PULLMAN – It’s an all-time Gardner Minshew story, a tale Jack Wright shares to this day and one that any Washington State football fan should care to hear before they even attempt to handicap the Cougars’ impending quarterback race.
Coming into his second season as the coach at Northwest Mississippi Community College, Wright was looking to sign a marquee quarterback who could help the Rangers reestablish their clout in the highly competitive MACJC.
He’d identified Minshew a few years earlier, toward the end of the quarterback’s fabled career at 6A Brandon (Miss.) High, as someone who could make a “splash impact.” Wright offered … and missed. Despite receiving minimal FBS interest, Minshew negotiated a late walk-on deal with Troy University. And Wright went in a different direction.
After six months, when it looked like he wouldn’t have a chance to unseat young Troy starter Brandon Silvers, Minshew left the Trojans and looked for a place to reboot his career. The Northwest offer still stood, but the terms of it had changed. He’d have to compete for the job and his challenger, Wright described, was “the prototypical Division I quarterback” – a 6-4, 230-pound right-hander who “could run probably a 4.6 (40-yard dash),” he said, and “throw it 80 yards on the run.”
Every physical advantage on Minshew … and time. The contender came into spring camp, and left it, as Northwest’s presumptive starter. Minshew didn’t sign with the Rangers until May 28.
Sound familiar yet?
“I said, ‘Gardner we’re going to give you a scholarship. We want you to come over here, we want you to be with us but I’m going to be 100 percent honest with you because I don’t want you to get over here and there to be any surprises,’” Wright recalled of their phone conversation. “’There’s another quarterback here … he’s been here, he’s a few months ahead of you, he’s got a relationship with the receivers and it’s going to be a competition.’”
Minshew responded boldly: “‘Coach, tell me about my receivers.’”
In his coach’s estimation, Minshew had the job won a week later, though Wright let it play out longer as a formality. The other quarterback transferred out. Four months later, Minshew and the Rangers stomped past Rochester of Minnesota 66-13 to win the program’s third national title.
In about a week, expect the former Brandon High/Northwest Mississippi/East Carolina quarterback to bring the same audacity to his next mission. He’ll face many of the same handicaps.
Before joining the Cougars, Minshew’s furthest college football venture was in Greenville, North Carolina. Even then, his friends and family bemoaned the eight-hour car ride required for East Carolina’s home games.
So Minshew might as well be on Jupiter now.
At Washington State, he’s the third man to show up to a three-man QB competition. He’s vastly more experienced than his competitors, but the Cougars didn’t announce his arrival until May, so he’s already a few-thousand practice reps and a couple-hundred position meetings behind both Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon, who’ve been around since 2016. That’s plenty of real estate to make up in just a month.
It’s unfamiliar. It’s new. It’s uncomfortable. It’s right up Minshew’s alley.
“When he went to East Carolina, and I told people the same thing, I think they brought him in as a third or fourth guy,” Wright said. “Well you look up the fourth week of the year and who’s starting? He just kept beating the door down.”
“I would not bet against him.”
Houston Smith characterizes his longtime friend as the quintessential competitor – and he understands that can be cliché, especially when you’re talking about a college football quarterback.
So here’s some clarification.
“He was the type of guy that if he was on your team, you loved him and if you’re playing against him, you didn’t like him very much. You kind of hated him,” Smith said.
His first encounter with Minshew came on the baseball field. The two played on rival squads. At 12 years of age, whatever happened on that diamond was all that mattered in life.
“Not knowing him, I was kind of like, ‘I didn’t really like that guy.’ That’s what we always thought about him,” Smith said. “Me and my 12-year-old teammates always used to talk trash about Gardner Minshew, that catcher for the Brandon Lumberjacks. ‘I don’t like that guy. I don’t like that kid.’”
When Minshew transferred to Smith’s school, East Rankin Academy, for one year in eighth grade, the two bumped into each other in the locker room. An instant connection spawned and in just one year, the duo altered the perception of a school that had always been superior academically, but inferior athletically. East Rankin won a district football title, posted the best baseball record in school history and made a deep playoff run in basketball.
Smith distinctly remembers one football game. East Rankin should’ve been a big underdog heading into a game against an opponent from Hattiesburg, but Minshew played well enough to keep his team in striking distance. After a close loss, Smith was in earshot when former New York Giants/Alabama coach Ray Perkins, who was coaching East Rankin’s opponent, label Minshew “the best junior high quarterback I think I’ve ever seen.”
Anybody who knows Minshew speaks of his credentials as a top-end competitor.
When the QB returns home in the offseason, he’ll often spend his days playing pickup basketball at a court adjacent to the Methodist church in Brandon. 3-on-3, 4-on-4 and hours of it, amidst Mississippi’s soaking humidity and blazing heat.
“And I don’t know what Gardner’s record is playing at that church, but I bet he can count on one hand the number of times he lost,” Smith said. “And you didn’t ever want to be the team that had to play Gardner after he lost because he was going to be so pissed off and ready to rip your head off.”
He’s been known to treat games of garage ping pong like Wimbledon and friendly Madden contests like the Super Bowl.
“If we’re doing something that’s not competitive, he’ll find a way to make it competitive,” Smith said.
But that only explains a fraction of the boy that Kim and Flint Minshew raised. He’s introspective and curious. A 4.0 student who excelled in the ACT, scoring 30 out of a possible 36 points.
His mother tells a story about the family’s first months living in Brandon, following. Kim was instructing her son while the two shot basketballs on a hoop in the driveway. If you’re on the left side of the goal, she explained, you shoot with your left hand.
“‘Mom, I don’t understand why,’” the boy queried. “‘Because,’” Kim explained, “‘you want to keep the defense between you and the ball.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, well that’s logical.’”
A 7-year-old Minshew had mastered the layup only an hour later.
More than a decade later, the same kid was attending defensive meetings at Northwest Mississippi simply to learn how the other side of the ball functioned.
Over Minshew’s four years, the bright red Brandon High jersey, screen-printed with No. 9, became a best-seller in the small suburb of Jackson, Miss.
“All the little kids would wear No. 9 jerseys,” Kim Minshew said.
And in case that sounds like an over-exaggeration from Minshew’s No. 1 fan…
“He’s kind of like a local legend here,” Smith said.
“There would be kids all big-eyed, star-eyed watching him at practice and he would always make an attempt to go over and speak,” added Wyatt Rogers, the offensive coordinator at Brandon High.
“Whoever wears the No. 9 jersey down there – the number will be remembered because of Gardner,” said Josh Stowers, another close friend and former Brandon High wide receiver.
Those are the dividends that come with being a four-year starting quarterback at a high school playing in Mississippi’s top classification – and finishing as one of the most accomplished players in metro area history. Minshew, who began starting for the Bulldogs midway through his freshman campaign, threw for 11,222 career passing yards and 105 touchdowns. Brandon was a perennial winner as long as he was there.
The stats and accolades don’t hurt, but Minshew’s propensity to sign every autograph, mentor the area’s young quarterbacks and speak at the local elementary schools is what gave him heroic standing in a town slightly less populated than Pullman.
“His character is above reproach, I’ll be honest,” Rogers said. “… If I get half an opportunity, I’m going to blow up a Discover card to get out (to Pullman).”
Added Stowers: “The Pac-12 game will usually come on and we’ll be like, we need to go to bed, let’s just leave it on, turn the sound down and go to sleep. But now we have him to look forward to watching.”
And there’s a large mass of Washington State fans in rural Mississippi who now plan on doing the same.
How has Minshew readied for the next and final stage of his collegiate career?
Well, to start off, “He’s been throwing Y-Cross for probably 10 years,” said father Flint Minshew, referring to a popular passing concept of the Air Raid offense. “We went and got the offense and ran it in Pee Wee ball.”
Rogers, still the OC at Brandon and one of Minshew’s closest confidants, had a love-at-first-sight experience with the Air Raid while he was an assistant coach at Delta State. The co-authors of the now-widespread passing offense, Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, were in Cleveland, Mississippi, with their Valdosta State for a game against Rogers and DSU.
With wind whipping through the field, Mumme, Leach and their radical passing schemes got off to an inauspicious start. Delta raced out to a huge lead, but in the fourth quarter, the gusts died down and the Air Raid took off.
“It changed my philosophy on coaching that day and ever since then, it was incredible,” Rogers said.
When Minshew was in 6th grade, and Rogers was coaching at Winston Academy in Louisville, Mississippi, the boy and his father would regularly make a 90-mile drive to Louisville so they could browse through playbooks, glaze over film and learn the Air Raid alongside Rogers.
“They were studying Texas Tech film then,” Kim Minshew said.
Chances are Minshew has seen Michael Crabtree’s highlight catch to beat Texas in 2008 more times than Leach has.
“Gardner would come over to my house and we’d play NCAA Football, we’d be playing video games and he’d be breaking down the Air Raid offense and we’d watch Texas Tech,” Smith said. “You’d get on YouTube and we’d watch Texas Tech film and he could break down the concepts and certain routes and certain reads.”
Rogers introduced the offense to Brandon High and Minshew went to some impressive – and exhaustive – lengths to ensure no scheme was left unlearned. Almost every day during the summer of 2012, the Bulldogs participated in 7-on-7 scrimmages or held throwing sessions.
Stowers, one of Minshew’s slot receivers, recalled playing in a 7-on-7 tournament one day and getting a call from his quarterback the next.
“Won the whole thing, so we played like seven hours of football,” he said. “And the next day, all the receivers have blisters on their feet – can’t even walk around – but the next day Gardner wanted to get going, wanted to go to the field and throw some more. We literally had to stop because we were in that much pain. We couldn’t run routes, it was kind of a waste of our time.”
For someone who’d long proclaimed a fetish for Leach and the Air Raid, an otherwise unassuming day in March turned out to be one of the most euphoric of Minshew’s career.
His cell phone flashed, a 509 area code popped up and Minshew bellowed to his mother, “Mike Leach might be calling me!”
“THE Mike Leach,” she responded.
Leach came armed with his best pitch – “How’d you like to come and lead the country in passing yards?” the WSU coach proposed – and Minshew committed on the spot, simultaneously joining a small club of players to ever spurn Nick Saban and Alabama.
The Crimson Tide offered Minshew a spot, but he’d easily have been the third wheel in a QB competition with Bama namesakes Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa. Minshew had sent WSU his release, the Cougars were looking for an experienced quarterback in the wake of Tyler Hilinski’s death and luckily for both sides there was someone in Mississippi – a middle man, so to speak – who could help speed up the marriage.
“When Mike had the tragedy up there in Pullman,” Mumme said, “he asked me if I knew anybody and I said there’s this kid here in town.”
The Air Raid’s true pioneer, now the offensive coordinator at Jackson State, was the head coach at Division III Belhaven when Minshew’s name first came across his radar.
“I knew he was kind of a diamond in the rough,” Mumme said. “I thought we might be able to steal one right there, but I couldn’t.”
Mumme believes Minshew’s arm strength is underrated, and while he doesn’t have the physique most SEC schools are looking for, “they probably would’ve turned down Drew Brees, too,” Mumme noted.
And if Minshew couldn’t spend spring camp working with Leach, he did the next best thing: learn under Leach’s top mentor.
Between 20-30 times this spring, he woke up at 4 a.m. to attend 5 a.m. practices and film sessions at Jackson State – about a 30-minute drive from Brandon – just to spend time with the first Jedi of the Air Raid.
“He came into the office some and we’d draw stuff on the board for him and stuff like that,” Mumme said. “But he came to almost every workout. I think he was out of town one weekend, but all the rest of them he was at. He really loves this offense.”
So, while Tinsley and Gordon may have a leg up on Minshew, Mumme concedes, “I think he’ll catch up pretty rapidly.”
“I think Gardner’s a great player,” adds Mumme, “he’s got a great release.”
The starter (?)
Minshew not only has the capacity to understand the Air Raid, but the capability to execute it at a level few can.
Wright’s offensive packages at Northwest Mississippi are all predicated on Air Raid concepts – shallow cross, Y-Cross, four verticals, stick and such – and at first, the coach was unsure how Minshew fare in his first collegiate game. Just briefly, though.
Minshew would complete his first six passes and drive the Rangers into the end zone six times during a 42-20 rout of Jones County. The next week, NW Mississippi beat a Gulf Coast team that had squashed them by 56 points the season prior to Minshew arriving. The Rangers snuck past the Bulldogs again in the MACJC title game.
“Just looking back at it I was able to trust Gardner so much with the passing game,” Wright said. “What I mean by that is, when a pass gets called, is he going to take the progression in the way you want it to be taken? Is he going to hit the guy that should be open in the coverage you’re getting? And is he going to be able to throw it on time? Of course you’re not going to have a 100 percent completion rate, but are we going to gain what we wanted out of the pass concept that’s called? I think over the course of the year I understood I was going to get that out of him more than any other quarterback I’ve coached.”
Stowers, who’s been on the receiving end of Minshew’s spiral more than a few-thousand times, says “he’s going to want to put the ball where only they can catch it. He kind of spoiled me as a receiver, which worked out for me because I wasn’t the most athletic guy.”
And Minshew’s apparently off to a good start in Pullman. Asked which players their son took a quick liking to, Kim and Flint instantly blurted out the name of Tay Martin, an outside receiver from Houma, Louisiana, who’s projected to be the Cougars’ top pass-catcher this fall.
“He clicked with Tay right off the bat,” Flint said.
Minshew’s living with WSU nickel Hunter Dale, left tackle Andre Dillard and his parents say he’s grown especially close with Tinsley.
“Gardner’s real good about going back, he’s going to go out and talk to everybody and get everything going,” Flint said. “He understands how important that is when you go into a group like that.”
This summer, he had the opportunity to attend the renowned Manning Passing Academy – an experience that’s as invaluable for the high school campers attending it as it is the college passers coaching it.
Minshew shared a dorm with Penn State’s Trace McSorley III and three starting quarterbacks in the Pac-12 – Washington’s Jake Browning, Colorado’s Steven Montez and Arizona’s Khalil Tate – joined him in Louisiana.
Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before he’s part of their club, too.
“He’s the type that when he puts his mouth to something, I would not say it’s not going to happen,” Wright said. “I wouldn’t put it against him.”