Locker adjusts to life with a clipboard, learns from veteran Hasselbeck

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 9:05pm
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Christopher Berkey for The City Paper  

Mike Munchak started a recent quarterbacks meeting with a question.

The Tennessee Titans coach asked veteran Matt Hasselbeck about his Saturday routine. Hasselbeck replied that he devotes the early part of the day to his family, but shortly after noon goes off on his own and begins his preparation for the next day’s game.

Munchack then asked the team’s other two signal-callers, Jake Locker and Rusty Smith, whether they did the same. They admitted they did not.

Locker, the eighth overall pick in April’s draft, ended the meeting with a series of his own questions. He grilled Hasselbeck about how he spends his Saturdays and took detailed notes throughout the discussion.

Initially, it had looked as if Locker would be the answer to the Titans’ quarterback issues in the wake of the Vince Young-Kerry Collins era. His athleticism and time spent in a pro-style offense at the University of Washington made him the guy franchise officials coveted as they prepared for the draft.

Those same executives said all along, though, that their intention was to add a veteran quarterback as well. They did exactly that when they signed Hasselbeck early in this summer’s abbreviated free agency period, a move that immediately dropped Locker to second on the depth chart.

“He couldn’t ask for a better situation,” offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said. “Sitting behind Matt, he can learn and watch how he does things. I think in the long run this definitely will help his development.”

Several other teams wasted little time in turning over their offenses to rookies. In fact, among the top five players selected at the position, Locker already has had to wait the longest for his turn.

Carolina’s Cam Newton, for example, immediately exceeded expectations about his performance. Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton had that team winning more often than many figured. Neither of those had an accomplished veteran ahead of him.

The most comparable situation to Locker’s was that of Minnesota’s Christian Ponder, who opened the season as the backup to Donovan McNabb, who was acquired in a trade with Washington. The struggling Vikings named Ponder their starter last week.

All the while, outside of his play in the preseason and a brief appearance late in a blowout victory at Cleveland, Locker played only mind games.

“I think it’s a good learning experience for me,” he said. “I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be on the field for most of my life, and it’s a different perspective for me, one that I’m learning a lot in.

“It’s tough. As a competitor you always want to be out there, but Matt’s playing great right now and I’m able to learn a lot from him as a football player and as a person. I’m really trying to focus as much in that way as I can.”

Locker spent his freshman year at Washington on the sidelines and ultimately redshirted. He started all 40 games he played over the next four seasons and sat out only when a thumb injury sidelined him for two-thirds of his sophomore season.

Before that, he was a three-year starter who helped his Ferndale (Wash.) High School team win 37 of 41 games.

“People don’t realize how difficult it is to be the second quarterback,” Palmer said. “You prepare and you have this energy all built up inside you and everybody else on the team gets dirty. He doesn’t get on the field. So he is mentally drained at the end of a game but he hasn’t thrown one pass.”

In a typical week, Locker gets no more than 30 percent of the practice snaps with the starting offense. During the Titans’ recent bye week, that number grew to roughly 50 percent. He also splits work on the scout team with Smith, a second-year quarterback who made one start for the Titans last fall.

Palmer said he uses the scout team periods to issue challenges in an attempt to help keep the young quarterback sharp and competitive. For example, he might say he wants the next five throws to be on target.

Along the way, coaches continue to refine his mechanics, but he also has to make the most of those times when Hasselbeck does his work.

“One of the things you have to learn is how you take mental reps,” Locker said. “So even when you’re not in there, you’re putting yourself in that position — watching from behind center going, ‘OK, this is the coverage, this is the side of the field I’d be working versus this coverage, or this is the check we need to make here.

“Whatever it is, you just stay locked in during practice and during the game so that when you do get you opportunity it’s not all new to you.”

He had plenty of chances in the preseason and clearly showed what he learned throughout the course of training camp.

In the finale at New Orleans, Locker started and completed 15 of 17 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown. On the strength of that performance, he actually led the Titans in preseason pass attempts (49), completions (32), yards (316), completion percentage (65.3) and touchdowns (two).

How much he has progressed since that point is more difficult to gauge.

“He’s handled himself, I think, as well as you can,” coach Mike Munchak said. “We’re real happy with where he was when the season started. But I think it’s hard when you go this long without playing to sit here and say he’s getting better or how he’s doing. He’s involved mentally, he gets limited reps as far as the offense. He runs the scout team.

“So he still looks sharp and all those things, but he hasn’t been under fire enough for six or seven weeks.”

That’s not to say it won’t happen at some point.

Hasselbeck’s play through the first part of the season helped make the Titans one of the league’s top passing offenses. Yet it has been three years since the last time he stayed healthy through all 16 games in a season. 

“I have to look at it from the perspective that with the physical nature you have in the game, it’s one snap and you could be in,” Locker said. “From that aspect, I think you stay really in tune to what’s going on during the course of the game, the course of the week, because you know at any point it could be you in there taking snaps and playing on Sunday.

“I think that allows you — or at least allows me — to stay focused and stay locked into the game and, I think, to grow and learn with this team and with this offense.”

For now, though, he remains firmly entrenched as Tennessee’s quarterback of the future.

“He’s a great kid,” Munchak said. “He’s going to be a great player for us when he gets his opportunity. Right now, Matt’s doing real well and he’s learning a lot from Matt. That’s the plus side of it. He’s in the games mentally, talking to Matt all the time. … They have a great working relationship. So that part he’s doing real well with.

“He’ll just have to wait his chance to play.”

When exactly will that be? Barring an injury, Hasselbeck might be the only one who can answer that question.