Connor Halliday has not forgotten the National Lentil Festival of 2012.
Each August, the city of Pullman welcomes the festival, an annual tradition since 1989, and each year, the Washington State football team marches in the festival’s grand parade.
Halliday remembers marching in 2012, prior to his third-year sophomore season, and a conversation he had with one of his younger teammates, a freshman receiver from Venice, California, named Gabe Marks, as the team prepared to board the bus back to campus.
Marks had only been practicing for some two weeks, but had dominated WSU’s older defensive backs from day one. It was apparent that he was going to play as a true freshman. Halliday chose that moment to offer him some words of encouragement.
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“I said something like, ‘I hope I can help you have a great freshman year,’ ” Halliday recalled on Monday. “And he was like, ‘Well, (shoot), SOMEONE’S gotta throw me the ball.”
That, as WSU fans have come to learn during these past five football seasons, is quintessential Gabe Marks: justifiably confident, unapologetically brash. Throughout a career noteworthy for its statistical achievement (301 receptions and counting, most ever by a Pac-12 receiver) and uncommon strife (a nasty infection that forced him to redshirt in 2014), Marks has leapt and grabbed and sprinted his way to more highlights than perhaps any receiver in WSU history.
He has talented teammates, too. Senior River Cracraft is out with an anterior cruciate ligament injury, but still caught 53 passes for 701 yards this season, and sophomore Tavares Martin Jr. has 671 yards and seven touchdowns himself.
Under coach Mike Leach, WSU will always have talented dudes who catch a bunch of passes.
This year, the Washington Huskies have some, too, making the Apple Cup game Friday that much more enticing for fans of big offense and long passing plays.
It is difficult to analyze this matchup without noting the treat it will be to watch both Marks and UW junior John Ross share the same field. Marks has Ross beat in career achievement. But Ross has parlayed his elite speed into one of the best seasons by a receiver in UW history, leading the Huskies with 991 yards and 15 touchdown receptions — three shy of the single-season school record of 18 set by Mario Bailey in 1991.
Ross and junior receiver Dante Pettis (701 yards, 12 TDs) are the first duo in school history to catch 10 or more touchdown passes in the same season.
“I just think it’ll be a hard-fought, exciting game,” Ross said last week before UW players were made off-limits to media interviews, “just because of how many playmakers are on their team, and how many playmakers are on our team. It’ll be awesome.”
Ross, a Long Beach, California, native, doesn’t know Marks particularly well. But he remembers his first encounter with him. The two were teammates on a 7-on-7 tournament team when they were in high school.
It was a two-day tournament, Ross said. Marks was absent the first day. Their team went 0-4.
The next day, Marks showed up. And showed out.
“We win every single game, win the championship,” Ross said. “He gets a pick, I score the game-winning touchdown or something like that. We were just scoring back and forth. I’m not sure if he remembers that. I just remember us beating, like, the top team there.”
Marks was not available to speak to reporters this week, which is a shame, given his loquacious reputation. Others will have to speak for him.
Halliday doesn’t mind. He can’t say enough about playing with Marks — “It was truly an honor to play with that guy,” he says — despite the fact that they only had two seasons together.
Halliday began his career throwing to former WSU star Marquess Wilson, so he knew what a talented receiver looked like. But Wilson stood out for his size and speed. Marks turned heads with his attitude.
“It was just his drive. It was amazing,” Halliday said. “He can be totally covered and still demand the football, and he’s still going to catch it. He’s not scared of going over the middle. He’s not scared of getting hit. The guy is just a warrior.”
It’s hard for Bailey to say whether he wants Ross to break his single-season touchdown record.
On one hand, Bailey said, no athlete wants to see their records broken.
“But if it’s going to be anybody,” Bailey said last week, “you want it to be somebody like that kid.”
Ross considers Bailey a role model and a friend. The two exchange texts and Twitter messages. They first met prior to last season, Bailey said, then spent more time together this year when UW organized for them to participate in a photo shoot.
Bailey used to watch Ross in 1-on-1 drills in practice and send him tips afterward, “but he doesn’t need too many tips.”
Ross has been asked a few times about the prospect of breaking Bailey’s record. At first, he said it didn’t matter. But …
“Now that I think about it,” Ross said, “it would, because it would just show my improvement over the years.”
Even Halliday, a former quarterback of UW’s arch-rival, marvels at Ross’ maturation.
“When I was around, he was a guy that could run by you, but a 15-yard dig wasn’t always gonna look that pretty,” Halliday said. “This year, you ask him to do anything, and it just looks flawless. You have to put two people on him. One guy’s not going to be able to guard him.
“I think he has the potential to be a huge guy on Sundays.”
Anything else we should know about Marks?
“In spring practice eight, when the wind’s blowing 30 mph and it’s 18 degrees out and no one really wants to be there, Gabe practices so hard that if you don’t match his intensity, you’re going to be made a fool,” Halliday said. “I don’t think that gets enough credit. He raises the level of competition of everybody on the team, because if this guy’s going that hard, why aren’t you?”
Bailey has something to say about Ross’ most recent touchdown, a 70-yarder caught against USC after he beat Trojans’ cornerback Adoree’ Jackson at the line of scrimmage. He heard some folks saying Jackson tripped.
“He didn’t trip,” Bailey said. “You watch the film, he got his ankles broke. John shook him. That’s what tripped him. That’s about making plays, and that’s what we needed at that time. He’s a playmaker. I think he sets the tone for the entire offense. You have to account for him, which in turn lets the other players make plays, because they have to account for where John is on the field.”
Christian Caple: @ChristianCaple