Washington quarterback Jake Locker and former USC star Carson Palmer both improved under the coaching of Steve Sarkisian.
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian ponders the question: Does he see similarities in the career paths of two of his most famous students — Jake Locker and Carson Palmer, now a starting quarterback with the Cincinnati Bengals? He nods furiously.
“Yeah, very similar,” he says. “Eerily similar.”
And also, he hopes, prophetic.
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Like Locker, Palmer was the local phenom high-school quarterback (at Rancho Santa Margarita High, outside Los Angeles) who went to the nearby former powerhouse college, hoping to restore its tradition. USC for Palmer, Washington for Locker.
Like Locker, Palmer had some early success (his first start came in a win over the Huskies in 1998), only to see his career stunted.
Like Locker, Palmer missed most of a season due to an injury. Palmer broke his right collarbone in the third game of his second year as a starter; Locker broke his thumb in the fourth game of his second year as a starter.
And like Locker, Palmer saw his career resurrected when Sarkisian entered his life as a coach.
At USC in 2001, Sarkisian was an assistant in charge of quarterbacks. At UW in 2009, Sarkisian took over as head coach, though still with a keen everyday eye on the quarterbacks.
“They both came in with high expectations and were kind of savior-like guys,” Sarkisian said. “They both struggled through injury and a little bit of mediocrity throughout their career.”
Sarkisian said the immediate goals for each were also similar.
“That first year we got them, I think as much as they were maybe a little banged-up physically, mentally they were a little fragile as well,” Sarkisian said. “And part of the process for both of those guys was not only to develop a scheme around them and get the players playing well around them and fine-tuning their mechanics, but building them up mentally and getting them back to believing in themselves and the type of player that they are capable of being.”
The payoff wasn’t necessarily immediate for Palmer, whose numbers were about the same in his first year under Sarkisian (and coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow) as they had been his previous year. By contrast, most of Locker’s numbers improved markedly a year ago, notably increasing his completion percentage by 5 percent.
Palmer, though, said in a phone interview with The Seattle Times that he could tell pretty quickly his career was changing for the better, and he gave much of the credit to Sarkisian, a former standout quarterback at Brigham Young.
“He knows what it’s like (to play quarterback), and that’s what separates him from a lot of coaches,” Palmer said. “He’s a good coach, but he was also a good player, so he really understands the psyche of a quarterback and the mind-set and what certain quarterbacks with certain talents can do and how they can be successful.”
Though he wasn’t necessarily guaranteed to be as high a draft pick as Locker is projected to be, Palmer had a similar decision to make after his junior year — whether to head to the NFL or return for one more year at USC.
Palmer stayed, and said not only has he never regretted it, but also that “it would have been a huge mistake if I had decided to (come out early). Experience is the biggest key to a quarterback’s success. I had the chance to be a starter again and have another whole season of experience. And I could kind of foresee that our team (could have success), and that was way more appealing to me than the NFL at that time.”
Indeed, he turned in one of the greatest passing seasons in Pac-10 history in 2002, throwing for 33 touchdowns against 10 interceptions as he led USC to a 10-2 season, and winning the Heisman Trophy.
Washington fans can only hope the Palmer-Locker similarities continue one more year.
Palmer, who says he watched with interest last year as Locker made his draft decision, thinks they could, saying that the comfort of a second year in the system, and the experience of being a fifth-year senior — factors also on Locker’s side this year — were huge reasons for his breakthrough.
Sarkisian thinks the similarities go even further, noting that USC went 6-6 in 2001 before busting out 10 wins in 2002, the true beginning of the Carroll dynasty, while UW went 5-7 last season.
“I’m telling you, to me, not only are their situations very, very similar, but for the programs as well,” Sarkisian said. “I don’t know what that all means. But I hope it can kind of recreate itself.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org