PULLMAN – As soon as Connor Halliday heard the good news, he headed straight to his head coach’s office.
The WSU quarterback wasn’t visiting Mike Leach to celebrate Gabe Marks’ good health, mind you. He was there to lobby.
Leach had decided that, with a plethora of solid receiving options at outside receiver like Isiah Myers, Kristoff Williams and Vince Mayle, it would be prudent to save Marks’ eligibility, rather than have him burn a year to play half a season.
But Halliday just wanted his top target back.
Marks has been one of WSU’s best receivers since he first arrived on campus. Just ask the man who was actually the team’s best receiver when Marks first arrived on campus.
Marquess Wilson was coming off one of the best receiving season in school history, when Marks came to Pullman in the summer of 2012. As a sophomore, Wilson had set single-season school records for receptions (82) and yards (1,388), and tied for second-most touchdowns (12).
At the time, before his contentious exit from the school in the middle of his junior season, Wilson was the team’s best player, and easily one of its most popular. Still, he took notice of the precocious freshman who did not exactly defer to the proven upperclassman.
“In practice he was doing stuff and I’m like ‘hey bro, how do you do that? I’d love to do that,’” Wilson said.
In those early summer competitions Marks was frequently matched up against another freshman, Taylor Taliulu, a safety who played cornerback in those days because the Cougars didn’t enough bodies around during the summer.
It was a matchup Taliulu, now one of Marks’ best friends on the team, rarely won. And when Marks got the best of somebody, he let them know. Even the older guys on the team heard it from the talented teenager, whose barbs carried the weight of an intelligence that he uses to challenge the premise of reporters in press conferences.
That same brashness injected some life into a moribund program and his competitiveness helped fuel new coach Mike Leach’s desired attitude change.
“When I was there, he was the one bringing all the energy to the receiving room,” Wilson said. “Because he’s out there, he’s just himself. He was a wild young guy when he came here.”
The wild young Marks led the team in receiving as a sophomore and seemed poised to do even bigger things in 2014, when Halliday would be a senior quarterback and Marks would play opposite Vince Mayle, a surefire NFL prospect.
And then things started to unravel for Marks. The receiver, only 19-years-old at the time was arrested for fourth degree assault after he struck an employee who was detaining him at a tavern. Police said that Marks was “heavily intoxicated” and while he served no jail time, he was put on probation and issued community service. He also apologized to “everyone who believed in me” on Twitter.
Around the same time, Marks developed a nasty infection that would keep him sidelined for at least a month into the season. With a deep receiving corps, Leach elected to preserve Marks’ eligibility for one more season.
Marks said redshirting was just about the best thing that ever happened to him.
Marks was dominant in practice, often playing quarterback for the scout team to simulate the mobile quarterbacks dotting the Cougars’ schedule last season. He had fun, and it gave him a chance to take a step back from his hyper-competitive state.
The receiver has a variety of interests outside of football. Some of them common for a college kid – he loves European history and wants to travel – and some quirky. He’s got a variety of tattoos but his favorite is a Deathly Hallows symbol from the Harry Potter novels.
The year of sitting on Saturdays gave him a chance to heal, and to explore another side of himself.
“I was working on myself a lot last year, as a person,” Marks said. “It was great. I think if you have the ability to come in and play right away then that’s something you should do, you should want to help the team and make an impact immediately. But I think for your life, every kid should have that year to really just be a college kid. Last year I was able to just enjoy the game and not have to worry about the pressures of performing and stuff like that, and be more of a regular student than I ever have been.”
Of course, the rub is that the benefits Marks gained personally may be all that comes out of his redshirt season. The receiver has been dominant for the Cougars this year, leading the Pac-12 with 8.4 receptions per game and 14 receiving touchdowns, while ranking second with 97 receiving yards per game.
The receiver could yet decide that after having spent four years in college, he’s ready to take his game to the next level and declare for the draft after this season. CBS Sports NFL draft analyst Rob Rang says he expects Marks to seek an advisory grade from the NFL draft advisory board. Rang adds that he personally has Marks graded out as a fifth-round selection should he choose to enter the draft this year.
But even if this is Marks’ last season with the Cougars, he’s already helped lead WSU to its best record since 2003. He’s also already the school record holder for most catches in a career with 215. No WSU receiver has ever matched the four touchdowns he scored in WSU’s win at Arizona earlier this season.
Whether or not he leaves school early, Marks will have put together one of the most productive careers of any receiver in the history of his school.
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