Once a highly touted prep prospect, Cougars QB enjoys career rebirth at WSUPULLMAN – When Luke Falk found out that the football coaches at Idaho no longer considered him worth one of their scholarships, he felt too ashamed to tell his parents. So, he didn’t. In fact, when he made his decisions to pay for college and football – first at Cornell, then at Washington State – his parents believed he did so despite the fact that a free education was available in Moscow. “I just kind of kept it quiet,” Falk said. “I just kept it to myself and it just wore at me and ate at me and pissed me off, made more of a chip on my shoulder.” His frustration stemmed not only from that setback but the series of disappointments that preceded it. The loss of his final FBS scholarship offer was just the latest in a cascade of mean twists that pushed the teenager’s NFL dreams from fast track to fool’s bet. Since his freshman year of high school, Falk had been a golden-armed, can’t-miss prospect. Here was a quarterback whose physical gifts were enough to earn him a scholarship offer from Florida State based on film alone, but whose coaches and tutors always seem to go first to his football acuity and devotion to film study when doling praise. To look at him now, one would think that story of success had continued uninterrupted. As a redshirt freshman Falk began the season as the backup to a fifth-year senior quarterback at a Pac-12 school known historically for producing top-flight quarterbacks and currently known for prodigious passing numbers. Connor Halliday’s season ended because of a broken ankle suffered against USC. Falk played admirably in his place, passing for 370 yards and showing impressive command of the offense, the team and himself for someone so young. In his first career start, he was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week after leading the Cougars to a win at Oregon State while throwing five touchdown passes. The quarterback’s ascent is on schedule again, but his path has had valleys just as substantial as its peaks.
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Logan, Utah, looks as if it was created by an oil painter who had plenty of talent but could never decide what he wanted to paint, and so he did it all. The big, blue Bear River Mountains practically touch the city’s eastern border and snowcapped Logan Peak rises almost 2 miles high to cast a long morning shadow over the city. Logan once ranked No. 3 on CNN Money’s list of best places to retire young. In 2010, the Daily Beast deemed Logan the No. 1 city in America to be a kid on Christmas. It’s a great place to grow up in an affluent family. It’s a horrible place to try to get discovered as an athlete. Not a single starting NFL quarterback played high school football in Utah. Few NFL players at all come from the Beehive State. Of those who do, nearly all of them are linemen, linebackers or fullbacks that hail from Provo or Salt Lake City. Falk played in idyllic anonymity in Logan – which should crawl above 50,000 people by the 2020 census – and also hadn’t participated in many of the national camps and combines. But it was apparent to his parents, Mike and Analee, that their son had enough talent to make his NFL dreams worth chasing, as did their daughters, who were already renowned songwriters. They sought out Steve Clarkson, a Pasadena, California-based quarterback tutor who has been profiled by The New Yorker and CBS’s “60 Minutes” for his work with quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers, USC’s Matt Barkley, Matt Leinart and Matt Cassell, Tim Tebow and many others. Clarkson was impressed by what Falk could do on the football field, but it was the film room test that sold him. “What I first saw in him was incredible football IQ,” Clarkson said. “It was very much Peyton Manning-like at a very young age. He could make all the blocking calls, get his team in the right play at the right time, get his team out of bad plays. It was really far above where his peers were.” Clarkson said Falk is “one of the best kids I had ever seen,” but besides him and the coaches at Florida State nobody seemed to know about him. Eventually, it was decided that Falk would transfer to California’s Oaks Christian High, a powerhouse private school that routinely sends more players to major football universities than Logan High could in a decade. It was, in Falk’s words, a “celebrity school,” and recent notable football players include Jimmy Clausen and the sons of NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana and actor Will Smith. It was also a commuter school. Falk was moving from The Monday Report’s most walkable community in Utah to a place where he had to drive 45 minutes on the Ventura Freeway just to visit a classmate. His sisters, Natalee and Alexa, now successful country music singers in Nashville, Tennessee, were supposed to move with him and his parents to be near the Los Angeles music scene but returned to Utah. The fit was awkward, almost as if the quarterback had gone off to college to play football two years early, and Falk was unhappy. “I love Logan,” he said. “I’ll probably end up moving back there someday. I love the small-town environment. That’s why I like Pullman so much.” He stuck it out, though, and that’s when the hits started coming. In the big season opener against Bellevue (Washington) High, he threw three interceptions. He struggled with an elbow injury, and the coaches at Oaks Christian started giving playing time to another quarterback. CNN aired a special about Clarkson that featured Falk called “Extreme Parenting.” The family felt the show portrayed their efforts in a negative light, highlighting a comment made by Mike Falk about a scholarship being a good return on the investment made in his son’s quarterback education. So the Falks cut the cord on what would prove to be a costly California mistake and moved back to Logan. But since he was transferring in, he would have to sit out his junior season, the year when college coaches do the bulk of their recruiting evaluations. Coaches typically like to have their quarterback committed by the summer before their senior season and so interest from recruiters dried up. Florida State had Falk come out to their camp only to inform him that their previous offer was no longer valid. “Due to the circumstances in which he left, I had braced him for that possibility,” Clarkson said. “But it was no reflection of his talent, just circumstances that, recruiting now is based on stars and coaches get huge bonuses for having great recruiting classes.” Eventually Falk decided to play for Cornell of the Ivy League, not to set himself up for a different career path, but as a backdoor into the NFL. Cornell’s coach was Kent Austin, who had an offense with big passing numbers but few wins. Falk saw the opportunity to make a name for himself by turning around a program. “I saw Ryan Fitzpatrick from Harvard go to the NFL, so I said I can still get there,” Falk said. “It’s going to be a longer route, it’s going to be harder, but I’m going to get a great degree to go along with it.” It was a sound plan, one that fell apart when Austin took a job as the head coach and general manager for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. Eventually, the Vandals cut Falk loose and his post-secondary options were dwindling. Then came the call from Washington State’s new coach Mike Leach, who had already secured four-star recruit Tyler Bruggman but was looking for another quarterback in the class, one who would walk on. “We were out of scholarships and our whole thing was to find the best walk-on that we could to fill out the group of quarterbacks and then there’s Luke and it’s like, ‘What’s he doing here,’” Leach said. “We don’t have a scholarship right now and why isn’t he picked up? Why isn’t he somewhere else? How is he left out there?” Leach promised Falk that he would give him equal reps with the guys on scholarships and that if he could crack the three-deep then he would be on scholarship himself. So Falk enrolled at WSU with no hype and few perks. When the scholarship players headed to the training table for a free meal after practice, Falk and the other walk-ons would break off and trudge to the student cafeteria.
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Leach sits at the head of a wooden conference table in the largest room of his top-floor office suite in the new football operations building. Sitting to his left in one of dozens of comfortable, logo-stamped office chairs, reclining with basketball shoes on the table, is offensive analyst Graham Harrell, perhaps the best known of Leach’s record-setting quarterbacks at Texas Tech. Falk sits farther along the table while freshman quarterback Peyton Bender is to Leach’s right. A large projector screen is situated directly in front of them all. The quartet is watching film of the previous day’s practice. While every quarterback gets his time under the microscope, Falk is obviously the focus. It’s clear that Leach is still getting to know his new starting quarterback, who has been on scholarship since beginning his redshirt freshman season as the No. 2 quarterback. They joke about practice and exchange interesting nuggets of information. Falk’s throws are on time and he makes the correct read more often than not. The biggest complaints are all accuracy related: Hit the crossing receiver in the outside number so he can turn upfield. Don’t lead the receiver quite so much and put more air under the ball. If you’re within a 5-yard radius of the receiver on that end zone pass it’s a touchdown, although a 3-yard radius would be even better. But the mental side, that’s all there. Falk understands leverage and why a corner route or a hitch will be open against a defensive back that is playing off and a little inside. There’s little on tape that the quarterback hasn’t already seen. This may be Leach’s office, but it’s Falk’s home. “He’s one of the guys you’ll see lurking around at night, watching film,” Leach said. “You’ll see him a lot and unexpectedly so. Then you’ll get texts where he’s asking for (film) for his iPad.” And that’s why less than two years into his college career, Falk has been given the keys to the Air Raid complete with total ability to change routes or get the Cougars into a running play. What has impressed the coach the most about his new starting quarterback won’t show up on this practice film. It’s the calmness that Falk has shown through nearly seven quarters of live action, the poise he showed while staring down a Trojans pass rush that had already knocked out one quarterback that day. It was almost as if the hits from those All-American defensive linemen couldn’t compare to the ones he’s already taken, and already shrugged off.
Lead photo credit: In his first career start for Washington State, Luke Falk completed 44 of 61 passes for 471 yards and five touchdowns during a 39-32 Pac-12 Conference victory at Oregon State on Nov. 8. (Tyler Tjomsland)