PROVO — For the second straight year, BYU opens the season against one of the top quarterbacks in the nation — a Heisman Trophy candidate and the projected No. 1 overall pick in the National Football League draft.
Last year, it was Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, who ended up being the top selection of the 2010 draft despite suffering a serious shoulder injury in the Sooners' setback to the Cougars.
This year, on Saturday, it's Washington senior Jake Locker, who passed for 2,800 yards, rushed for 388 yards and was responsible for 28 touchdowns a year ago.
"Anytime you face a player of that caliber, you get excited," BYU defensive end Vic So'oto said of Locker. "You want to play against the best, and he's obviously one of the best in college football. It's fun and exciting to have a measuring stick to see where you are as an athlete and as a defense."
"It's just like last year," said Cougar safety Andrew Rich. "We were able to play against a guy like Sam Bradford. We accept the challenge, and we're excited for it. We know we're going to have to play extremely well."
This isn't the first time the Cougars have faced Locker. In 2008, in the second game of Locker's sophomore year, BYU edged the Huskies 28-27, thanks in part to an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty called on Locker after he scored a touchdown on Washington's final drive. The Cougars blocked a long extra point in the waning seconds to preserve the victory.
"I don't remember much of the game other than the last drive," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "That just showed that when (Locker) had to make plays when he could create and had to do different things, he's capable. I was very impressed with him then, and I think he's a better player now."
This time around, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Locker is a senior. He's benefited from one season under the tutelage of coach Steve Sarkisian, a former BYU All-American quarterback who was instrumental in the development of two Heisman Trophy winners at USC: Carson Palmer and Matt Leinert.
In that 2008 BYU-Washington meeting, Locker rushed 18 times for 62 yards and completed only 17 of 35 passes for 204 yards. After completing 53.8 percent of all of his passes in 2008, his completion percentage jumped to 58.2 percent last season.
"Two years ago, we thought Locker was better than (former Florida QB) Tim Tebow," So'oto said. "Locker is definitely a different quarterback than he was two years ago. Especially in the system he's in now. Coach Sarkisian has put him in a position to make plays. They have good wide receivers and good running backs, so with his supporting cast, he's dangerous. He's faster now, and he's a better passer than he was two years ago."
"(Locker) is usually the fastest guy on the field, including everybody," said Rich. "When you've got a guy who can run like him and has an arm like him, that's why he's the No. 1 draft prospect. He's a talented player who makes good decisions."
Can BYU's defense stop Locker?
"Not many people have stopped Locker," Mendenhall said. "You kind of have to choose. He's an exceptional scrambler, meaning he can pull it down and run. I just watched some film where he ran about 60 yards just on a quarterback scramble play that wasn't designed, but outran the secondary. They're using him really nicely now in terms of throwing the ball, as well. So they have a nice offense built for him, but when he chooses to create, or when the play doesn't work, he has this tremendous size and speed to really make things difficult on you. So as much as you can make him one-dimensional, if possible, that's your best chance to stop him and keep the points down. If he can both run and throw on his terms, then, from the games I've seen, everyone struggles."
BYU's offensive scout team, which imitates the opposition's offense in practice, has two quarterbacks attempting to simulate Locker — fourth-string QB Jason Munns and walk-on defensive back Dalin Tollestrup. The Cougar defense faces Munns in passing situations and the speedy Tollestrup in running situations. Tollestrup was Canada's freshman of the year as a quarterback at the University of Calgary before he transferred to BYU.
Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson is confident that the BYU defense will be ready to face Locker.
"We're not focusing solely on him, but he's a big part of what they do, as far as the pass game and making plays with his feet. I know our defense is preparing for that — a big, athletic dude who can run. I think they're going to play well against him."
Cougars on the air
BYU vs. Washington
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Saturday, 5 p.m.
RADIO: KSL 1160
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company