SEATTLE — By now, you should know not to underestimate Keith Price.
The record-setting Washington quarterback has enough surprises to justify his ever-present smile. Burdened with succeeding Jake Locker last season, Price turned that supposed can’t-win pressure into a phenomenal breakout season, complete with school records for touchdown passes (33), completion percentage (66.9) and passing efficiency (161.9 rating). He even outperformed Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III during the Alamo Bowl with 438 passing yards and seven touchdowns (four passing, three rushing).
It was a remarkable redshirt sophomore season for any quarterback, but it was even more impressive considering that Price was expected only to manage a run-oriented offense in Locker’s absence. Instead, he became one of the most indispensable players in college football. And he did it while playing through multiple leg injuries all season.
So, what now?
Don’t put a limit on the kid. If Price isn’t among your top 10 quarterbacks in college football, prepare to revise your list. Actually, crumple it up and start over. You’re in need of some fresh thinking.
Even though the Huskies have question marks along the offensive line, even though running back Chris Polk is no longer a safety net, even though their receiving options don’t appear to be as plentiful and Price will have to target guys (namely tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and wide receiver Kasen Williams) more than he did last season, you shouldn’t expect less from Price now that he’s a known commodity. Price, now a junior, says he can be better. Washington coach Steve Sarkisian says he can be better.
Price worked at the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana in July, serving as a camp counselor with several of the nation’s best college quarterbacks, including USC’s Matt Barkley and Washington State’s Jeff Tuel. Throughout the offseason he polished his fundamentals, scrutinized his game and studied film like a pro. When the season begins, you should see a quarterback who is even more decisive, doesn’t hold onto the ball too long and uses his accuracy to take advantage of even more opportunities to throw down the field.
“He’s really taking to the nuances, the final details of plays and coverages, that can create big plays,” Sarkisian said. “We saw a couple of balls thrown down the sideline before a safety could get over the top. I don’t think he would’ve ever made that throw a year ago and maybe not even late into the season.”
The difference is recognition and comfort. You saw what having a consistently accurate quarterback did for Sarkisian as a play caller last season. Now, as the coach and quarterback become even more in sync, the Huskies are bound to benefit from new wrinkles and more explosiveness.
Beyond his natural talent, Price has impressed with his mental capacity to read defenses, understand protections and truly comprehend the “why” behind the Huskies’ pro-style offense.
“To see through coverages, to anticipate those throws down the field and in between defenders, are where he’s really stepped his game up,” Sarkisian said. “There, and in his true understanding of our protections. He and Drew (center Drew Schaefer) are on the same page of what the offensive line is doing, what they’re responsible for. Understanding that, and where his issues might be, allow him to play really fast when he knows protections, or when there’s an issue because of the rush that’s coming.”
How does Price become more efficient when he’s already had the most efficient season in school history? How does he beat a record 33 touchdown passes? How does he complete more than 67 percent of his passes?
Well, he might not. Those numbers were achieved with a different set of skilled position players helping him. Price was more of a high-functioning complementary player a year ago. Now, he’s the man, but he should have two great receivers making his job easier in Williams and Seferian-Jenkins. And the running back duo of Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey should be productive enough. Price’s stats might be different this season. His completion percentage might dip a little. His 3-to-1 touchdown/interception ration might be lower. But his impact should be greater. He will need to carry the offense at times, and that’s the natural progression of a player who proved so much in 2011.
“I know we say so many times, ‘Well, how can you get better from 33 touchdowns and (66.9 percent) completions and his efficiency?’ “ Sarkisian said. “We’re seeing it. And we’re seeing the guys around him making big plays, and that’s what we want our offense to be. So, we’re on the right track.”
What will Keith Price do for an encore? Don’t sleep on him. If you do, you’re likely to wake up, see him smiling as usual and wonder what new surprise you missed from a player so refreshingly dependable.