Jake Locker is familiar with losing.
It might discomfit Tennessee Titans fan to learn that their new quarterback was 16-24 as a starter in four years at the University of Washington. But when the Titans looked at that record, they saw opportunity.
The franchise went 6-10 last year and hasn’t won a playoff game since 2003. With a rookie coach and a rebuilding campaign ahead, the lumps might continue. The Titans need a headstrong quarterback who can lead the way and isn’t discouraged by adversity. They believe Locker’s experiences — i.e. his defeats — will help him cope.
“He is one of the rare quarterbacks that came out that has experienced that much lack of success in certain areas,” Titans head coach Mike Munchak said. “The success story is that he stayed in [college], and that he comes back and they go to a bowl game last year. That was important to him, to be a part of the class that he came in with and find a way to turn that program around. For us to watch stuff like that is impressive, knowing that he has been through some tough times even as a college player.”
Locker could have left Washington early. After a frustrating 2008 season in which the Huskies were 0-12 — Locker started the first four games before a broken thumb sidelined him — he guided them to a 5-7 season in 2009 in Steve Sarkisian’s first year as head coach. Locker improved his numbers as well, setting career-highs in completion percentage (58.3), passing yards (2,800) and touchdowns (21).
Locker’s draft stock rose quickly, with some projecting him as the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft. He returned to school and earned his degree in December, and he followed that with the Huskies’ first bowl appearance in eight years. He ended his college career with a victory in the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska — a team that had defeated Washington by 35 points just three months earlier.
Looking back, Locker said he didn’t have any regrets about staying in college. But it wasn’t the first time he chose to put a professional career on hold. A pitcher and outfielder in high school and in collegiate summer leagues, Locker was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the 10th round in 2009. That August he signed a six-year contract with the Angels to hold his baseball rights.
“I thought it would be stupid not to sign it,” he said. “So I did, again with the understanding that football has always been my first love … given the opportunity to play football, I will always choose that first.”
As for how much the Angels offered, Locker said it was “an amount of money where my dad wrote it out on a piece of paper and diagrammed how many years it would take him working his job [in drywall] to make that much money.”
“The experiences that I got to go through last year and my whole college career are because I turned down that,” Locker said. “I’m a better person because of it, and there are things I’ll hold onto for the rest of my life and I wouldn’t trade for any amount of money at this point.”
Locker’s personality and charisma might have weighed into the Titans’ draft decision just as much as his talent and skill. Some believe the Titans passed on the better available quarterback — Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert, who was drafted by AFC South rival Jacksonville two picks later. At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, Gabbert is a little bigger than Locker (6-3, 234). He also appears to have a stronger arm, and his career completion percentage in college was 63.4 — much higher than Locker’s 53.9 percent.
But Gabbert threw out of the spread offense in college, while Locker operated in a pro-style offense similar to the one the Titans will run. Locker’s mobility was also encouraging: He rushed for 1,939 career yards, including 986 as a freshman.
“They are both very talented guys. Blaine was in the mix of guys that we considered,” Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt said. “At the end of the day, I think the consensus for us was that Jake made more sense for us, but Blaine is a very talented young man.”
Locker is from Ferndale, Wash., a town of just more than 11,000 about 100 miles north of Seattle. He was active in his Catholic church and helped start a Touchdowns for Kids chapter to benefit Seattle Children’s Hospital.
“I’m very fortunate to come from the background that I have,” Locker said. “I think if you had an opportunity to have my parents sit up here and talk to you, you’d get an understanding of where [the leadership skills] came from and where that’s grounded in. They were great leaders to me. They showed me what it’s like to respect a person, to respect each other, to have accountability to the people around you, loyalty. Those sorts of things that I think make a good leader, I’ve been around my whole life.”
He expects his lifestyle will mesh well in Nashville. He wore a camouflage hat as he exited Baptist Sports Park last week and enjoys hunting and country music. “It’s all I listen to,” he said.