By Theo Lawson / The Spokesman-Review
PULLMAN — Like every other college program that passed through Lake Stevens High School between 2013 and 2015 for a glimpse of Jacob Eason, Washington State marveled at the quarterback whose huge frame was just as impressive as his right arm.
WSU entered the Eason sweepstakes, along with more than a dozen other Power Five programs. The Cougars sent current running backs coach and then-recruiting coordinator Eric Mele across the mountains to put a set of eyes on the 6-foot-6, 227-pound quarterback, who threw for more than 9,800 yards and 102 touchdowns in three seasons as a starter in Wesco 4A.
WSU head coach Mike Leach is pretty sure it was Mele who made the trip, but this was a half-decade ago and his memory is hazy.
“I think Mele did,” Leach said, “I can’t remember for sure.”
At the end of the day, WSU was just another name on a long list, and the country’s second-ranked pro-style passer signed with the University of Georgia. Even if it was discouraging for the six Pac-12 schools that had offered Eason, they figured they wouldn’t have to face him, outside of a bowl game or the College Football Playoff.
But that was short-lived. Eason was beaten out by Jake Fromm at Georgia and subsequently returned to the Pacific Northwest to play at Washington, where he’d have a solid chance to replace Jake Browning once the fourth-year starter left.
Eason beat out Jake Haener, who’s since transferred, and now the Cougars find themselves preparing for the ex-Lake Stevens star anyway.
It’ll be the first Apple Cup for Eason, and also for WSU’s Anthony Gordon, when the Cougars (6-5, 3-5 conference) and Huskies (6-5, 3-5) kick off at 1 p.m. Friday. Not since 2015, when WSU’s Peyton Bender and UW’s Browning went head-to-head, has the rivalry game featured quarterbacks making their first Apple Cup start.
“Big kid, big arm, moves reasonably well, but he’s a pocket passer,” Leach said of Eason. “Talented guy, transferred in and beat out the backup. So, good quarterback.”
Some UW fans and NFL scouts used the term “great” before the season began, but Eason’s big arm and unique frame have been overshadowed at times by his lack of precision and iffy decision-making. Eason’s best game was his first game, when he completed 27 of 36 passes for 349 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions in a rout of Eastern Washington, but he followed with 18 of 30 with 162 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception in a loss to Cal.
Eason enters his first Apple Cup having thrown four touchdowns and four interceptions in his past two games — a 19-7 win over Oregon State and a 20-14 loss to Colorado. The redshirt junior completed 37 of 66 passes in those games and totaled just 381 yards.
Adding to the pressure, Eason has been hassled repeatedly about his impending future — whether he’ll remain at Washington for his senior season or skip off to the NFL, where he may be selected high in the draft based purely on his measurables.
“The Twitter, the Instagram, the radio, all that stuff. I know it’s out there. I don’t pay attention to it,” Eason said to the Associated Press. “I’ve got people asking me questions all the time. What do you think about this? I still don’t want to respond to all those questions because there’s so many of them.”
Even after watching Eason stumble through his past two games during their midweek film sessions, the Cougars haven’t been fooled. If there’s any remedy for Eason’s problems, the mere sight of WSU’s defense might be it.
Houston’s D’Eriq King and Stanford’s Davis Mills each accounted for three touchdowns against the Cougars; Cal’s Devon Modster, Utah’s Tyler Huntley and Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels each had four; Oregon State’s Jake Luton had five and UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson had seven.
“He has a strong arm, extremely strong arm,” WSU linebacker Jahad Woods said. “He’s a big quarterback, he knows how to move, he knows how to move in the pocket. He knows how to be a poised quarterback and he reads his keys really well, and I think something we have to do is pressure him.”
In many ways, Eason reminds the Cougars of two other Pac-12 quarterbacks from the region.
Oregon State’s Jake Luton is commanding at 6-7, 229 pounds and Oregon’s Justin Herbert is 6-6, 239 pounds. Like Eason, Luton and Herbert have extraordinary arm strength, as well as excellent height that allows them to see over their offensive line without being obscured.
Herbert let his running backs take care of the work in Oregon’s 37-35 win over WSU earlier this season, completing 21 of 30 passes with no touchdowns or interceptions. Luton was 22 of 40 for 408 yards, five touchdowns and one interception in the Cougars’ 54-53 win over the Beavers last Saturday.
“All three guys are monsters, big guys that can really throw the football and very accurate with the ball, and (Eason) has a lot of good weapons,” WSU interim defensive coordinator Roc Bellantoni said. “A big offensive line, a big physical, athletic offensive line who can run the ball. And I’m sure that’s what they’re going to try to do to us, so we’ve got our hands full with another great opponent.”