Their support and guidance helped me navigate the highs and lows of playing the toughest position in all of sports. Their presence was also a constant reminder of the history of the quarterback position at WSU and the responsibility that comes with being "the guy." In this incredible, record-setting season by Connor Halliday, I can't help but smile knowing he, too, is benefiting from a very similar support system.
On Saturday night the Cougar senior had one of the best games of any quarterback in college football history. As gaudy as the statistics were, what stood out to me most was the leadership from Halliday. He showed incredible poise during a wild third quarter that featured eight total touchdowns. Coming back each time with a score following back-to-back Cal kickoff returns was particularly impressive. Though his best moment may have been getting up after standing in the pocket and delivering a strike to Vince Mayle on his final pass in the face of a safety blitz.
Despite the rocky start to this season for the Cougars, I have been impressed by Halliday and the growth he has shown since last year. Although he played well late in 2013, there was still a maturity he was lacking in his play. In 2014, not only is he more likely to check the ball down instead of forcing it downfield, he also carries himself with less of a brash defiance and more of a quiet confidence. There is no more yelling at the offensive line after a false start or pouting after a dropped ball. He is the leader of this football team and he acts the part.
I truly believe much of this maturation can be attributed three people: Jason Gesser, Jack Thompson and former Texas Tech All-American Graham Harrell. It cannot be overstated how important it is for a quarterback to be able to lean on a coach who has played the position before. The addition of Harrell to Mike Leach's staff was undoubtedly the best move of the off season. There are few quarterbacks who executed the Air Raid better and it gives Connor someone he can lean on when it comes to understanding the nuances of what Coach Leach wants in his offense.
Jason and Jack are two Cougar Legends I have an immense amount of respect for. As I said before, without those two I would have been lost at times. Jack is referred to by most of us as the Godfather of Cougar Football and he is certainly the head of our quarterback fraternity. He makes a point to reach out to each new starter and impress his wisdom on each of us. More important, he reminds each guy that his opportunity to pull the trigger at Quarterback U is not so much about him, but about the collective group that came before. Again, there is a standard to be upheld.
I was so fired up to hear that Jason was going to return to WSU in the athletic department in a fundraising role and as part of the radio broadcast team. Not only was I certain how great he would be for the university but also what it could mean for Connor Halliday. See, Gess was never shy about sharing his opinion with the Cougar QBs who came after him. Before the start of my junior season in 2006 he pulled me aside during an athletic department function. During that very frank conversation Jason made it clear that I needed to handle myself better as a leader both on and off the field. As tough as it was to hear from a guy I looked up to, that talk changed the way I approached the game and I've carried it with me ever since.
Connor Halliday is a different quarterback this year. He has executed at a high level, especially the last three weeks. A poor call stole what could have been a career-defining final drive against Oregon, he was flawless late in the game against Utah and did everything within his control to secure a win against Cal. What I love is his expectation for this team. He makes it clear to everyone that if the Cougars have one drive to win a football game then that is exactly what they are going to do.
As tough as this year has been so far, at no point can you pin it on the play of the senior quarterback. Halliday has matured into one of the best passers in college football and gives the Cougars a fighting chance every time out. He has become a leader and a guy that I am proud to call part of the Cougar quarterback fraternity. I'm pretty sure Jack, Jason and the rest of the guys would say the same.