The post-practice question from the reporter to Mike Leach seemed simple enough: “Does he remind you of anyone?”
The typically verbose coach of WSU pondered for a moment, looking at the ground. “Geez, I’m trying to think,” he said. Then he pondered some more. He pondered a lot longer than he typically ponders, for Leach is not a man generally short on opinions.
“Coached a guy, B.J. Symons was kinda like that,” Leach said.
Clearly unsatisfied with his comparison, Leach continued to search his memory. After a moment, he looked up.
“He kind of reminds me of a cross between Brett Favre and Jim McMahon, maybe. Something like that.”
Gardner Minshew — the fifth-year graduate transfer who is vying to become the next leader of Mike Leach’s famous Air Raid offense — is unlike anyone Leach has coached at WSU. The contrast is particularly stark when he’s compared to his immediate predecessor, the ever-stoic Luke Falk. I mean, you don’t even have to watch Minshew play to know he’s a different cat:
About the only way that look could get any better is if he had a mullet to go with it.
And if Minshew wins the starting job, as he’s now expected to, he’ll be injecting something into the Cougar offense that’s been missing for some time.
Pure, unadulterated, FUN.
“When you score, you’re supposed to be excited,” Minshew said after one over-the-top celebration early in fall camp. “It’s fun. Football’s fun. That’s why I try to bring some juice and leadership to the practice.”
He’s loud: If you’re around practice, you can hear Minshew’s distinctive Mississippi drawl clearly.
He’s excitable: After one daring dash into the end zone during the team portion of practice, he put an exclamation point on the touchdown by emphatically punting the ball into the stands.
But here’s the thing about loud, excitable players: Teammates will see through it in about a second if it’s not genuine. At this point, it’s clear that his teammates are buying it. Leach has specifically mentioned Minshew’s energy a few times after practices during camp.
“I think he does a good job controlling and elevating the unit, getting those guys all hyped up,” Leach said.
However, that only matters if Minshew performs on the field. And Coug fans would be forgiven if they’re skeptical of a guy who started out his career at Troy, then lost out on the starting job and transferred to a juco, then was only a part-time starter at woeful East Carolina the past two seasons.
Complicating matters is that the pure, unadulterated Air Raid that Leach runs is a notoriously difficult offense for quarterbacks to master. While Minshew’s offenses over the years have all incorporated Air Raid elements, it’s a big jump from running a handful of Air Raid plays to orchestrating the entire offensive attack the way Leach expects from his QB.
But Minshew never has been one to shy away from a challenge, and he has a way of exceeding expectations.
“When he went to East Carolina, and I told people the same thing, I think they brought him in as a third or fourth guy,” said Jack Wright, who won a junior college national championship with Minshew as his QB. “Well you look up the fourth week of the year and who’s starting? He just kept beating the door down. I would not bet against him.”
So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise at all that Minshew is on track to win the starting job at WSU. Despite the relative lack of experience in Leach’s system, Minshew matched redshirt juniors Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon stride for stride throughout the first 10 days of camp. Since then, Minshew’s reps have steadily increased, to the point where it certainly seems as if it’s inevitable that he’ll be named the starter in the near future.
What he’ll bring to the field in Laramie on Sept. 1 is a style that matches his persona, reminding fans more of Connor Halliday than Falk. The throws will be quick ...
... they’ll be decisive ...
... sometimes, they’ll be questionable ...
... but, sometimes, they will be glorious.
One of the most telling stats for Minshew is that he was sacked on just 2.6 percent of his 304 dropbacks last season; compare that to 6.8 percent for Falk. It’s easy to chalk that up to Minshew’s good mobility, however, he had just 10 rushes last season. He’s not out there running around all the time — it’s just the ball is usually gone before the defense can get to him. That’s pretty important for someone who will be playing behind a rebuilt line replacing three starters.
Lest it seem like we’re overselling Minshew’s ability, let’s be clear: He won’t be perfect. Minshew is definitely going to throw some irritating interceptions. You can bank on that. He’s unlikely to be great, and there’s obviously a chance he won’t be good. But, at the very least, it should be interesting — a far cry aesthetically from the “constipation” of 2017 under Falk, who played so poorly at times that he was benched twice, even while setting all kinds of career records. Watching WSU’s offense last season was an exercise in frustration, which is pretty much the opposite of what the Air Raid is supposed to be.
Somewhere along the line, the Air Raid at WSU became Very Serious Business. But throwing the ball all over the yard was never, ever supposed to be boring. Tyler Hilinski gave us a glimpse last season of what it could be when he relieved Falk, and in the wake of Hilinski’s tragic death, perhaps it will take an audacious outsider — such as Minshew — to unlock that once again.
Unlike the guys he’s competing with, Minshew is untethered by years of history under Leach; he didn’t watch from the sidelines as Falk incrementally increased the safety of his throws until his yards per attempt reached a career low as a senior. Minshew spent the months leading up to his arrival in Pullman hanging out with Hal Mumme, the original architect of the Air Raid, whose personality and outlook on life is much closer to Minshew’s own than it is to Leach’s.
Minshew likely has no preconceived notions about what he’s expected to do in Pullman beyond what Leach pitched to him on the phone during his recruitment:
“How’d you like to come and lead the country in passing yards?”
Believe it or not, that hasn’t happened for Leach since 2008. The last time a Washington State quarterback did it was Ryan Leaf in 1997. Halliday likely would have in 2014 had he not gotten injured, and you can bet that Minshew is going to try and channel a little of that spirit again.
Minshew is unlikely to be a program savior — his history and expiring eligibility suggest that’s beyond his reach. But his charisma and leadership ability might very well make him the right guy at the right time for this particular team as it seeks to reach a fourth consecutive bowl game while simultaneously trying to put the pieces back together after a disastrous offseason.
(Oh, and by the way: B.J. Symons was a fifth-year senior who started for Leach for exactly one season in 2003. He led the country in passing with 5,833 yards.)