The first time Mike Leach was in charge of a fall camp for the Washington State Cougars was the last time the team has a genuine quarterback competition. Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday would ultimately share reps as the season wore on but ever since, we’ve known who the starter would be in August, despite many assurances from Leach himself things were wide open.
This year, Leach has a quarterback competition again. But it’s not two quarterbacks; it’s not even three like many had assumed; it’s four.
“I do feel good about probably four guys so we are going to have to sort it,” said Leach in his annual pre-camp conference call with reporters today.
When WSU hits the practice field for the first time since April tomorrow in Pullman, Trey Tinsley, Anthony Gordon, East Carolina Pirates transfer Gardner Minshew and true freshman Cammon Cooper will all, apparently, have an opportunity to lead the offense this fall.
We saw three of them in WSU’s spring game (Minshew had yet to arrive on campus) and, from what little we can glean from the stats Tinsley, Gordon and Cooper put up, not much is separating them.
Cooper did, at times, look like the freshman he is with a still limited understanding of an offense that is best learned through endless repetition. Tinsley and Gordon certainly looked more seasoned, as they should have, having spent years in the Air Raid. Even though Minshew is transferring in, he still has a good familiarity with how this offense hums.
Four players, three weeks of camp to sort it all out.
“We would like to get (a starter) ten days or so before the game so we can really get a lot of reps,” said Leach. “We’ll look at all four of them and then we’re going to try to channel in towards the top-two as quickly as we can and then go from there.”
Leach also spoke about developing depth among the players charged with protecting whoever ends up throwing passes. WSU lost All-American Cody O’Connell, Cole Madison, and B.J. Salmonson to graduation, opening up three spots on the offensive line.
Who would take over for well-seasoned veterans of Leach’s wide splits was a fairly big question. Leach indicated they’ve pretty much decided on a starting five, though who would be behind them is a question mark.
“Offensive line wise, we need to develop some depth at that position,” Leach said. “Leaving spring we had a pretty good first group, Robert Valencia kind of entered that group in particular at right guard. Josh Watson had a really good spring too at left guard. Abraham Lucas played at right tackle some.”
Despite plenty of attrition to graduation (WSU returns one of the smallest volume of starters in the conference), the team did get extra years of eligibility granted to two players at key positions: Robert Lewis at wide receiver and Peyton Pelluer at middle linebacker. Leach talked at length about Lewis’s blocking ability (including this hit that still hurts four years after it happened) and what Pelluer brings to the table both on and off the field.
“Great leadership, very instinctive, a fantastic example for the entire defense,” Leach noted. “He’s one of those guys (with) all the intangibles and if you’re got a guy like that, it rubs off on all the others.”
Though plenty of question marks still remain on the defensive line, all eyes will likely be on the quarterbacks for the first three weeks of fall camp. For five seasons, Connor Halliday and Luke Falk had a vice-like grip on the job as the team practiced in August. Instead, we have a literal horse race this year and, perhaps uniquely in college football, we have no idea which one to bet on to cross the finish line first.
The two players who have been in the system the longest? The most game experienced player who still has plenty to learn? Or the freshman phenom with an intoxicating rocket arm who is still making the mistake you’d expect from a kid who missed his senior prom to be in Pullman?
They’re at their post. The gates swing open tomorrow.