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WSU’s Halliday high-risk, high-reward

Man of the hour? Quarterback Connor Halliday could be in line to start for the Washington State Cougars against host UNLV on Friday night. (Jesse Tinsley)
Man of the hour? Quarterback Connor Halliday could be in line to start for the Washington State Cougars against host UNLV on Friday night. (Jesse Tinsley)

PULLMAN – Perhaps it’s fitting that Connor Halliday’s first start of the 2012 season might come in Las Vegas.

He’s confident, a “gunslinger,” according to his high school coach, and brings an aggressive, eyes-downfield mentality to the quarterback position that some fans have clamored for since his brilliant, 494-yard game against Arizona State last season as a freshman.

That kind of swagger can manifest itself in one of two ways.

“Since the day I’ve met him, at the end of his sophomore year, that’s the type of quarterback he is,” said Jim Sharkey, who coached Halliday at Ferris High School. “And occasionally you live with a few mistakes or turnovers. But he’s going to make a lot of big plays.”

The latter, then, is what Washington State will hope for if Halliday is given his second career start against UNLV at 6 p.m. Friday.

Jeff Tuel, who started WSU’s first two games but left in the fourth quarter of last week’s win over Eastern Washington with an apparent right knee injury, has done some throwing at practice this week but hasn’t taken any snaps with the No. 1 offense.

Tuel, wearing a knee brace, watched again on Wednesday as Halliday worked as the team’s starting quarterback during the scout period.

Coach Mike Leach hasn’t addressed and never will address the severity of Tuel’s injury, though the senior has been able jog lightly and has shown an upbeat attitude in practice this week despite being limited.

The coach did say, however, that he likes what he’s seen from Halliday this week.

“Thought he’s operated good, operated quick and thought he’s done a lot of really good things from the neck up,” Leach said. “He’s a guy that’s really taken advantage of his time in the film room and practice, even though he’s started out with not as many reps.”

Even though Halliday – who isn’t available for media interviews this week – showed enough promise last year to be considered a legitimate candidate to start this season, it surprised nobody when Tuel won the starting job during camp. He had more reps in the offense, because of Halliday’s recovery in the spring from a lacerated liver suffered against Utah last season – an injury that still didn’t prevent him from finishing that game – and Leach liked Tuel’s experience.

Halliday attended practices in the spring and did some throwing, but told reporters later that he could barely stand the pain.

“The spring ball was very tough on him, then as it really started improving in the summer he felt better,” Sharkey said.

His brief appearance in relief of Tuel on Saturday yielded mixed results. Halliday completed 5 of 11 passes for 76 yards.

The good: a 36-yard completion to Gabe Marks, WSU’s longest play from scrimmage this season.

The bad (sort of): an interception thrown at EWU’s 7-yard line on third-and-4, though the decision to throw the pass wasn’t the problem. Halliday simply didn’t put enough distance on it, or receiver Dominique Williams might have hauled it in for a touchdown.

If there are enough of those, WSU can likely live with the aggressive errors.

“I think to really be a great player, yeah, it’s got to be managed,” Leach said after Saturday’s game. “The high-reward part’s great. The high-risk part’s dangerous.”

“I just think he has the real mental makeup that he’s fearless. That’s the word I’d really describe him with,” Sharkey said. “I’ve never seen him in any situation, whether it be high school or college, where he’s afraid of the moment. He really loves the moment to have the opportunity.”

You’ll know if he gets it about the time ESPN picks up the broadcast Friday night.

“It wouldn’t be exciting if you already knew the results to everything,” Leach said. “So hang onto your seat and make sure you tune in.”

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