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Washington’s Keith Price may take a step back in 2012

Quarterback Keith Price will have a hard time topping a sophomore season that included 33 touchdown passes. (AP)

By Brock Huard

By all accounts Keith Price has had a terrific spring and offseason. He has added strength and up to 10 pounds of muscle, and according to Husky radio analyst Damon Huard, “Keith is throwing the ball better than I have ever seen him.”

“With the strength has come added velocity,” Damon Huard said. “And I know it is a lofty comparison, but he is throwing and spinning it as pure as Warren Moon used to.”

Price steps on the field with tremendous maturity, a charismatic smile and loads of confidence built upon the numerous school records he set last season. He will be a redshirt junior in September, beginning his fourth year in the same system. I am sure many will predict further growth and improvement from his sophomore season, when he threw for 3,000 yards and 33 touchdowns, had a 66 percent completion rate and set the school’s single-season record for pass efficiency.

I am not one of them.

Price may very well be a better passer and signal-caller in 2012, but I doubt the fantasy football numbers will match the production from a season ago. There are three major reasons why.

No more Chris Polk. When Corey Dillon and Rashaan Shehee were lined up behind me the game was sure a lot easier. Why? The defense had to account for the two on every play, and extra bodies around the line of scrimmage meant less confusion in coverage and a whole lot more man-to-man defense.

Bishop Sankey and Jesse Callier must prove to opposing coordinators that they can move piles, break tackles and beat unblocked defenders the same way Polk did the last three seasons. Until they do, Price can expect to see a lot more of what Oregon threw his way with a plethora of looks, schemes, blitzes and cloudier pictures in the secondary.

“For Keith, it’s not trying to make every play, to go out and show how good he is,” coach Steve Sarkisian told me and Mike Salk earlier this month. “It’s allowing the system to work, which he’s done.”

Sarkisian is spot on. Price has been a tremendous facilitator, spreading the wealth and maximizing the system. The challenge now is that Polk, the most valuable piece of that system over the last three years and the second most productive back in the history of the program, has moved on.

Keith Price’s job will be much more difficult without Chris Polk keeping opposing defenses honest. (AP)

Lack of continuity. I could close my eyes and still throw a go route to Dane Looker. Fred Coleman and Jerome Pathon must have run 5,000 routes in the offseason in our years together on campus. There was a comforting feeling when Olin Kreutz barked out calls and captained the offensive line. With continuity often comes confidence and trust.

For Price, Polk, Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar are all gone. More importantly, this entire spring he has had in essence zero or just one returning starter — Erik Kohler — on his offensive line looking back at him in the huddle. Gone for good are left tackle Senio Kelemete (graduation) and right guard Colin Porter (retirement). Left guard Colin Tanigawa is still recovering from a late-season torn ACL and it’s very questionable as to whether he will be ready to open the season. Three-year starting center Drew Schaefer injured his knee and has been shut down for the remainder of spring, while Kohler has struggled to regain his starting spot.

Translation: an offensive line that was supposed to be the strength of the offense with four returning starters on paper may have just one — Schaefer — when the Dawgs open in September against San Diego State. The Aztecs’ unorthodox 4-2-5 defense will be followed with a road trip to Baton Rouge, La. and one of the most formidable front sevens in college football. After Portland State, arguably three of the four best defenses in the Pac-12 will follow with Stanford, Oregon and USC.

“A season ago Keith took some unnecessary hits, some unnecessary sacks,” Sarkisian told us. “I think I can help him as well in taking that next step so that he is fresh and feeling great about himself late into October, November as that championship run takes place.”

In order to make it to late October still standing, Price will need his inexperienced group up front to do what he did a year ago: exceed everyone’s expectations.

Lofty expectations. “How do you handle people patting you on the back now, telling you how good you are instead of saying, ‘I hope you do well,’ where you feel like you have something to prove? Keith has stepped on the field and proven he is a quality player. Now it is, ‘How do you assume that role of the expectations?'”

Those are the words of Sarkisian, who knows a little something about high expectations for his quarterbacks, going back to Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez and Jake Locker. All responded and became very high NFL draft picks. Now the challenge falls on Price.

A season ago he was battling Nick Montana for a starting job. Twelve months later he is not only the unquestioned leader of the Huskies but he is clearly the No. 2 passer in the Pac-12, trailing only Heisman favorite Matt Barkley from USC. The production a season ago was astounding. The level of grit and toughness Price displayed through multiple injuries all season long was maybe more impressive.

2012 will present a much stiffer challenge. The Alamo Bowl tape will be playing in the defensive meeting rooms at San Diego State and LSU all summer. Stanford, Oregon and USC all beat Price a season ago, yet they all know he will be the central figure for Washington’s success in 2012. He will have to be Felix Hernandez, the ace, especially through the first half of the schedule. Price’s own defense will be implementing a new mindset and game-plan, while UW’s running backs and offensive line will be put to the test.

Lastly, the challenge for the talented Price may be more psychological than physical. He knows he can make the plays, but can he trust those around him to elevate their game? Kearse, Kelemete, Polk and crew had weathered some difficult storms and brought years of experience to Price’s huddle a season ago. On the first “ready, break” of 2012, it will be a very different group heading to the line of scrimmage. Speaking from personal experience, I know the challenge that can become.