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Connor Halliday bounces back from injury, takes starting job

A hit to the liver against Utah, then another on the first day of spring camp, prevented Connor Halliday from challenging for the starting job. Fully recovered, Halliday has been thrown into the fire, and he's learning fast.

Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

We all just assumed Jeff Tuel would be Mike Leach's first starting quarterback at Washington State. From the moment Leach was hired, there seemed to be little doubt who would lead the Cougars' offense on the field. Tuel would be the man -- because of experience, as well as a variety of other factors -- and would remain the starter as Connor Halliday learned the offense.

The reasoning wasn't wrong. Halliday was expected to miss most, if not all, of spring ball while recovering from a lacerated liver, putting him into a hole in whatever quarterback competition there was going to be. When Halliday trotted out onto the field for the first day of practice, it was a surprise. When he took a helmet straight to the liver on that first day, it was a reminder about how serious his injury was. He didn't practice fully again.

At that point, whatever quarterback competition Leach had in mind ended. Halliday was in too deep of a hole, and any talk of an open competition was more-or-less lip service. Tuel and Halliday did split reps for part of fall camp, sure, but there wasn't any doubt among those watching who the starter would be.

It feels like Halliday has been around forever at this point, even though he's a redshirt sophomore. Maybe his performance in the two games of significant action he saw last week has clouded judgment, but he's still getting his feet wet. Coming into the season, he only had one start under his belt after spending his freshman season running the scout team. And even before that one start -- and a pseudo-start against Arizona State -- Halliday didn't begin taking significant reps with the first-team offense until midway through the season.

The potential has always been there with Halliday. The big arm, the fearlessness, the toughness are all marks of a start in the making. But he didn't win the starting job out of camp because of experience. That's it. That's all it came down to; Halliday simply didn't have the experience in the offense -- or at the college-level -- to nudge him above Tuel in the quarterback competition.

Heading into the Cougars' Week 1 matchup against BYU, Jeff Tuel took all the reps. This is only a slight exaggeration: All the eggs were in Tuel's basket, and Halliday was taking minimal snaps with the offense. It was abundantly clear -- after the two had split reps for part of fall camp -- that Tuel was the clear starter.

Something changed after the BYU game. It was slight, but there was a change. Halliday took more reps, though he was clearly working in a backup role. He did, however, seem to spend more time on the field during practice, actually doing physical work instead of taking mental reps.

Halliday was given an opening, a chance to grab hold of the starting job, in Week 2. As Tuel went down with a sprained MCL, Halliday ascended to the starting spot. He was taking the starter's reps in practice and continuing to develop as a quarterback. Tuel's injury did have a role in Halliday's rise, but let's not sell him short: He's helped make his own breaks, as well.

There are still things Halliday has to learn, and that can only come with experience. It's still easy to forget that he's young and light on experience. But for now, Halliday is the starting quarterback -- not because Leach is building to the future, but because he gives the team the best chance to win.

The quarterback competition that never materialized during the spring finally did materialize by way an unforeseen set of circumstances. And even then, it wasn't really a competition.

Given the chance to catchup in his development and understanding of the offense, Halliday has proven to be up to the task. He has the physical tools but now that's he's able to see more live action, Halliday's learning curve has accelerated. Now we wait and see if it translates to wins.

Next up: A look at what Halliday is focusing on, where he needs to improve and how important his extra reps in practice have been.