Keith Price will make his first full-duty venture into college football as the Huskies’ quarterback.
And his introduction will be in the lion’s den of the Pacific-10 Conference – Autzen Stadium, against No. 1 Oregon.
What can be expected?
Nobody can be sure, but one observer – Kiki Mendoza, the former coach at St. John Bosco High School in south Los Angeles – has an idea. After all, Price was his starting quarterback for two seasons.
And one play convinced the longtime coach Price has what it takes to lead not only his offense, but any offense.
“You know, quarterbacks – they have the stereotype of being soft. But on this play, Keith was running down the sideline. At the 5-yard line, he dives, gets hit in the air and reaches out toward the goal line,” Mendoza said.
“He is short of the end zone.”
That wasn’t the image that stuck with Mendoza the most. It’s what came in the split second afterward.
“He pops right back up, gets the score and finishes the drive,” the coach said.
“I kept telling everybody to watch the film. I said, ‘If you can’t follow this guy, you can’t follow anybody.’ This is a guy we can all rally around, and find a way to win with. You know after coaching for 22 years you’re going to win with a kid who wants to win more than the coaches.”
Sometimes it’s difficult to see what’s beyond the shimmer of Jake Locker, the UW’s fourth-year starter. Backup quarterbacks are there to be taught, wait their turn and run onto the field during mop-up time.
But Price, a redshirt freshman, began to show something midway through training camp, winning a heated competition with newcomer Nick Montana for the No. 2 job.
And when Locker took a hard shot to his rib cage during a 35-34 overtime victory over Oregon State nearly a month ago, the senior started missing practice time – much to Price’s benefit, because he started receiving repetitions with the first-team offense.
This week, after two more games with Locker in charge, UW coach Steve Sarkisian announced the injury had worsened – the rib was broken. Immediately, Locker was ruled out indefinitely, and Price became the new man of the hour.
“It’s not like he’s never played in a big game – he’s never played in a big game as a starter in the Pac-10,” Huskies offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. “That high school league he played in down in California (Trinity League) is a big-time high school football league, about as good of high school football as you’re going to see anywhere. Having done that, he’s played in big environments.”
Even Nussmeier concedes that running the show in front of a hostile crowd at Autzen Stadium is a completely different animal. And nobody is expecting Price to pull off miracles this week, either.
Few anticipate the Huskies will be close to the high-flying Ducks by halftime.
“I’m just trying to go out there and do the best I can,” Price said. “I know a lot of people are not giving us a shot in the world. I’m just going out there to try and prove them wrong.”
What Price will be asked to do is play to his strengths – operating the read option and making safe, sure passes – display composure and when he does make a mistake, get off the mat and make amends.
“It’s your dealing with the non-success – the potential sack, the potential turnover, the potential missed touchdown pass in the red zone, and how they respond because they haven’t had to respond to that yet,” Sarkisian said. “That is one of the big things I like to look for as the game goes on.”
From the time he could walk, Price not only had a football in hand everywhere he went, he slept with one at night.
“It’s my Pop Warner football,” he said. “I always wanted a little brown NFL football, and we couldn’t quite get that. They got me the little rubber ball.”
But at 5 years old, he had a jersey from almost every NFL team.
“He’d have all his outfits on the floor,” said Gail Manuel, his grandmother. “And if the jersey’s team was losing, he’d put on a winning uniform.”
Childhood trouble lurked all around his parents’ neighborhood in Compton, Calif. By the time he was in junior high school, he pretty much lived with Manuel at her house in Bellflower, which is on the north side of Long Beach.
Just down the road was St. John Bosco, a private Catholic school where baseball stars Dennis Lamp, Nomar Garciaparra and Evan Longoria played. Former Pac-10 quarterbacks such as Todd Husak and Patrick Cowan also went there.
The cost was $10,000 per year. If Price was to go there, his family would have to fork over the money.
“It kind of changed my life,” he said.
And it helped shape his future in athletics.
He was always playing other sports. At one point, basketball was a higher priority, so much that Mendoza begged him to still stick with football.
In his junior year, Price was trying to juggle both sports – until he got cut from the varsity basketball team for not choosing that activity over the other. It was exactly the push he needed.
“I said, ‘All right football, here I come,’” Price said.
By the time he was a senior, he was mentioned in the same breath as another Trinity League standout – Mater Dei’s Matt Barkley, who signed with Southern California. That season, Price accounted for more than 2,800 total yards and 34 touchdowns and was named the league’s co-offensive player of the year. Barkley was the overall MVP.
“Barkley came into high school as a prepared, fine-tuned quarterback,” Mendoza said. “For Keith, from a developmental standpoint ... the regular maturation process took its course, and he worked very hard at being a fine quarterback.”
Of course, in a sense, he had to start all over again once he reached the UW.
He has natural leadership skills. Guys wanted to follow him. On the outside, he’s an easy-going, worry-free teammate. On the inside, he bubbles with fire and competitiveness.
“It’s funny, I texted him yesterday, and told him to go out there with that smile and have fun,” said Don Price, the owner of First Step Sports Academy in Bellflower where Keith Price – they’re unrelated – works out in the offseason.
“That is how Keith is. That is how he played out here at St. John Bosco. He’s just so poised and relaxed.”
Again, Sarkisian served as the scout-team quarterback Wednesday, in an effort to get his No. 1 defense acclimated to Oregon’s breakneck tempo. He worked his players over, too. But they did pick off five of Sarkisian’s passes and got in his face. Did they make contact with him? “No, just love taps,” Sarkisian said. ...
Tight end Chris Izbicki (foot) didn’t practice, and defensive end Cameron Elisara (shoulder) and running back Johri Fogerson (upper leg) weren’t even at practice. ...
For the team session, loud fan noise was again piped in for every play.
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports