I had a chance to spend some time with Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday in Pullman early last month, and with the tape recorder off, we talked about the race for backup QB between Tyler Bruggman and Luke Falk.
Halliday was highly complimentary of Falk.
Maybe he knew something.
Bruggman, a high school four-star recruit who was going to be a redshirt freshman this fall, is outbound, transferring from the program after one year there that most observers would describe as unspectacular.
It’s fair to say Bruggman is the most high-profile signee in the three WSU recruiting classes of Mike Leach, a prominently rated player at the most important position on the field.
Therein lies the chagrin for most WSU fans. It’s rare enough to get one of those guys, a 4.2 (including honors classes) high school student who might have become the face of the program. The last thing you want to do is lose him.
But the “star” system is for fans, and I suspect this is being viewed differently among the WSU coaches. As in: They would be more concerned with the immediate impact on the program than any perceived setback in losing a top recruit. And the fact that the walk-on Falk was not only hanging with, but perhaps leading Bruggman, in that backup race after spring drills is the pertinent issue.
Bruggman’s departure renders the Cougars thin at the position — as in having three scholarship-level (we’re considering Falk of that ilk) players available. Halliday is the unquestioned starter, Falk is the backup, and true freshman Peyton Bender enters in the fall.
The Bruggman transfer need not be a deal-breaker. If the Cougars are forced to go with a backup at some point this year, it was going to be a player who hadn’t taken a college snap yet in any case — Bruggman or Falk.
But no doubt, the cupboard would be skimpy if Halliday were to go down with any kind of significant injury, and the season is suddenly on the shoulders of Falk and potentially Bender.
Here’s what a lot of this is about: Whether the Cougars have indeed graduated from the bad old days of WSU football to a station of respectability.
You’ll recall that the Paul Wulff regime was marked by, among other things, a consistent inability to protect the quarterback. WSU surrendered 186 sacks in four years, and keeping the quarterback upright became a major proposition for the Cougars. Only in 2010, when Jeff Tuel survived the beating, was the quarterback picture stable; the rest of the time, the job was passed among Tuel, Marshall Lobbestael, Halliday, Gary Rogers, Kevin Lopina, and even, for a few snaps in 2008, a walk-on who doubled as a punter, Dan Wagner.
The sacks didn’t disappear with Leach’s arrival in 2012. The Cougars allowed a nation-worst 57 sacks that first year, while going 2-10.
But in the breakthrough bowl year of 2013, they trimmed that total to a much more manageable 32. The line played better, but as much as anything, Halliday became accomplished at getting rid of the ball quickly, throwing to a spot.
Now, more than ever, he needs to do that, especially as WSU breaks in a new right side of the line that could include a couple of redshirt freshmen. It’s imperative that the Cougars build on that stability that began surfacing last year.
No reason to think Halliday won’t. But even at that, playing quarterback in a one-back offense can be risky business. Remember the ghoulish, six-minute stretch of the third quarter at CenturyLink Field last season against Stanford, when the Cardinal overpowered WSU up front, mauled Halliday out of the game (with a hip pointer) and then knocked around backup Austin Apodaca badly enough that he had to be helped from the field? Bruggman was probably a whisker from seeing action in that game, which would have wiped out his redshirt year. (Combine the injuries with two 30-yard pick-sixes in that stretch, one each by Halliday and Apodaca, and it was about as dismal a six minutes for one position as I’ve ever seen.)
Point is, this is an unforgiving league, and even with Halliday’s maturity and improvement around him, stuff can happen. It’s WSU’s job to minimize the chance of it.
Big picture, the temptation is to question Leach’s magic with quarterbacks. Apodaca and Bruggman, after all, were his first two scholarship-quarterback recruits at WSU (Apodaca originally was committed to Wulff’s regime), and both are gone, Apodaca having departed last winter. But the guess here is that until we know otherwise, there will always be quality quarterbacks wanting to play for Leach.
In the short term, that increases the focus on the freshman Bender, whom the Cougars are bringing 3,000 miles from Florida. And it means Luke Falk needs to be game-ready after August’s fall camp.