Connor Halliday isn’t shy about speaking his mind, so it’s noteworthy that the redshirt junior quarterback is mostly saying all the things Washington State University football fans want to hear.
That he and the rest of WSU’s offense are much more comfortable running the Air Raid now than in 2012. That he’s getting better at taking what defenses are giving him. That he has taken control of a unit starved for leadership.
If all that is true, coach Mike Leach may not have to deal with the back-and-forth seen last season at the position.
If not, the Cougars’ other starting candidate, Austin Apodaca, would have a chance to prove he’s ready to play in the Pacific-12 Conference.
The presumed starter: Even as a redshirt freshman during the 2011 season, Halliday said he approached each practice as if he was going to start that week’s game.
So nothing has changed from that perspective, other than the fact he’s going to play a lot more this season.
“At some points in your career, it isn’t totally realistic,” Halliday said. “I’ve always tried to approach the way I handle things as I’m the starter, so if something were to happen, like my redshirt freshman year, I was ready to go. I just try to do that all the time.”
Leach hasn’t totally committed to Halliday as his opening-day starter, though he said again Tuesday that Halliday would be the guy “if we were to play today.” That’s close enough to a full-fledged endorsement that it’s safe to expect Halliday under center when WSU travels to Auburn for the season opener on Aug. 31.
He also has starting experience on his side, and he appeared in nine games as a sophomore last season. Halliday and Jeff Tuel took turns trying to win the starting job, though neither was efficient or consistent enough to take control. Halliday completed 52 percent of his passes for 1,878 yards, 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, and often forced passes to receivers who were covered.
Halliday said his ability to hit big plays is sometimes countered by the difficulty he has hitting check-down receivers in Leach’s Air Raid offense, though he has said more than once this camp he’s improving in that area.
Leach lauds the development of Halliday’s leadership abilities, as well as his fast-paced personality that helps set the proper tempo for WSU’s offense. The Cougars, under Halliday, look much different than they did last season, when spring and fall camp were spent simply trying to figure out where players were supposed to line up.
“Our (first) spring ball with Coach Leach, to put it honestly, was terrible,” Halliday said. “People didn’t know what they were doing. People didn’t know the reads. We didn’t know what Coach Leach expected, so I mean, just knowing Coach Leach’s expectations is the biggest thing from last fall camp to this fall camp.”
In the mix: Austin Apodaca tries not to worry about what he can’t control, and for that reason, the redshirt freshman doesn’t seem particularly bothered by the fact Halliday appears to have taken control of the Cougars’ starting QB slot.
But Apodaca has come a long way, too, drawing praise from Leach in the spring for the poise he showed in taking the first real practice repetitions of his career after running the scout-team offense last season. And that growth appears to have carried into camp, with Apodaca leading the offense capably during team sessions and scrimmages.
“Knowing my reads and getting through my progressions has shot up since spring,” Apodaca said, “because sometimes in the spring, I was guessing on where things were going to be, guessing on my reads, and now I’m way more confident in the offense and I know my progressions.”
If Halliday winds up as WSU’s full-time starter as expected, Apodaca will most certainly back him up. And if last season’s quarterback shuffle is any indication, it’s entirely possible Apodaca won’t have to wait long to see his first collegiate action.
If he does, Leach said, his confidence won’t waver.
“We wouldn’t adjust anything,” Leach said. “We’d just go out there and play. It’s not like we’d back off offensively or anything. We’d just do all our stuff.”
Keep an eye on: Tyler Bruggman, WSU’s highly-touted freshman out of Brophy Prep in Phoenix, seems to be the team’s No. 3 option if something happens to both Halliday and Apodaca. Indications from Leach suggest Bruggman won’t play if he doesn’t have to, but he’s been given occasional reps during practice to show what he can do. A 62-yard touchdown pass to Vince Mayle in Sunday’s scrimmage was a promising sign.
Walk-on freshman Luke Falk will likely begin the season as the fourth-stringer.
Reason for optimism: Halliday’s 494-yard, four-touchdown performance (226.9 rating) against Arizona State two seasons ago provided fans a look at who they hoped would be the Cougars’ quarterback of the future. And his ability to hit explosive plays, coupled with an unapologetic confidence, make him a threat to put up gaudy numbers every time he steps on the field. If he’s truly learned to hit check-down receivers when necessary – after all, he’s completed about 70 percent of his passes this camp – Halliday could be far more consistent than in 2012.
Cause for concern: WSU’s offense (Halliday included) was so spotty last season – ranking near the bottom of the Pacific-12 Conference in total yards and points – that it’s still reasonable to think there could be more growing pains this year. And Halliday, who has battled injury in each of his first two seasons, is the only quarterback on the Cougars’ roster who has taken a collegiate snap.