Legacies of Quarterback U

PULLMAN --- Two Washington State graduate students were out on Rogers Field during a conditioning practice held by the football team on Thursday. Thinking a Cougar trainer looked familiar, one of the students asked if it was former WSU quarterback <b>Steve Birnbaum</b>.

The other student let him know it couldn't be Birnbaum -- otherwise there would be hecklers shouting at him from behind the Compton Union Building.

This is the legacy current WSU quarterback Matt Kegel is trying to dodge.

Birnbaum, the understudy to Ryan Leaf, became the topic of controversy for two years after he inherited the signal-calling throne from the legendary Leaf.

The rest of the story is (mostly forgettable) history.

And now, with the departure of another "Quarterback U" legend in the form of Jason Gesser, comes Kegel. Big and confident, he's looking to make his own mark on Cougar football, not become another answer to a trivia question about who --- a la Birnbaum, Mike Pattinson, Brad Gossen/Aaron Garcia, Ed Blount and Steve Grant --- had the misfortune of succeeding a legend. 


But what makes this situation especially unique is that Kegel is hearing jeers and the season is still five months away. The Havre, Mont., native seems to be at a crossroads right now. He's piled up more than 1,000 career passing yards and led WSU to a rare victory of USC in Los Angeles in 2000, but wavered at times over the past two seasons during limited PT.


"Most of these critics are straight media," Kegel said, like a guard dog provoked by someone poking their finger through a fence. "Are they going to judge me on one quarter a game or three plays in the Apple Cup? It's sad to see people talk so negatively when I've given a lot to this program. I could have taken my talent somewhere else to play. Most of these critics are just sitting on the couch with a beer in their hand anyway."

If Kegel should stumble this season, WSU will have two powerful arms right behind him in freshman Josh Swogger and sophomore Chris Hurd.

The opening round in the competition begins Tuesday with the first of 15 practices that will be held this spring season.


"We have to find out who the quarterback is going to be," WSU head football coach Bill Doba said. "I think Matt Kegel is our leading guy but he has two guys right behind him that are excellent players in Chris Hurd and Josh Swogger that will make for an interesting battle. Who is two and who is three as much as anything."

While the Cougar coaching staff has named Kegel "The Man," neither Swogger nor Hurd have made reservations for second string in 2004.

"I don't want to get into a situation where we have two quarterbacks splitting equal time," Swogger said of the future. "I'll be satisfied with a backup role if we're winning and I simply get beat out. But if we're losing then I would have to sit down and think twice about what's going on in the program. I want to play this year and I'm sure Chris would say the same thing. Everyone wants to play, no one wants to sit on the sideline holding the clipboard."

Hurd was more reserved in his response.

"I just hope it's a fair competition," he said. "I don't want to look too far down the road. If I did become the starter this year it'd be great. Starting for a big-time school is what I've always dreamed of."

If history has her way, Hurd or Swogger could be thrown into the starting position this year. The Cougars are not strangers to young and unproven quarterbacks.


Upperclassmen Gossen and Garcia were leap-frogged by true-freshman Drew Bledsoe in 1990. In 1995, second-year freshman Leaf breathed life into a dead season when he took over the starting role from Chad Davis, throwing for 564 yards in the season's last two games. And in 1999, Gesser did it again after consistent struggle from Birnbaum.


But offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller believes this season will be different.

"We're more talent laden than we were then," he said. "We have more guys surrounding the quarterback position itself."

True. The Cougars, traditionally a pass-happy team, have more options to work with than they have in prior years. Fleet-footed running back Jermaine Green is as fast as anyone in the Pac-10, the question is can he stay healthy? The Cougars also return sophomore tight end Troy Bienemann, an unexpected jewel last season, and a meaty offensive line led by first team All-Pac-10 junior Calvin Armstrong. No one doubts Kegel's athleticism and ability to throw the long ball, but the Cougars will need to find some wide receivers to take the pressure off of 6-foot-3 junior Devard Darling, who will be guarded tightly by every team. If all of these ingredients work towards the favor of WSU even Kegel knows what it will mean.

"I could throw 40 interceptions a

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