HAMPTON — For Jake Locker, being quarterback for the Tennessee Titans means being a good representative on and off the field.
Growing up in the small town of Ferndale, Wash., the way he acts off the field, staying humble, means as much to him as what he does on field.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good people around me,” Locker said Wednesday during an appearance with the 14th annual Titans Caravan at Hampton Elementary School. “They’ve helped me get to this point. It would be disrespectful to them if I took credit for something if it’s not due. I’m thankful to have this opportunity and to be in the situation I’m in.”
The 23-year-old is currently battling veteran Matt Hasslebeck to be the Titans’ starting quarterback. Locker, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, is looked at as the future face of the franchise, while Hasslebeck is a proven commodity, throwing for over 3,500 yards last season. However the quarterback competition works out, Locker promises to make the best of it and still compete.
He has the same response to fans, media, coaches or the team’s executives when asked why he deserves to be the starter.
“I just work as hard as I can, and day in and day out, you’re going to get the best out of me,” he said. “That’s what I tell anybody when they ask me why they should choose me, or why I might be a better option than somebody else.
“I can’t talk about anybody else. I don’t know what drives them, but I know what makes me go and what I can bring to the table. At the end of the day, I hope that’s enough for them.”
It was an awkward situation for both Locker and Hasslebeck earlier in the year when Titans owner Bud Adams openly courted free-agent quarterback Peyton Manning. Now, that Manning has moved on to the Denver Broncos, Locker said the Titans’ signal callers are ready to put the episode behind them.
“I think Peyton’s happy where he is, and we’re happy that our quarterback room involves who it does,” Locker said. “We’re excited going forward.”
Looking ahead has come easy for Locker, who was a Parade All-American in high school after leading Ferndale to a 14-0 record and a state championship in 2005. That season, which Locker still calls his best football memory, included a ratio of 25 touchdowns against just three interceptions. His performance brought college offers from all over the country before Locker committed to the University of Washington.
The Washington program was downtrodden at the time and it only got worse his first couple of years on campus. The Huskies finished with an 0-12 record his sophomore year, only to see Locker lead them to back-to-back wins over Southern California his junior and senior seasons. The Huskies also posted back-to-back victories in the Apple Cup rivalry over Washington State.
The biggest upset was saved for last, when Locker led Washington to a 19-7 victory over heavily favored Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
It was little surprise when the Titans made him their first-round draft pick. As a rookie, he made appearances in five games where he completed 34 of 66 passes for 542 yards, and threw four touchdowns with no interceptions.
While the competitor in him wanted to play more, Locker saw last season as a chance to gain valuable experience.
“It’s exciting any time you have the opportunity to get on the field,” Locker said. “But, I looked at it as an opportunity to learn from Matt, to try to take in as much as I could. He hasn’t been in the league 13 years by chance. He has figured out how to be successful at this level. To learn from a guy like that, not a lot of guys get that opportunity, so I was thankful for it.”
Beyond his own role, Locker believes this could be a banner year for the Titans. In the AFC South, Indianapolis begins the post-Manning era with No. 1 draft pick, Andrew Luck. The Jacksonville Jaguars changed coaches in the middle of last season, and Locker feels the Titans match up well with defending champion Houston.
“Winning the division is the goal every year because if you win the division, you know you’re in the playoffs,” he said. “Especially when it’s a division like ours with a lot of young talent in it, it’s one we could start to control now. Our goal is to be good for years to come.”
With All-Pro running back Chris Johnson scheduled to go through training camp, and key receiver Kenny Britt healthy, it could be a banner year for the Titans’ offense. As a team, Locker looks back to games like a season-opening 16-14 loss to Jacksonville and other losses to Atlanta and New Orleans, and sees where Tennessee needs to improve most under second-year head coach Mike Munchak.
“We lost a few really close games last year,” he said. “To be successful, we have to find ways to close those games out. That’s the difference between going 11-5 or 9-7 like we did. If we can find ways to win those games, your season is completely different.”
When it doesn’t happen, a team has to be ready to adjust. It’s no different than what Locker used to see every Sunday with Brett Favre, his favorite player growing up. Watching Favre scramble out of the pocket and make plays was only part of the appeal. Most of all, Locker tries to bring the same passion to the game as the Packers legend.
“I grew up a fan of Brett Favre, and you could always tell his love of the game,” Locker said. “You could see that every Sunday, and that’s something I have respect for. We’re very fortunate to play this game for a living, and you should have fun and enjoy doing it.”