PULLMAN – When Jeff Tuel jogged out onto the Coliseum field last Sept. 26 with 8 minutes, 35 seconds left before halftime, Washington State University already trailed USC by 20 points.
The Cougars went on to lose 26-6 in a game distinguished by possibly only one thing.
It marked the then-freshman quarterback’s first collegiate game action and launched him on a path that, as the Cougars prepare for USC’s return visit to Pullman a year later, has him firmly entrenched as WSU’s starter.
So how has Tuel changed since that night in Los Angeles? To determine that, let’s begin in that first huddle.
“He was a little shocked in L.A. against USC,” remembers receiver Daniel Blackledge. “He was a little jittery (in the huddle), but after those first couple of plays, he kind of settled in.”
Tuel came to Washington State from Clovis West High near Fresno, Calif., having started at quarterback only one year. Though he had 207 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, he didn’t look anything but thin when practice started. A year redshirting was planned. Until he started throwing the ball.
Three weeks into what would be a 1-11 season, the decision was made to throw the redshirt away. It was time to get Tuel some experience.
“When I look back at that game it brings back good feelings,” Tuel remembers. “It was fun. I enjoyed the heck out of that game. I had a blast.”
After hitting on 14 of 21 passes for 130 yards in his debut, Tuel started five times before his season ended in Arizona because of a knee injury. The line for his freshman season: 71 of 121 for 789 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions.
It was a foundation for improvement.
“I’m a lot more experienced, obviously,” he said of the changes since that night in LA. “I’m more confident and a better quarterback.”
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Todd Sturdy agrees.
“His mechanics are really good,” Sturdy said. “Everything’s improved, everything’s gotten quicker, his release, his footwork, getting the ball out quickly, that’s all improved greatly. He’s always had a strong arm. How he reads defenses is getting better and better, though still not where it needs to be.
“He’s playing good, not great yet, but good. The plan is to get him to great.”
In the Cougars first three games this season – they are 1-2 – Tuel has hit on 50 of 91 passes for 700 yards. More important, he’s thrown five touchdown passes and just one interception.
All of that despite laboring under the handicap of poor pass protection. As a freshman, Tuel was sacked 28 times, or 4.7 times a game. So far this season he’s been put down 10 times, or 3.3 times a game. It’s an improvement but still the most in the Pac-10.
But there is more to a quarterback than just being a player and making plays. He also is the leader of the team. It’s a role Tuel wasn’t all that comfortable with a year ago – and is now.
“He’s taken more of a vocal approach this year,” Blackledge said. “He’s really confident and he’s taken more of a leadership role.”
Though Sturdy said Tuel will say what’s needed, his primary leadership characteristic is more visual.
“He leads by his play, his toughness, competiveness,” Sturdy said. “He’s not going to scream and holler, but he’ll say what needs to be said. He’s very competitive, a very focused young man.”
That was evident that first appearance. After Sturdy had called two runs to open Tuel’s first possession, the Cougars faced a third-and-4. Despite being deep in their territory, trailing 20-0 and needing a first down, he trusted Tuel to throw.
Standing in the pocket while it collapsed, Tuel rifled a ball to tight end Tony Thompson that really had little chance to get through a maze of hands. But the connection was made. Five yards. The chains moved.
And Tuel went back into the huddle. The shock was gone.