Mike Leach didn’t arrive at Pac-12 Media Days on Wednesday with mixed thoughts on his team, he was one positive dude.
When talking about Washington State’s starting quarterback, Leach was all smiles and heaped praise on Connor Halliday like he has not done with any player yet in his tenure.
The biggest thing, and he’s a very talented guy, and he’s steadily improved and with a young supporting cast ended up fourth in the country in passing, so clearly, he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the entire nation.
You might be rooting for your guy, and I don’t care what you think, he’s better than your guy is. And I think the biggest thing is we have all our receivers back.”
Many prognosticators will say that Connor Halliday is a product of his environment, a stat-stuffing wiz in the school of Leach, a puppet. To a point, that may be true, but putting him in a box based on his head coach is certainly not the best way to describe what Halliday brings to the table and anyone that studies quarterbacks can see that. He has a chance to grow into Leach’s most NFL-ready quarterback coming out of college this season.
There are a couple things to take into account when looking at the Washington State QB. Yes, he threw 22 interceptions in his first season as a full-time starter, but we gotta consider his growth. For example, take the end of the season in 2013.
The Cougs had just been blown out of their third straight game and were facing a 4-5 record and a daunting early-morning trip to Tuscon on the schedule. Halliday came ready to play and threw 39 for 53 with 2 touchdowns and only 1 interception, including a game-winning drive and touchdown pass in the final moments.
He wasn’t overly spectacular in the football game, but Connor did something that day that turned his career around; he avoided the critical, game-changing mistake that had haunted the team in the previous games against Oregon, Stanford and Oregon State. The fact that they ended up winning changed the way he approaches the game.
The next week he got even better, throwing 39 of 62 for 488, 4 TDs and 0 ints against Utah in the game that eventually would put WSU in its first bowl game since 2003. In fact over the final stretch of four games Connor threw for 16 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions. If he were to keep that pace, he would throw for 52 touchdowns and only 16 interceptions in 2014. Pretty good huh?
Looking back at the Crimson and Gray game this Spring, many people rolled their eyes when he threw two picks, but despite what those two throws looked like the difference was obvious. Save for a couple other high throws that will be ironed out by kickoff against Rutgers, Halliday was in control.
He also can make every throw on the football field, which is a major attribute that not every quarterback has. Sometimes that leads to him trying to make a throw that he shouldn’t make just because he thinks he can squeeze it in, but it’s not a bad thing if he can learn to harness the compulsion to gamble.
Another subtle but vital part of the quarterback play for a Mike Leach team that was displayed towards the end of last season and in that C&G game, was that Connor ran the game. There was no looking over to find the next play to relay. No precious, wasted seconds looking at a wrist band. At this point, he knows the offense and commands the field.
“So what(?), you’re supposed to do that as a QB” you might be thinking to yourself. And you would be right, except that it is actually not all-that often fully realized in college. Those that do reach that point are the ones you remember, they’re the ones that get drafted. Think of the best quarterbacks WSU has had, Bledsoe, Rypien, Gesser, Brink, Leaf, Thompson. Remember the growth that happened between their junior (in some cases a year earlier for those that graduated early) and senior seasons?
Halliday has had more in-game learning experiences than most of Leach’s quarterback have had and he’s thrown more passes than any Cougar quarterback to this point in his career. He’ll fall right into the role of “most experienced passer” this season and it will make more of a difference than you might think.
Connor is becoming more than a quarterback (as most of Leach’s quarterbacks do), he’s becoming a coach on the field, an extension of the hand of head coach himself. Besides the obvious calm play that results from his offensive teammates, this creates and sustains three major facets of the football game; tempo, defensive play-calling and time of possession. In this offense the most important thing to do is move the chains and be efficient.
Scoring is of course supposed to be the end result, as it is in any offense, but the key in a Leach offense is that the passing game sustain itself in all situations. Halliday is beyond the learning phase at this point, he is growing into the role by the snap.
One other thing I want to point out, is that while people may criticize him for his shortcomings these past few years, they have probably done something for Connor that he needed; frustrated him. Nobody wants that in their QB as a fan, but the fact is that he was so upset about most of these mistakes that he made it a point to fix them. Then, when he “got it” in that Arizona game, everything started to change.
Watching him this season, you might just see the most unflappable quarterback in the conference and one of the most composed in the country. He will still be his usual, expressive self, but he’ll be able to come back from one bad throw this season and not compound the situation into an entire quarter, which will lead to some previously unthinkable numbers for a Cougar quarterback.