PULLMAN – It’s a different Jeff Tuel leading the Washington State offense this season.
You can tell it when he jogs out to practice, the handful of pounds he added in the offseason part of a rock-solid 6-foot-3, 223-pound frame.
You can tell it in practice, when the right-hander delivers the pass in the right place at the right time nearly every play. Or when he uses his feet to avoid a rush or to run away from a defender.
You can tell it in the huddle, on the sidelines, after practice. The junior quarterback is the unquestioned leader of the Cougar offense.
When you examine the quarterback position in Pullman this year, everything starts with Tuel.
“Physically, he’s got all the things you look for,” offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy said Saturday. “The big thing is how is he going to handle the position when the bullets are flying. I think he proved he could do that last year (when) he came a long way in his development.
“Right now in camp he’s at another level.”
He is, in his third year as a starter, ready to take his spot among the greats who have played his position at WSU, the Bledsoes, the Leafs, the Gessers, the Rosenbachs.
“It’s an honor (to be mentioned with them) because those guys were great quarterbacks,” Tuel said. “But each and every one of them has reached out to me in some way, told me if I need anything to contact them, given me pointers, tips.
“It just goes beyond the quality of play. It just the quality of people they are. That means as much or more to me than just their numbers.”
Being talked about in that company is nice, but all those former Cougar quarterbacks did something Tuel has yet to do: Throw for 3,000 yards.
“That’s what I have set in my mind and I’m going to do what it takes to get there,” Tuel said.
Last season Tuel came close, finishing with 2,780, completing nearly 60 percent of his passes and throwing 18 touchdowns.
Yet Tuel has a bigger goal this year and it’s another benchmark those quarterbacks reached: They led WSU to at least nine wins in a season.
“If we had a 10-win season,” Tuel said, “I wouldn’t care how many yards I threw for. It’s a good thing. It would put a lot bigger smile on my face.”
The latter goal will be tougher, as WSU has won just three games in the two years since Tuel left Clovis West High after only one season as a starting quarterback and made the trek north to Pullman.
But Sturdy believes the Cougars’ quest couldn’t be in better hands.
“The biggest difference is (this year), when things aren’t right a little bit, he knows the concept well enough he can get it out to something that’s not necessarily the primary read,” Sturdy said.
But Tuel isn’t alone in manning the position for WSU. For the first time in recent memory, the Cougars are five deep with talented quarterbacks, all in different stages of development, from freshmen to seniors.
“We have a Pac-(12) position now, 1 through 5,” head coach Paul Wulff said. “We have five quarterbacks here who belong in the Pac-(12). Not all of them can start, but they are going to continue to compete and a couple of those guys will emerge and play a lot of football over the next few years.”
“They’re all talented enough to play at this level,” said Sturdy, “and they’re all developing.”
The battle to be the No. 2 guy is still ongoing, according to Sturdy. Redshirt senior Marshall Lobbestael, who has started six games at WSU, and redshirt freshman Connor Halliday are both getting a shot to earn the main backup role.
“It’s all about repetition,” Sturdy said. “You’ve got to give your one guy enough reps to operate at a level to give yourself a chance to win. Your ‘two’ guy has to have enough reps where, if he’s called upon, he can come in and win. And then you’ve got to get a ‘three’ guy ready to be the ‘two’ guy.”
Two years ago it was Tuel trying to win playing time, getting occasional snaps in preseason camp as a callow freshman. But five games into the season, at USC, he was handed the reins of the offense. Only a late-season knee injury against Arizona kept him from finishing the year as the starter.
So how has Jeff Tuel changed since then?
“My confidence in myself,” he said. “Because, coming from a one-year starter in high school then coming straight to playing (as a freshman), everybody coming here has some doubt in their mind.
“Until you go out there and prove you belong and can lead a football team, it’s going to hold you back. Now I truly believe this is my football team and I have a lot more confidence in myself coming into my third year.”