Don’t call it a quarterback controversy.
Not yet, at least.
Sure, the Washington State University football team might have two above-average gunslingers in senior Jeff Tuel and redshirt sophomore Connor Halliday. Both are ideal candidates to preside over Mike Leach’s Air Raid Offense. But, does that mean each will receive a fair shot at landing the starting gig?The WSU head coach seems to thinks so.
“We talk about it, look at it and evaluate it every day, but I don’t have a specific time,” Leach said Monday when asked when he would name a starter.
Through five practices, Tuel’s taken most, if not all, of the snaps with the first team-offense. The job appears his to lose.
The Fresno, CA.,native bounced out to an early lead in the arms race when he went 19-for-21 for 285 yards and two touchdowns in WSU’s annual Crimson and Gray game at Spokane’s Joe Albi Stadium in the spring. The performance solidified his early grasp of the starting spot after a junior season cut short in the sixth week to a rash of injuries.
Halliday, meanwhile, had no such opportunity to impress the rookie coaching staff during spring practices. The former Ferris (Spokane) High School standout was still feeling the effects of the lacerated liver he suffered in WSU’s 30-27 overtime loss against Utah in the penultimate game of the 2011 season.
(Enter obligatory WSU drinking joke here.)
The missed time learning the new offense, and presumably Tuel’s seniority, made the six-foot, four-inch Halliday a heavy underdog to unseat his teammate and friend entering fall camp.
“It’s a little frustrating because I didn’t get to do much in the spring so I’m a little bit behind the eight ball,” Halliday said after practice Saturday. “But I’m going to compete and push Jeff because him and I both know that competing against each other makes this team better. Whoever plays needs to have their A-game each week so we’re going to help each other out with that.”
Political correctness aside, it is hard to ignore the infant stages of Halliday’s collegiate career. In the Cougars’ 37-27 win over Arizona State Nov. 12, 2011, he relieved then-senior quarterback Marshall Lobbestael for the team’s third offensive series.
The ensuing three-and-a-half quarters crushed any lingering doubt about WSU’s depth at quarterback.
Halliday promptly threw an 85-yard touchdown pass to Marquess Wilson on his first play from scrimmage before going on to finish with 494 yards and four touchdowns in frigid temperatures. The win kept WSU’s slim bowl hopes alive and bought former head coach Paul Wulff another week to wallow in his precarious job status.
Halliday finished 2011 with 960 passing yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions in limited action across four games. His 156.6 quarterback rating stirred conversations among fans as to whether Tuel’s job status was secure.
Leach did little to quell the chatter about his current second-string quarterback on Monday. A sportswriter’s dream on all subjects outlandish, the coach often takes a more cryptic approach when discussing personnel.
That didn’t keep him from praising Halliday.
“I thought he’s looked good,” Leach said of his backup’s first week in camp. “He throws the ball really good. Part of it is just getting a bunch of reps in for Connor.”
Tuel, for all his talent, has only two victories as a starter in three injury-plagued seasons in Pullman. His best statistical year came in 2010 when he threw for 2,780 yards and 18 touchdowns, completing nearly 60 percent of his passes on a 2-10 squad that had a porous offensive line.
The dual-threat quarterback has done nothing to warrant losing his spot in the early stages of fall camp, commanding the offense with an efficiency Leach looks for. His first real test will come Saturday when WSU scrimmages for the first time since April. Based on Tuel’s comments Monday, the competition should be nothing short of civil.
“We’re good friends,” he said when asked to describe the competition with Halliday. “There’s no secret enemy thing between me and Connor like we hate each other. We like to goof around on and off the field and we have a really good relationship so it’s a blast to come out here and compete with him.”