Countdown to Spring: Cougars QB Preview

PULLMAN – With a bigger, deeper and improved offensive line seemingly in the cards, the WSU quarterback should stay on his feet more often this year. But who exactly will that starting quarterback be for the Cougs? It appears as though for the second straight year, we're going to have a dogfight on our hands for the starting quarterback position. The battle gets underway in just nine days.

It's a battle that, given Mike Leach's M.O. of not naming his starter until mid-August, will likely last throughout spring ball and fall camp.

Redshirt junior Connor Halliday comes in as the hands-down favorite. But redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca showed promise and moxie during his time on the scout team offense in 2012, allowing Leach to leave the door open for the mobile youngster.

Headed into spring ball, which gets underway March 21, you can say one thing about the quarterback position at Washington State in recent years: Everyone gets the chance to play. Durability has been the elephant in the room for the Cougs.

Regardless, whomever takes the reins this season should feel far more comfortable than quarterbacks of years past, as WSU returns a promising corps of offensive linemen, and apparent depth to boot. Steady time in the pocket will be critical this season, as the Cougs simply don't look to have the depth behind center to withstand the blow of unforeseen injuries as they have in the past.

In the event Halliday wins the starting gig, Apodaca would be next in line, mired in inexperience, though dripping with ability. Behind Apodaca, convoluted might be the most appropriate way to characterize the situation. Walk-ons Jesse Brown and possibly Conner Johnson, redshirt sophomore and freshman respectively, represent the only other quarterbacks with exposure to the Air Raid system.

In either case, most expect the pass-happy system to take off in 2013, with better running lanes helping to keep defenses more honest than in 2012.

Leach aims for his offensive line to have two feet of space between each guy. This demands big bodies, and that can't be understated. At Texas Tech, his lines averaged well-over 300 pounds across the board. In 2012, only two starting linemen for Washington State topped the scales at that mark and that in part led to Cougar quarterbacks being under siege (57 sacks).

So what does each guy have going for them?

In Halliday's case, experience and an aggressive mentality should certainly play to his advantage.

Halliday comes into 2013 as the incumbent, and thus, the favorite in this two-horse race. Halliday in particular isn't afraid to go after the home run ball. He has an explosive arm, and a confident approach that should translate beautifully if he's to take the leadership role on this team.

Conversely, Halliday's reckless throws have seemingly been amplified by the pressure to put points on the board in a ‘high-scoring' offense. Since his astonishing, recording-breaking, introduction to the Pac-12 in 2011 against ASU, Halliday has completed just 52 percent of his passes and has averaged a meager 6.45 yards per attempt -- anticlimactic numbers for a guy so heavily endorsed for this downfield temperament.

For Halliday to grab hold of the starting job in 2013, he'll have to show the wherewithal to protect the ball and throw it away when the play just simply isn't there. His proclivity towards high risk/high reward plays is surely the biggest hit on his resume – but there are plenty of stellar QBs who did the same or worse in their first few years. Clean that up, and Halliday could be a prolific pocket passer.

On the other hand, Leach has never been afraid to throw caution to the wind and go with the young guns. Apodaca provides his head coach the mobility he likes in a quarterback, though sacrifices the in-game experience sought at the Pac-12 level. Coming out of high school, Apodaca received praise from scouts for his deadeye accuracy from the pocket, though from the chair, one might suggest his arm is far bigger than he's given credit for.

Last fall, Apodaca routinely threw 40- and 50-yard bombs, all the while showcasing an absolutely seamless delivery. Apodaca's delivery is much like that of Robert Griffin III's. With a long stride but a quick flick of the wrist, Apodaca can put the ball wherever he pleases. But his three-quarters type of delivery may be a detriment if coaches choose to let it slide, as Apodaca worked with it all throughout 2012.

The Longmont, Colo. quarterback has a whole lot of possibilities to offer the Air Raid offense, but it will simply be a matter of whether his inexperience outweighs his abilities.

One thing is certain -- If Leach likes Apodaca over Halliday, public opinion and preconceived notions of how a depth chart ‘should' look, with upperclassmen at the top, won't sway his decision on who goes under center this fall when the Cougs take on Auburn.

The Other Guys
True freshman Tyler Bruggman, highly recognized by scouting agencies galore, won't get to see a playbook until at least June when he arrives on campus and thus will be at a great disadvantage in the presumptive quarterback controversy. Bruggman has said throughout that he is completely open to redshirting if it means his time and success and Washington State will be made that much more valuable, so coaches may look to go that direction unless the Arizona product comes in and blows the roof off of fall ball.

Bruggman possess a high football IQ and more importantly, doesn't hurt his team with silly mistakes, seemingly a prerequisite to lead the Mike Leach offense. Unfortunately for Bruggman, he doesn't possess world-beating physical attributes. He's doesn't have a Drew Bledsoe or Ryan Leaf cannon, so his ability to ‘wow' onlookers at practice with his raw ability may be challenging. And asking a true freshman QB to play, let alone thrive in the Pac-12, is something rarely accomplished.

Fellow true freshman Isaac Dotson and walk-on Luke Falk will also battle for playing time this fall, but like Bruggman, won't see a playbook until at least June.

Dotson has loads of athleticism, but has yet to showcase his arm in an offense. Dotson never passed for more than 2,000 yards in a single season in high school, instead showcasing his running ability in an option offense predicated on deception and pounding the ball. Dotson will presumably get a much bigger look at safety, rather than the quarterback position.

Falk on the other hand ran out of the spread offense in high school and put up some gaudy numbers during his prep career. In his two seasons at Logan High School, Falk threw for 53 touchdowns and just 15 interceptions. Falk has ideal size (6-4, 219), and should garner the attention of coaches in skelly drills throughout fall camp. While doubtful that Falk could seriously challenge Halliday or Apodaca this season, he may serve as good depth in the case injuries strike on the Palouse.

While almost impossible to predict Leach, it is presumed that Halliday will get first crack at the starting job, albeit on possibly a short leash. Given how often Leach switched between Tuel and Halliday last season, it would be surprising if Apodaca never saw in-game action in 2013.

The third-string job is where the most uncertainty lays. Falk and Brown seem to be the best fit for the spot, though Bruggman could claim the spot if his abilities and headiness outweigh the loss of using a year of eligibility and burning his redshirt.

It should be an interesting year at the quarterback position for the Cougs, one full of competition and constant scrutiny. The position shows great promise, but at this point, nothing is set in stone heading into Day One of spring ball.

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