the poor guy (Nick Montana) is just trying to play.”
Redell, though, says he never noticed a hint of Montana’s lineage being a burden.
“I think he feels that if his dad was at Washington right now, he’d be (his) backup,” Redell said with a laugh. “That never bothered him at all. He looks at it very much as a positive.”
Montana was one of Sarkisian’s first big-name recruits at UW, committing to Washington in spring 2009 and enrolling in time for spring practice in 2010. Price, though, was already at UW and had a leg up in experience in the battle to replace Jake Locker this season.
Sarkisian named Price the starter after spring practice and Price only made the decision look that much better when he threw 21 touchdown passes in the first six games before his pace slowed a bit the past four games. He’s been battling nagging injuries. Facing three of the best teams in the Pac-12, Price has thrown just four touchdown passes since Oct. 15.
Montana was not made available to speak to the media this week, but said a few weeks ago he was not frustrated with his role as a backup.
“It’s a little tough, but still, just competing in practice and just always keeping yourself ready — that just motivates me,” he said then. “It’s not too hard. Backups, you are pretty close to being in, so you’ve always got to be ready.”
Sarkisian has often referenced that same reality, saying on several occasions he expected UW would need both quarterbacks this season. That moment comes now for the Huskies, who are 6-4 and already bowl eligible, but hoping to snap a two-game losing streak. They want to put some life back in a season that has dimmed considerably with three losses in the past four games, all by 17 points or more.
Sarkisian said he has no doubt Montana is ready.
Asked where Montana has progressed the most, Sarkisian said, “I think just ultimately the speed in which he’s playing. He’s gotten faster and faster and faster. It’s never been about his smarts. He’s a bright kid. Obviously he understands the system, and you get more of an understanding when you start to learn defenses. Those two things coming together, with his mechanics, have allowed him to play faster.”
• Defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu sat out practice with his right foot in a boot. He practiced earlier in the week but sprained his ankle against USC and Sarkisian said, “We just wanted to rest it, quite honestly. He has a rolled ankle and we just wanted to get the swelling out of it. He’ll play.”
• WR James Johnson, who has missed the past two games with a sprained ankle, should play, Sarkisian said. However, reserve LB Garret Gilliland (stinger) is questionable.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @bcondotta