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Cougs’ offense in Tuel’s shed

Sophomore QB earned starting nod by taking care of football

WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel threw five interceptions in 121 pass attempts as a freshman last season.  (Dan Pelle)
WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel threw five interceptions in 121 pass attempts as a freshman last season. (Dan Pelle)

Note: This is the first of eight position previews of Washington State University’s 2010 football team. Today : Quarterbacks. Monday : Wide receivers.

PULLMAN – The Washington State University offense, and by extension its quarterback, has one goal this season.

“End each possession with a kick,” is how offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy puts it.

The best kick would be an extra point. But a field goal, that’s good too. And even a punt isn’t bad.

It’s the other way of ending a possession, a turnover, that’s stale.

Thirty-one times during the 1-11 2009 season a possession ended in a turnover.

Only two teams in the nation had more. It’s a major reason why the Cougars averaged just 12 points a game, second-fewest nationally.

And part of the reason why sophomore Jeff Tuel is the starting quarterback.

“His level of play has really been pretty consistent this camp,” Sturdy said of Tuel. “He’s taken care of the football tremendously. He’s taken a lot of pride in that, being smart with the football.

“That’s where he’s really grown a lot.”

As a freshman, the 6-foot-3, 214-pound Tuel watched until the fourth game against USC. From there, he started five games before a knee injury finished his year, completed 58.7 percent of his passes, threw for six touchdowns and 789 yards.

And he had just five in- terceptions in 121 attempts.

That’s still too many – he would like to double his 24.2 passes-per-pick ratio – but it’s on the road to where he wants to be.

“We don’t need to make it too crazy,” Tuel said of his goal for this year. “We just tell ourselves to throw it where they ain’t. Just take the candy. Know the defense, know the coverage, know the weak spots and just aim at those weak spots.”

Such Wee Willie Keeler-era thinking doesn’t mean Tuel and the WSU offense isn’t trying to make plays – his 99-yard touchdown connection with Johnny Forzani against Arizona State last year set a school record – it’s just Tuel doesn’t want to make throws that will get him on the opponent’s highlight DVD.

He’s assuming the glamour position at WSU, one populated in the recent past by Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf and Jason Gesser. All three have gone out of their way to talk with their heir-apparent, something Tuel appreciates.

“I feel like it’s a family deal,” said Tuel, who had another reunion with Gesser after the Cougars’ first fall scrimmage. “I feel like those guys have taken me under their wing more than anything.

“They coach me up, love me up, help me, give me pointers about the little things I wouldn’t even think about or know about.”

It’s those little things, making the right read, the right call, the right drop and, most especially, the right decision, that is the emphasis for Tuel and backup Marshall Lobbestael.

“I’m trying to get better every day making decisions with the football,” said Lobbestael, the redshirt junior who started three games last year, “as far as throwing it away or making the smart throw if it’s cloudy.”

The 6-3, 210-pound Lobbestael isn’t talking about the weather. Cloudy means there are too many defenders around the target. And it could also be used to describe the quarterback competition at the beginning of last spring.

Tuel and Lobbestael battled throughout the month of practices, with the picture finally becoming clearer with the younger player’s performance in the spring game. No matter, coach Paul Wulff waited until the end of summer to name Tuel as his No. 1.

“Coming in as the starter this year,” Tuel said, “it’s a lot better feel. We all feel we want to do better, can do better, no matter how well we do, but I’m doing a decent job out there. I would like to do some things better yet, sharpen some things up, but overall, I like where we’re at right now.”

Lobbestael, working mainly with the second offense, has had a strong fall as well, completing 16 of 19 passes for 188 yards in two scrimmages. But the job is Tuel’s.

“It sounds corny, but whatever I’ve got to do to help the team win, I’m willing to do it,” Lobbestael says of his status. “So far it’s been fun, I love working with the twos … but we come out every day and compete. Jeff will tell you that, I’ll tell you that, but I have no problem at all with my role on the team right now.”

There is one more decision that needs to be made before the opener Sept. 4 at Oklahoma State. Who will go in as the No. 3 quarterback?

Redshirt freshman David Gilbertson, redshirt junior Dan Wagner and true freshman Connor Halliday are in the running.

WSU wants to redshirt the 6-4, 175-pound Halliday, so the contest basically pits Gilbertson against Wagner.

When WSU scrimmaged on Saturday, only Gilbertson, son of former Idaho, UW and Cal coach Keith Gilbertson, took nine snaps while Wagner, also a backup punter, didn’t play.

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