By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 9:00 PM
MOBILE, ALA. - By 10 p.m. at the Senior Bowl, the bar in the hotel lobby is filled with coaches looking for jobs, reporters looking for scoops and scouts looking for a cold drink after a long day's work. Around the corner, at end of a long hallway in the Renaissance hotel downtown, University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker is still on the clock, answering many of the same questions he's already heard over and over the past couple of days.
This time, it's a scout from the Arizona Cardinals who's asking. He'd already met with more than half the NFL teams this week - from the Seattle Seahawks to the Washington Redskins - and they all asked some variation of the same thing: Why in the world did you return to college for a senior season?
"It's kind of nice," Locker said late Wednesday night, after he completed an exhausting series of nine interviews with NFL teams. "I know the questions are coming, and I have a response ready to go because I just answered the same question a few minutes earlier."
Each time, he makes it sound like he's never even heard the question before, though a new team has quizzed him every 30 minutes since 6 p.m. "I have no regrets," he keeps saying.
Locker, 22, likely cost himself millions of dollars by returning to Washington for a final year. He was a sure-bet top-five pick last spring, but after a shaky senior season, many analysts now project him as the fourth-best quarterback available in April's draft. He's playing in Saturday's Senior Bowl, trying to improve his stock during practices and in meetings with scouts and team officials.
He'll likely enter April's draft as one of the most intriguing players available. Scouts and draft analysts can't seem to agree on how high his ceiling might be and what his NFL future might hold.
"He's a very difficult kid to project as to where he'll go," said Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN's veteran draft analyst. "He could go top-10 -- it wouldn't shock me if somebody wanted to roll the dice. It wouldn't shock me if he went in the second round."
Though the sports world is usually more likely to criticize underclassmen for leaving school early, there has been no shortage of second-guessers who don't understand Locker's decision to stay at Washington one final season.
"Oh, I had guys who've been life-long friends of mine tell me, how could I ever. . . advise him to make a terrible decision like that?" said Locker's father, Scott Locker. "People just have their own opinions about what's important in life."
The past few years of Locker's athletic career have been filled with opportunities - most of which he's chosen to bypass. He could've collected a paycheck when he was drafted by the Angels to play baseball out of high school. But he wanted to go to college. He could've made even more money when the Angels again drafted him in the 10th round in 2009. Again, Locker loved football too much.
Even with the knowledge last spring that teams such as the St. Louis Rams and the Redskins were in dire need of a quarterback with his skills, Locker barely entertained the idea of leaving school early.
"So, when teams ask me now, I just kind of explain my reasoning a bit," said Locker. "My policy is always to be honest. I have nothing to hide. I feel comfortable with the decisions I made and why I made them. . .
"I don't expect them all to understand. They didn't experience what I did, they didn't go through what I did, they didn't create the memories that I did."
His father explains that the decision came down to priorities and values. Locker's parents didn't attend college. His father hung drywall for a living, his mother was an office manager and his upbringing was hardly extravagant.
"I'd bring him with me," his father said. "He'd come and not necessarily do all the work, but he'd be there at the job site, watching, seeing what goes into it and what the work was all about.
Said Jake Locker: "What my dad does isn't necessarily glamorous. You don't get praised for what he does. But he always worked hard enough to provide for our family. He always took pride in his work. I never needed for anything and I was always thankful for what I got."
This time, Locker is embracing his opportunity for a pro career with vigor. He has been working out in Southern California with former NFL quarterback Ken O'Brien, a two-time Pro Bowler who also helped Cincinnati's Carson Palmer prepare for the draft. They've broken down film, frame by frame, and have been fine-tuning Locker's motion and working on repetition.
"After looking at the film, to be kind about it, Jake was the integral part of their offense," said O'Brien, who spent 11 seasons with the New York Jets, Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles. "In my opinion, they didn't have the talent to do a lot of the things they would've liked to have done schematically, so I think a lot fell on Jake's shoulders to make plays."
In his senior season, Locker's passing numbers - yards, completion percentage, touchdowns - all suffered a significant drop-off from his junior season. Yet Locker insists: "I'm better in every way because I chose to come back. No doubt about it."
His job these next two months is to convince the NFL. In practices this week at the Senior Bowl, he's been inconsistent and his accuracy continues to concern some scouts.
"When you look at Locker, if you can't get it done against college defenses, are you going to get it done against the NFL?" Kiper asked.
Kiper projects Locker as the 25th-best player in the draft. His ESPN colleague, Todd McShay, predicts Locker will be selected by Tennessee with the eighth overall pick. Either way, Locker won't receive a $50 million contract like the one the Rams awarded to Sam Bradford, last year's No. 1 overall pick. Last year's No. 25 pick - Denver quarterback Tim Tebow - signed a deal worth less than $10 million.
NFL scouts and front-office officials say Locker might not have the physical tools to step in and start right away, but they like his intangibles and he seems to impress in meetings.
His decision might have cost Locker money, but when he explains his passion for the game and how much he appreciated his senior season, his sincerity is difficult to question.
"If there's a better job in the world than playing football and getting paid for it, I've never heard of it," said Locker. "I've played it for free my whole life. And now, to have this dream manifest itself and come to a head here, it's just an incredible opportunity. "