Spring preview: Gear up for raging QB battle

LUKE FALK HAS the experience, he'll enter spring ball as the Cougars' starting quarterback. But right beside him will be Peyton Bender, who spent his first season at Washington State redshirting and making a strong impression in Thursday Night Football. It figures to be a battle that will rage all spring, and perhaps beyond.

Falk (pictured left) filled in ably when Connor Halliday suffered his season-ending injury last season. The 6-4, 208-pounder was remarkable in his first start against Oregon State before finishing on a down note against ASU and Washington, the latter being the coldest Apple Cup in history (19 degrees at kickoff).

Falk in four games this past season was 156 of 243 for 1,859 yards with 13 touchdowns against seven interceptions. His QB rating was 140.35, comparing favorably to Halliday's 145.04. For a former walk-on whose previous accomplishments were being measured in Thursday Night Football, that is an impressive Saturday afternoon stat line.

Falk is an instinctual quarterback, something that led to both the good and bad in his first shot at extended playing time (and not all that dissimilar to the way another quarterback who relied heavily on his instincts, Jason Gesser, began his Cougar career). And Falk's work ethic is second to none.

But Bender (pictured right) was oh so mechanically sound in his Thursday Night Football reps. His quick release and a low pass-to-interception ratio are two strong aspects of his game. He frequently threw touchdown passes in Thursday Night Football, which mostly overshadowed the occasional interception.

Bender (6-0, 183) also showed an a proclivity towards checking to more running plays based on what the defense was showing, looking to open up passing lanes later in drives (something Halliday was oft-criticized by fans for not doing enough over his Cougar career).

When Bender was pressured, he was more often than not able to dump passes off or use his quick release to find someone open late. When given time in the pocket, he showed a knack for connecting on the deep ball.

Tyler Hilinski (6-4, 190) is already on campus and Mike Leach says he's been acclimating nicely. He'll certainly get his opportunities this spring. But it would be a major upset for a true freshman who graduated high school early to leap over either Falk or Bender this spring. Hilinski has a lot of gifts and his career prospects are bright, but asking him to be Pac-12 ready in his first season would be asking a lot.

Still, you never truly know how ready any rookie is before you get 'em on the practice field and going against Pac-12 players, and this will be Hilinski's first showcase. The quarterback out of Upland High in California had an impressive senior season, completing 68 percent of his passes for 2,738 yards and 22 touchdowns. He only threw five interceptions. He ran for 166 yards and four touchdowns last season.

Two more quarterbacks on the roster, both walk ons, are Connor Ennis (5-11, 176) and Erik Anderson (6-2, 190). Both could compete for the backup spot but have work to do. Ennis struggled last season in Thursday Night Football with his decision making and accuracy - some days he threw multiple interceptions. He'll need to improve considerably in that area this spring if he wants to climb the depth chart. Anderson was a quarterback/athlete last season, playing a versatile role on the scout team offense. The Cougars utilized the true freshman as a quarterback and sometimes as a receiver on the scout team last season.

The spring might not settle the starting QB issue: not officially, at least. Leach's modus operandi has been to wait to name a starting quarterback until deep into fall camp, regardless of what the first-team reps in the spring or fall might show. Still, this spring on the Palouse figures to feature a more wide open battle at quarterback than years past, one that could be downright fascinating to watch. The first of 15 spring ball practices at Washington State begins March 26.

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