Will Leach go with Falk or Bender?

COUGAR QUARTERBACK Luke Falk has the most college experience. But Mike Leach will not hesitate to throw Peyton Bender out there if Leach thinks the second-year freshman is playing better. It’s an annual thing, this QB fall camp uncertainty. It dates back to the Jeff Tuel-Connor Halliday decision in Leach’s first year in Pullman. Leach even went back and forth between those two during the season.

Two years ago, we couldn’t get an answer on Halliday versus Austin Apodaca until fall camp. Last year, Halliday was the clear starter (even if some thought Tyler Bruggman could challenge during spring ball) but Leach still downplayed it. This summer, with two relatively unproved QBs, Leach continues to keep his cards close to the vest.

But I like to speculate. So, let’s delve into what Leach will be looking at throughout fall camp, and possibly after if neither Falk nor Bender (pictured above) pull away.

After his three starts to end the 2014-15 campaign, Falk presents the best case to begin the season as the starting quarterback for the Cougars. The best thing Falk has going for him is that experience. Falk did something Halliday never did, he beat Oregon State -- and in Corvallis. I know he only won one of his three starts, but beating OSU on the road is no easy task. In his three starts, he averaged 475 passing yards a game. At OSU, he threw zero interceptions.

During spring ball I talked to Graham Harrell, WSU outside wide receivers coach and former Leach QB at Texas Tech. He said that starts in a Leach style offense are the most revealing barometer of a QB’s ability. Falk’s starts may not look like much when you see the 1-2 record. But it’s what Falk learned during those games, to apply this season, that is important.

In Falk’s starts last year, spring practice and the spring game in Spokane, I was impressed with his poise, footwork and confidence. Watching Falk hands-on also led me to conclude Falk was far ahead of Bender coming out of the spring.

Falk looked like a Pac-12 quarterback with every snap. His teammates could see that he was where he belonged: in the pocket with time to throw. Falk took most of the first team reps during basic drills this spring, but Leach always made sure that Bender received some scrimmage reps. Falk ran plenty of shotgun snaps, but Leach also gave him a decent number of snaps under center.

Falk made some beautiful quick release throws, bubble screens, deep balls, out of three step drops, five step drops. Falk looked like he could do it all. Bender started off shaky as he tried to keep pace. However, as spring progressed Bender started to look like a college QB in his own right (like the time he threw six TDs in a scrimmage). But even if Bender closed the gap, Falk still has the “real” college game experience.

Bender does present an interesting case though. And he is gunning for that starting job.

If Bender can play relaxed and confidently, he will have a chance to beat out Falk. With Falk carrying all the expectations, Bender could sneak into the starting role because he doesn’t have the same weight on his shoulders. As a redshirt-freshman last year, Bender had the opportunity to learn from Halliday and Falk. Now, he will need to continue to learn and take advantage of his coaches -- especially Harrell.

Whoever starts at quarterback will have big shoes to fill from Halliday. Falk has the experience, but could that actually give Bender the upper hand? The most entertaining depth chart battle this fall camp will be at quarterback. And it will be a hot topic Leach continues to avoid (publicly at least) until he feels like naming the starter.


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