PULLMAN – Football players have a way of banging into each other over the years. A teammate in one career becomes a rival in another.
Such is the case with Jeff Tuel and Beau Sweeney.
When Tuel, Washington State’s starting quarterback and Sweeney, a backup in the same position for California, renew acquaintances Saturday afternoon on the Martin Stadium turf, they can trade memories of the two years they played together – and competed against each other – at Clovis West High in the Fresno area.
What they won’t be able to share is a collegiate experience.
When Tuel’s family moved from Tucson, Ariz., to the Fresno vicinity after his freshman year of high school, they had a choice of all the schools in the area. The aspiring quarterback wanted to attend Clovis West.
“I thought of it as the best school in town and I wanted to be a part of it,” Tuel said.
But the Golden Eagles already had a quarterback.
And his last name is admired in football circles from Bozeman to Pullman to Fresno. Beau Sweeney’s grandfather Jim had made his coaching bones at Montana State and Washington State before putting Fresno State on the national map. Beau’s dad, Kevin, had a large hand, and arm, in the latter as the Bulldogs’ record-setting quarterback in the 1980s.
And Beau, a year ahead of Tuel, was already ensconced as West’s quarterback.
“An assistant told me Jeff transferred into that high school – he could have gone to any high school he wanted – and he chose to go there to compete for the job,” WSU offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy said.
“I’ll never shy away from competition,” Tuel said.
It was something Sweeney could sense. From the first time he saw Tuel on the West campus, he knew the newcomer would be just that – competition.
“I can vividly remember the first day he came out,” Sweeney said. “He had just had knee surgery and had just moved out from Arizona. I could tell he was a very good football player, just from how he threw the ball, even when he was hurt.
“He was definitely a competitor. He pushed me in a lot of areas.”
But the thin, gangly Tuel wasn’t ready to be a star. As a sophomore he quarterbacked the JV team as Sweeney led the varsity deep into the state playoffs.
As a junior, Tuel earned his varsity letter – as a receiver. He was on the end of a few Sweeney passes and blocked on the quarterback’s many running plays as West again went deep in the playoffs.
But that wasn’t all Tuel did.
“At practice, he would go and play quarterback,” Sweeney said, “then he would come in and run routes. He was an extremely good athlete.”
It was during those two years the 6-foot-2 Sweeney decided to make a college choice. He picked California early, telling other schools not to bother. He was going to Berkeley, where he headed in 2008.
That left the quarterback spot for Tuel. West would be his team. In the summer of ’08, the Golden Eagles played at Fresno State’s team camp.
“That was the first time I got to see him really play,” said Sturdy, who has already dissected whatever camp and practice tape he could get his hands on.
The new WSU coordinator was sold and he sold head coach Paul Wulff. The next month Tuel made a visit to WSU and committed. He had yet to start a high school varsity game at quarterback.
“It’s scary because it’s a huge decision,” said Tuel, adding that through camps that spring and summer other schools had started recruiting him. “At the same time, it’s just so exciting because you know that it’s the place for you.”
While Tuel was passing for 1,714 yards at West, Sweeney was redshirting at Cal, learning the ins-and-outs of Jeff Tedford’s system.
But he had served his purpose, as far as the Cougars were concerned. If he hadn’t forced Tuel to play wideout as a junior, WSU may not have had a recruiting shot. Heck, there was a different staff in Pullman that season.
Fast forward two years.
Tuel is a star, having thrown for more than 200 yards in all nine of WSU’s games this year. He’s established himself as one of the Pac-10’s best young quarterbacks, earning praise from the coach of every team WSU has on its schedule, including Sweeney.
“He’s an exceptional player,” Tedford said. “He’s got a great quick release, great poise in the pocket, can throw all the balls the field. (He’s) extremely competitive.”
Sweeney’s career hasn’t been as fruitful. As Kevin Riley’s backup last year, he completed five passes, the same number as Tuel’s starts. This year he started the season as No. 2, but was passed by Brock Mansion a few weeks ago. With Riley’s knee injury, Mansion will start in Pullman.
But Sweeney doesn’t begrudge any of the success his former backup is enjoying in Pullman.
“I am completely and genuinely happy with my decision to come to Cal,” he said. “The biggest aspect of where I was going to go to school was not only the football program, but the school. So I am very happy with where I am.”
And Sweeney isn’t surprised by Tuel’s success, either.
“I knew once he was the man and could go do it, I knew he would be a dang good quarterback,” Sweeney said. “I expected wherever he went to play college football, he would just continue to get better.”
Saturday, after the two talk before the game, Sweeney will be able to see Tuel’s improvement for himself. The understudy in the starring role.