Taylor Potts was at the center of a highly publicized quarterback controversy at Texas Tech. The lessons Mike Leach learned from that experience probably mean a similar mess with Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday is unlikely at WSU.
As my good friend Ryan Divish likes to point out, fans have a strange obsession with potential. WSU fans are no different, as evidenced by the grumbling and speculation that has surfaced in the wake of Jeff Tuel's less-than-spectacular performance against BYU.
With each indecisive read, each off-target throw, each interception, the suggestion that perhaps sophomore Connor Halliday should replace the senior grew louder.
Of course, Mike Leach didn't make a change in the middle of the game. But that hasn't stopped pretty smart people from thinking that a change might be imminent if Tuel continues to struggle.
Here's the thing, though. While Leach could certainly go against his previous history, the evidence is overwhelming in suggesting that he's unlikely to make a rash move from Tuel to Halliday. That's not to say Leach is a stranger to rash quarterback decisions -- just wait until you hear about 2009. But in the wake of the mess that turned out to be, it's hard to imagine Leach going down that road again.
*Pro tip! If you're uninterested in reading about Leach's history with QB battles at Texas Tech (since it's fairly lengthy) and want to simply know what I've concluded about what this means for WSU, just skip down the end where you see * * * * * in the middle of the page.
Twice in his tenure at Texas Tech, Mike Leach had something approximating a so-called quarterback controversy. For his first three years, Leach gave the keys to the car to Kliff Kingsbury, who, after an inconsistent first year, blossomed in his final two seasons as a starter. Immediately following Kingsbury was a trio of seniors, each of whom started for one year: B.J. Symons, Sonny Cumbie and Cody Hodges. Perhaps the Tech fans in the audience can correct me if I'm wrong (or add context if some is appropriate), but I can find no record of any of them getting benched for performance issues.
That's six years of Leach picking a quarterback and sticking with him, through thick and thin -- and there was a bit of thin, especially in that first year with Kingsbury. (More on that in a bit.)
It wasn't until the seventh year that things finally looked like they do at so many other schools. Highly regarded redshirt sophomore Graham Harrell won the job over redshirt freshman Chris Todd in 2006, but it wasn't exactly smooth sailing. Tech looked like the same old team in the first couple of games, but a 12-3 loss to TCU -- the last time before Thursday, by the way, that a Leach team failed to score a TD -- was disconcerting. Harrell was 23 of 47 for 204 yards. Harrell came back to play well in the next two games, wins over Southeastern Louisiana and Texas A&M. Game six, however, wasn't so kind.
Against 23rd ranked Missouri, Harrell was awful, turning the ball over three times in the first 20 minutes of the game: One fumble and a pair of interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. He was so awful, Leach replaced him with Todd midway through the game.
Or not. Harrell sat for one series, went back in the game, threw three touchdowns and got Tech back within three points before Missouri put the game away in the fourth quarter. He finished 39-for-55 for 342 yards. Here's what Leach had to say in the days following the game, via the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal:
Leach's switch from a struggling Graham Harrell to Chris Todd and back again didn't signal any change of heart about which is the starter. Harrell will soldier on as the starter when Tech plays Saturday at winless Colorado.
"The solution to things isn't you just uproot stuff,'' Leach said after the team's Sunday night practice. "You don't work on something and then just change course because you have a little adversity. I mean, you've got to fight through some stuff.''
During his weekly Monday news conference, Leach said it in a more humorous way.
"I know it would be a lot of fun for you guys to have a quarterback controversy,'' Leach said, "and you're scratching and searching for that, and some of you, when you woke up this morning, were pinching yourselves and saying, 'Gee, maybe today's the day.' But it's not.''
That actually wasn't the end of it. In the next game, Leach again benched Harrell in favor of Todd for a couple of series during a loss to Colorado, before coming back again with Harrell. However, he did end up starting all the games, finishing with 4,555 yards, 38 touchdowns ... and this:
Harrell would go on to post ridiculous numbers as a junior, then, as a senior, led Texas Tech to a high of a No. 2 ranking. Chris Todd transferred to a junior college before eventually landing at Auburn; Harrell now owns the Tech record book.
Probably a good choice to stick with that guy.
The end of Harrell's career necessitated the anointing of the next great Tech QB. But for the first time, Leach had a certifiable mess on his hands as he struggled to pull the right strings with the Air Raid's most important position.
See if you can follow this -- I had a hard time even piecing it together from archives.
- Junior Taylor Potts wins the job in 2009 over fellow junior Steven Sheffield. Potts starts the first five games, playing pretty well until being knocked out with a concussion.
- Sheffield replaces him, playing well himself before breaking a foot two games later.
- Back comes Potts, who is unable to duplicate the success of earlier in the year.
- With Sheffield still sidelined, Leach benches Potts in that first game and turns to highly touted freshman Seth Doege. He finishes strong, earning a start in the next game ... but is unable to duplicate his success.
- Leach benches Doege and turns to Potts once again, who leads the team to the win. That earns Potts another start against Oklahoma State, where he plays four series before -- yep -- being benched in favor of Sheffield, now recovered from his injury.
- Sheffield throws a pair of costly interceptions, so Potts comes back to finish the game, which Tech nearly wins.
I did say that Leach was unlikely to switch QBs midway through a season, right? On its face, that probably looks pretty silly in this context. But consider Leach's comments in the wake of that Oklahoma State mess. Again, via the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal:
Texas Tech coach Mike Leach said the two quarterback changes he made in Saturday night's loss to Oklahoma State were two too many.
"I probably should have kept (Taylor) Potts in the whole game,'' Leach said during his weekly Monday news conference. "I should have played him the whole game.''
Asked if that thought was based on what he saw from Potts or what he didn't see from Steven Sheffield, Leach said, "I base it more just on the shuffling around. I don't need to mess with a bunch of shuffling around.''
Second-guessing himself on the handling of his quarterbacks was a rare admission for Leach. It was the first time he could remember feeling that way since the 2006 season.
"Well, the last time was when I felt like I messed with Chris Todd a little too much with regard to Graham Harrell that first year (Harrell started),'' Leach said. "I should have just kept Graham in. There were several series I played with Chris Todd. Not to take anything away from Chris Todd, and part of it is you want to give a (struggling starter) perspective. But part of it is there's a disruption to it, too. I got a little fancy with that, I thought. That'd probably be the last time.''
Potts started the final three games of the year, all wins, including the bowl game Leach wasn't allowed to coach after being fired by Tech.
* * * * *
So, what can we learn from this to apply to the current situation at WSU?
We've got 10 years of head coaching history, and in the first nine of those years, Leach almost exclusively stuck with the guy he picked at the beginning of the year. He had one high-profile benching -- something he later admitted was a mistake. Then, in his final year at Tech, he went quarterback carousel crazy -- which he also seemed to realize was a mistake.
I obviously don't know Leach on a personal level, but in devouring whatever bits of information I could find on him over the past nine months, he seems like an awfully smart guy. And part of being a smart guy is not repeating mistakes, something Leach also seems to be able to do. (Although, obviously, I generally only get Leach's side of the story on these sorts of things.)
This is why I think it's unlikely he screws with the current arrangement, short of Jeff Tuel turning into a complete tire fire -- which he actually wasn't against BYU. No, he wasn't great. That much was painfully obvious to all, including Tuel. But 30-of-45, even if only for 229 yards, isn't horrendous, either -- especially in light of how little help he got from everyone else on the field.
You want to see a bad passing line? How about this one: 21 of 47, 186 yards, two TDs, one interception. That was Kingsbury at home against a not-very-good New Mexico team in Mike Leach's first game at Texas Tech. The difference is that Kingsbury had the benefit of at least a below average running game (20 rushes, 97 yards) and a stout defense (just 167 total yards allowed), and the Red Raiders won, 24-3.
In the end, I come back to this quote from after Harrell's benching: "The solution to things isn't you just uproot stuff. You don't work on something and then just change course because you have a little adversity. I mean, you've got to fight through some stuff.''
Leach tried uprooting stuff, and it was a disaster. It's almost like a drug for coaches -- once they've made that change once, it gets easier and easier to do it again and again. And it usually doesn't work out very well. I'm guessing Leach won't go down that same path again unless he's good and sure that a change is the only way to go.
And don't think it's lost on Leach that Tuel is just getting started in the Air Raid. When Leach started playing musical chairs in 2009, both Potts and Sheffield were in their fourth years in the program. There was an expectation that after that many practice reps and film sessions, the QB should be able to step in and perform. This is not that.
Even if we assumed Halliday was well prepared to take over for Tuel -- which is questionable at best, given the reps Halliday lost during the spring and the majority of reps that have gone to Tuel for weeks -- I have a really, really hard time imagining we're at the point where Leach is ready to give up on Tuel. Since I don't see him jerking the guys around again, that's probably what it would mean.
All the evidence points to Leach being committed to getting the most out of Tuel. I think fans would be wise to have the same kind of faith.