PULLMAN – When two or three players battle to win the starting left cornerback spot in fall camp, most college football fans yawn. When another duo vies to be the No. 1 right guard, sleep might be the response.
But have two or three guys face off with the starting quarterback position at stake, and everyone even mildly interested in the program wakes up.
And wants to know who is winning.
Why should Washington State be any different? After all, the quarterback is the face of the Cougars’ football team, a lineage that runs from Jack Thompson through Mark Rypien and Drew Bledsoe to Ryan Leaf, Jason Gesser and Alex Brink.
Last year, when Gary Rogers and Kevin Lopina skirmished over the chance to replace Brink – Rogers, a senior, started the Oklahoma State opener – it was big news. Little has changed.
Lopina, in his senior year, is trying to make the position his, but sophomores Marshall Lobbestael, J.T. Levenseller and even true freshman Jeff Tuel want to be the guy.
However, none has an overpowering résumé from last year’s 2-11 season.
Lopina started eight games, completed 56.9 percent of his passes, threw 11 interceptions and no touchdowns but did lead the Cougars to a comeback win in the Apple Cup.
Lobbestael started four games, had a better quarterback rating (103.1 to Lopina’s 88.7) but completed just 51.5 percent of his passes, with four for touchdowns. Levenseller played limited minutes in four games after being forced to use his redshirt due to injuries.
“It’s a race, guys competing to play,” coach Paul Wulff said, referring to all position battles. “Sometimes one guy pulls ahead of another guy and then back comes the other guy. That’s why we practice and hopefully they keep pushing each other because it only makes us better.”
Handicapping the race after just one week of practice is dicey, but it looks like Lopina is a nose ahead of Lobbestael, with Tuel trying to make an outside run.
All three played well in WSU’s first scrimmage Saturday, with Lopina completing all six attempts for 94 yards and a touchdown. Lobbestael was 4 of 7 for 32 yards while Tuel, getting the most snaps with the third group, was 5 of 6 for 75 yards.
Every race has a way to determine the winner, and the quarterback chase is no different.
WSU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Todd Sturdy shared his thoughts this week on how the decision is made.
Sturdy, who has been with Wulff for three years, knows there is more to the quarterback position than just being able to throw the ball through his office wall, and all those other factors will come into play when the final decision is made. But there is a bottom line.
“Who gives us the best chance to win,” Sturdy says, before pausing and adding, “at that time.”
So what goes into a winning quarterback?
Sturdy emphasizes commitment, especially to the program and its goals. “It all starts there,” Sturdy said.
But there is more. There is dedication to meeting the position’s responsibilities.
“He needs to be a leader all the time,” Sturdy said. “There is no break from that in my opinion.”
That leadership reveals itself through actions, sure, but when needed, through words as well.
Sturdy is also looking for an “office rat,” the football equivalent to basketball’s gym rat. The right guy needs to have a passion for football, a desire to spend the needed time studying tapes, to do the work that makes the difference on game day.
Then he has to be able to take what he’s learned to the field and put it into practice.
“He has to make plays,” Sturdy said. “You can have a guy sit in here for hours and hours and hours, but if it doesn’t translate in a live setting … we haven’t gotten to where we need to get to.”
To decide if the translation is working, the Cougars chart every play, every drill, seemingly every movement on the practice field, in scrimmages, on game days.
And finally, there’s physical ability. Sturdy says those traits are identified during the recruiting process. If a player is at this level, he has the physical skills.
“That top group of guys, they all look about the same,” he said. “They all hit the guy they’re throwing the ball to, they all have a pretty good arm, they all look pretty good.
“It still will come down to who’s the toughest. Mental and physical.”
So which Cougar is the toughest this year? It’s yet to be determined. But Sturdy and Wulff know the decision has to be made soon.
“Repetition-wise, you want to make sure that guy has enough reps to be prepared,” Sturdy said. “You want that decision made before game week.”
With the Stanford game kicking off the schedule Sept. 5, the choice has to be made before the end of August.
And the participants will be on board with the decision, as they have been with the battle.
“It’s really cool because if Kevin scores and wins that competition, then we’re high-fiving, chest-bumping each other,” Lobbestael said. “If I do it, he’s doing the same thing to me. Basically, we have the same goals this year – just win. However we do that, whoever is doing that, we just want to win.”