You could say that Gage Gubrud had that underdog mentality even before he was born.
New Year’s Day 1995 found Chris and Jenifer Gubrud in Pasadena, California, cheering on an overachieving Oregon team in the Rose Bowl against Penn State.
Gage was there – “In my mom’s tummy,” said Gubrud, who’s become quite an overachiever himself.
Lightly recruited and utterly overlooked by most Eastern Washington football fans, the former walk-on from McMinnville, Oregon, is expected to start at quarterback in Saturday’s opener at Washington State.
How he got there is a story of confidence – but not cockiness – and the reward of hard work in a risky business.
Gubrud never took the easy path, not even the red-carpeted one laid at his feet by hometown Linfield College. Wildcats coach Joseph Smith had recruited him since his freshman year at McMinnville High, but Gubrud wanted to play Division I football.
“Telling him no was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do – to tell him that I was going to Eastern Washington,” Gubrud said earlier this week as the Eagles prepared for WSU.
“I just wanted to challenge myself.”
The risky part was going to Eastern as a preferred walk-on with no guarantees of an athletic scholarship. The only sure thing was that Gubrud felt at home in Cheney, where he gladly traded rain for snow for a chance to compete for coach Beau Baldwin.
After playing for four coaches in high school, Gubrud figured he could adjust to anything.
“I figured that was one of my strengths,” said Gubrud, who began his Eastern career in the fall of 2014 as a redshirt freshman at the bottom of the depth chart.
“Then I saw the playbook. … I had no idea about coverages, reading defenses, pre- and postsnap reads … relaying the call to my teammates.”
Gubrud didn’t get many practice reps, so he took mental ones and used All-American Vernon Adams Jr. as his guide.
“I learned a lot from watching him,” Gubrud said. “His eyes were always moving – you could tell all the things he was processing, the safeties’ position, all that attention to detail.”
Armed with that knowledge and Adams-like footspeed, Gubrud went into spring ball in 2015 with a lot of confidence – misplaced, as it turned out.
“That’s because I didn’t know my reads, and the coaches saw that I didn’t know the playbook real well,” Gubrud said.
Even Baldwin acknowledged Gubrud’s regression that spring. As Jordan West took over at quarterback following Adams’ departure, Gubrud was third behind Reilly Hennessey. He spent last year holding for kicks.
Gubrud’s best game was with his foot instead of his arm: On a rainy, windswept day at Roos Field, he punted five times and kept Weber State bottled up in a 14-13 Eagles win.
As a passer last year, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Gubrud completed all of seven passes for 66 yards and an interception. His only touchdown came on a run.
Something changed last spring. With fellow sophomore Hennessey getting most of the first-unit reps, Gubrud realized that little had changed in a year.
“I was in a tough situation, but coaches will see things,” Gubrud said.
Gubrud always had that – it was an element lacking last year in the Eastern backfield – but he also had an improved grasp of the playbook and the football. His growing confidence was repaid by the coaches, who elevated him to co-No.1 with Hennessey before the first scrimmage.
“Once you get the mental part down, I can do the things I want,” the 21-year-old Gubrud said.
In three spring scrimmages he completed 75 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and just one pick. His accuracy continued in fall camp.
“I think he’s made great strides,” Baldwin said. “You can see the overall growth he’s had from spring to fall and what he did over the summer. It’s evident and it shows up in the production numbers and how the team moves down the field.”
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