WSU’s Tuel stands tall despite setbacks

Contributing writerNovember 22, 2012 

PULLMAN – It is possible that no one in the not-always-so-great history of Washington State football has been forced to endure more interviews after losses than senior Jeff Tuel.

Quarterbacks, of course, are usually popular go-to sources for the media. It has been Tuel’s misfortune to be a talented quarterback at Washington State during a period when most of the players surrounding him were not nearly as gifted.

Barring an upset Friday against visiting Washington (12:30 p.m., Ch. 13), the Cougars will lose for the 39th time in 48 tries since Tuel arrived in Pullman as a rail-thin, baby-faced freshman in 2009. Tuel has a 3-22 record as a starter.

Through all the losses and all the interviews, Tuel has stood tall. Teammates never get thrown under the bus. A positive spin was offered — if at all possible.

“Great teammate, a great leader,” summed up former WSU quarterback Marshall Lobbestael.

“He’s one of the greatest team guys I’ve ever been around,” Cougars coach Mike Leach said.

Tuel has compiled some of the glossiest passing numbers in the history of a program with a proud tradition of elite quarterbacks. Those numbers would have been much better if not for a string of injuries, but Tuel asks that you spare him your sympathy.

“I’m not going to sit here and worry about things that are out of my control,” Tuel said. “I play the game a certain way, and that’s as hard as I can.”

Tuel proved that last season when he persuaded coaches to allow him to play in the opener against Idaho State after Lobbestael was thrust into the starting role when Tuel became ill.

Early in the game, Tuel found himself scrambling for yardage. Nearing the sideline, he refused to run out of bounds, took a hit and suffered a broken collarbone.

“It would have been nice for him to run right out of bounds, sure,” then-WSU coach Paul Wulff said at the time. “But you know, he’s a competitor.”

That fact has never been questioned since Wulff chose to sacrifice Tuel’s redshirt four games into his freshman season. It seemed fitting that the coach would throw an 18-year-old quarterback to the wolves, inserting Tuel into his first college game at USC with the 12th-ranked Trojans leading 20-0 in the second quarter and 75,000 fans roaring their approval.

Tuel, who never drew a sniff from the Trojans or most other Pac-12 (then Pacific-10) Conference teams when he was in high school in Fresno, Calif., promptly silenced the Memorial Coliseum crowd by leading the Cougars on a long, impressive drive. The Cougars lost the game, but they found a quarterback.

Five starts later, a knee injury ended Tuel’s season. He started every game as a sophomore and earned honorable mention all-conference honors, but injuries limited him to three games and two starts last season, and a knee injury in the second game this season sidelined him for two weeks. Earlier this month, he missed the final three quarters of the UCLA game after getting drilled.

“It (all the injuries) sucks, no doubt about it,” Tuel said.

“It’s unbelievable,” Leach said. “I mean, most people would have quit.

“So, yeah, he’s been through a lot of adversity. He’s a tough guy, an example for everybody as far as real commitment to playing football.”

Tuel absorbed a brutal beating last month at Stanford, but he passed for a career-high 403 yards while being sacked 10 times.

“He got back up and kept fighting,” Cardinal defensive end Ben Gardner said. “He’s a heck of a quarterback. He doesn’t get the credit that he’s due. He’s a warrior.”

The Cougars have sought a medical redshirt year for Tuel, but athletic director Bill Moos estimates the odds of gaining the NCAA’s approval at 20-30 percent.

Tuel, who has battled for the starting job with Connor Halliday all season, has repeatedly said he might not stay at WSU even if he is granted another year of eligibility.

Pro football is a possibility, and NCAA rule changes now permit some college graduates to transfer and complete their eligibility at another school the following season. Tuel is set to earn his communications degree next month. Tuel and Halliday have both expressed frustration with Leach’s flip-flopping of the two quarterbacks.

Leach said he expects to start Tuel on Friday. The 2010 Apple Cup was the only one Tuel was healthy enough to play, but he holds so much respect for the Cougars-Huskies rivalry that he quit drinking purple Gatorade – “That’s my favorite” – years ago.

BLEDSOE TO BE HONORED

Former WSU quarterback Drew Bledsoe will be inducted into the State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame between the first and second quarters of the Apple Cup.

Bledsoe was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1993 NFL draft after leaving the Cougars before his senior year. The graduate of Walla Walla High School was the Pac-10 offensive player of the year in 1992 when he led the 15th-ranked Cougars to a 9-3 record that included a victory over Utah in the Copper Bowl.

In his 14-year NFL career, Bledsoe was twice named All-Pro and was a four-time Pro Bowl selection. When he retired after the 2006 season, he was fifth in NFL history in career pass completions (3,839), seventh in passing yards (44,611) and 13th in touchdown passes (251).

Bledsoe is one of six inductees to the Washington Sports Hall of Fame this year. Last month, former University of Washington and NFL quarterback Warren Moon and retired Mercer Island basketball coach Ed Pepple were inducted before the Seattle Seahawks’ game with Minnesota.

Other members of the 2012 class who were enshrined earlier this year were retired soccer coach Cliff McCrath of Seattle Pacific University, jockey Russell Baze and late Seattle Rainiers owner Emil Sick.

The State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame was started by sportscaster Clay Huntington of Tacoma in 1960 and now has 178 members.

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