PULLMAN — This year the only controversy behind center at Washington State might be a lack of quarterbacks.
The offseason transfers of backups Austin Apodaca and Tyler Bruggman have made the pecking order among WSU quarterbacks glaringly clear. Fifth-year senior Connor Halliday is the man of the hour, freshman and temporary walk-on Luke Falk will spell him at the end of blowouts or in case of an injury and first-year player Peyton Bender will run the scout team and likely take a redshirt year.
As long as Halliday stays healthy the Cougars should have all they need to accomplish head coach Mike Leach’s objectives in the passing game. Halliday finished No. 3 in the country with 4,597 passing yards in 2013 and didn’t play to the height of his ability until the season’s final four games, in which he tossed 14 touchdown passes and just three of those interceptions everybody kept complaining about.
It seemed that at some point Halliday metamorphosed into an Air Raid quarterback, and when he developed a knack for Leach’s signature offense, the rest of the WSU offense followed suit.
“The most important role that he has is to make the players around him better,” Leach said. “The more he knows the players around him and they know him, the easier that is. So I think that will be the biggest improvement.”
Halliday has proven surprisingly durable for a lanky, 6-foot-4, not particularly mobile quarterback who rose above 200-pounds for the first time in his life this offseason. Yes, he once missed spring practice, but the man had recently lacerated his liver in a football game that he finished.
He missed just one series due to injury last season — against Stanford, despite playing in an offense that passes so much the sack numbers (32 against WSU last year) are inevitably high.
But the specter of 2008 still hangs in the collective consciousness of the program, the year when injuries at quarterback mounted so quickly the team was forced to hold open tryouts among the student body just so somebody could run the scout team.
If Halliday stays healthy, he should make a run at a 5,000-yard season thanks to a productive offseason spending time throwing to his top eight receivers from last season, all of whom are back.
“I just try to play my game and at the end of the year, if it ends up being at the top of the nation, that’s great,” Halliday said. “I’d like to think my talent’s up there, but that’s not really for me to judge.”
The numbers may come even if Halliday doesn’t match his 714 passing attempts from a year ago. The Cougars emerged from camp with a healthy stable of running backs and Halliday indicated throughout the team’s two weeks in Lewiston that he would be willing to check into more run plays this year to avoid throwing upwards of 50 passes per game.
If something does happen to Halliday then the Cougars will likely turn to Falk, a walk-on who won’t stay that way, according to Leach. Falk was once a major recruit, garnering a scholarship offer from Florida State after his sophomore year of high school.
But Falk missed his junior year of high school after switching schools, and went from a prominent recruit to an under-the-radar one, eventually choosing to pay his own way at WSU rather than play for Cornell.
“Some people might think I was crazy to give up the education or whatever, but football is my passion and it’s just been great so far,” Falk said.
It’s no surprise Falk’s had a good time. He outplayed the highly-hyped Bruggman in the spring and, in just one offseason, went from the fourth man on the depth chart to No. 2 with four years left to play.
“He’s developing into a great player,” receiver Dom Williams said. “Everybody has things they need to work on but Luke is a great quarterback. I really like him.”
Barring something unusual happening, fans will likely have to wait until the spring to get a glimpse of Bender, who could very well be the starter next season. After a decorated career at Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s Cardinal Gibbons High, Bender impressed WSU players with his passing ability and WSU coaches with his developed footwork during fall camp.
“The ball comes off his hand real quick, real sharp. And he’s a guy that for a freshman is really composed,” Leach said. “I mean, in high school he ran an offense that’s very similar to what we do, so we had some familiarity, but to adjust to college as quick as he has, I think has been real impressive.”