Cody Whalen grew up in Lacey, attending feeder schools for Timberline High School, where quarterbacks are often the centerpiece of the football team.
Hunter Campau played the position last year and wound up The Olympian’s All-Area MVP. Guys like Kevin Russell, Delas Raiford and Gabe Guiterrez preceded him, just in current coach Nick Mullen’s tenure.
Then, during seventh grade, Whalen’s family moved to Tumwater, home to one of Washington’s strongest ongoing football programs, but one also famed for the wing-T, a run-first – and some nights, run only – offense.
It’s not that Tumwater never has a strong quarterback. Brad Otton, son of the school’s legendary coach Sid Otton, went from an undefeated Thunderbirds’ state championship team in 1989 to start for Weber State and USC in the mid-1990s before getting a cup of coffee with Washington in the NFL. But “star quarterback” can be an oxymoron at Tumwater.
Whalen, who switched from running back to quarterback during middle school, wasn’t worried.
“I knew the coaches would see that I could sling it around enough that they’d put more passing into our offense,” he said.
They have, but Tumwater coach Bill Beattie points out that the T-Birds are averaging only slightly more attempts per game, 8.7, than in past seasons.
“It’s when we’re throwing and how we’re throwing,” he said. “Everyone seems to think we’re throwing a whole bunch more, but we’re only throwing about two more times per game.”
Tumwater doesn’t throw often because it doesn’t get the opportunity. Its running back corps, led by senior start Dylan Paine’s 837 yards and 17 touchdowns, can usually move the chains with no help from the aerial game. A total of 21 different players have carried the ball from scrimmage for the T-Birds this season.
Friday night’s district playoff opponent, Columbia River (3-6) lost to Tumwater in Vancouver by seven touchdowns just two seasons ago. It could be another run-heavy, spread-the-carries-around night for the top-ranked T-Birds (9-0).
But both Beattie and Whalen know as the competition gets tougher, the need to diversify the offense will increase.
“We’re doing a better job of when we throw it, not just waiting until third and 10 to throw the ball,” said Beattie, in his third season as Tumwater’s coach. “That’s what’s making our passing game more effective.”
Whalen has passed 79 times, completing 53 for a solid 67 percent. His throws have gone for 996 yards and 11 touchdowns. Tight end Austin Terry and wide receiver Danny Goodburn are his most frequent targets, with 16 catches apiece.
“We want to increase the number of times we pass, mix it up more, so teams aren’t always ready for what we’re about to do. Hopefully, it’s becoming a threat,” Whalen said.
As a sophomore starter on one of the rare Tumwater teams not to win the 2A Evergreen Conference championship, Whalen got “thrown to the wolves” in Beattie’s words, as Black Hills defeated the T-Birds for the crown.
Knowing Tumwater wanted to rebound and put his skills to use in the process was a “huge motivation” for the 6-foot, 170-pound Whalen.
“I came out here in the summer all the time with my receivers to get throws in and make sure our chemistry was good, so when game time came we’d be ready,” he recalled.
Beattie valued the experience his quarterback got, even in a season that fell short of T-Bird fans’ expectations.
“Cody learned a lot about being a quarterback last season,” he said. “Then, this past off-season he developed an understanding of where to put the ball. If he should put it on the receiver’s outside shoulder, he puts it on their outside shoulder.”
Whalen points to his ability to read coverages and throw on the run as other strong points in his game.
That overpowering cavalry of rushers and a tendency to dismiss opponents early – five times the 40-point mercy rule has started a running game clock in Tumwater victories this season; in a recent victory the T-Birds ran only 19 total offensive plays – keeps Tumwater from throwing often, but Beattie knows he has the personnel to pass as needed.
On occasion, the T-Birds will pass out of a spread formation.
“We can throw out of the wing-T, but we feel like we’ve got some guys who can get out in space and get open and do a good job of catching the ball,” Beattie said. “Breaking away from the wing just a little bit to do that has been nice.”
Goodburn and Terry have the obvious stats, but second tight end Ryan Otton and running backs Jaylen Clay and Turner Allen are also options.
“It’s been inherent at Tumwater for a long time to have a pretty good tight end, guys with some good size. We’re fortunate to have two of them this year, Austin (6-4, 225) and Ryan (6-6, 225), big targets coming across there,” said Beattie. “Jaylen and Turner are great coming out of the backfield.”
Whalen likes them all.
“They’re fast, they can cut well. They knew where to be. We have great chemistry,” he said. “I know where they’re going to be. They know where I’m going to throw the ball.”