PULLMAN – The list of people enamored with Gardner Minshew seemingly grows just about every time the Washington State quarterback unleashes a pass.
Mike Leach was the first one to latch on to the Mississippi-born graduate transfer who’d spent two seasons at East Carolina after winning a national junior college championship at Northwest Mississippi. By now, the pitch Leach made to Minshew – who’d previosuly been committed to Alabama – is world-famous: “Do you want to lead the country in passing yards?” Leach proposed.
The 6-2, 220-pound fifth-year senior won over Leach and his staff a few weeks into fall camp, when they privately named Minshew the Cougars’ starter, and subsequently won over thousands of WSU fans with his Southern charm, trademark mustache and trendy aviator shades.
And as someone who’s thrown 2,745 passing yards this season – his 392 yards per game lead the FBS – and led WSU to a 6-1 start, not to mention the nation’s No. 14 ranking, he’s begun to win over NFL scouts, draft analysts and QB gurus who wouldn’t have known how to spell his name two months ago.
The Spokesman-Review caught up with three experts to glean more insight on Minshew, his soaring NFL stock and even his … Heisman Trophy candidacy?
Trent Dilfer was a 13-year NFL quarterback who started for the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl XXXV-winning team in 2000. Dilfer is a former ESPN analyst and the head coach of the Elite 11 quarterback camps. Yogi Roth is a Pac-12 Networks analyst who hosts the “Yogi Roth Show” podcast and more than a decade ago, spent time on Pete Carroll’s USC staff as an assistant quarterbacks coach. Rob Rang is an NFL Draft analyst who’s work can be found at NFLDraftScout.com.
Spokesman-Review: You’ve written a few things about Gardner Minshew in The Athletic – when did he first cross your radar?
Trent Dilfer: Yogi told me about him early and I remember him from high school. I pulled out my old Elite 11 report and I have access to all the college film, so I watched some film of the early-season games and I was blown away. He’s really, really good. Like I said, he’s a poor man’s Darnold or a bigger Baker. He’s the real deal.
S-R: Did he attend any of the Elite 11 camps?
TD: He was at a regional camp, we have about 725 kids do the regional camps then narrow it down to 24 and I didn’t remember this, but our director of ops, Joey Roberts – my right-hand man – he went back through his notes and he was like our 25th or 26th guy and he was right on the outskirts of getting an invite.
S-R: Had you seen him play in person then?
TD: I saw him in person. I remember him being a really, really good passer. My notes just said pure passer, great feet, great eyes, clean stroke. Then we’re doing 750 kids, or more than that, so we don’t really get into the weeds until further down the process.
S-R: Troy, where he ended up playing for one season, was one of his only real offers. Why didn’t he get more looks?
TD: It’s very common these days that if you don’t get sizzle early on and you don’t fit all the metrics that people are looking for, that you kind of get left behind. I hate it, it drives me nuts, I work really hard on trying not to be like that. There’s tons of examples of where we’ve gone and found the David Bloughs of the world and they have one or two stars. Gardner … he wasn’t 6-3, he didn’t have long arms, he didn’t have massive stats, didn’t have a ton of hype around him, so sometimes those guys don’t end up getting as many offers. It’s not uncommon.
S-R: Is it rare especially for a transfer to be able to come in right away and pick up an offense and succeed so quickly off the bat?
TD: At this level, I think it’s pretty exceptional. I don’t think it’s unusual to see a fifth-year guy have success and be better than the option they have on their present team, but to be dominant – that’s what he’s done, he’s been dominant this year. The quarterback of that system carries a very large weight. You’re doing a lot and he’s done it exceptionally well. And what I like, listening to people who’ve been around the program, it’s more than just how he’s playing, it’s his leadership, it’s his charisma, it’s his energy. Things that are really quantify, but equal wins. And he has all that stuff. And I’d probably put a higher weight on any of that stuff than any evaluator out there.
S-R: What are the physical tools and quarterback attributes that could make him an NFL Draft pick?
TD: From a skill standpoint, he’s just a really good passer. He has what I call passing proficiency, he has passing traits. He sees it, he throws it early, he can change speeds on the ball, he can deal with people in his lap. He has movement skills, what I call second and third reaction accuracy. So think of second reaction as one violent move in the pocket, kind of put off your spot but you’re still playing from in the pocket but not off-balance. And think of third reaction as something where you made a move to get out of the pocket and now you’re playing kind of in third reaction mode. Not many guys maintain their accuracy in those two things and he does. I coined this phrase here, if you could tie your feet to your eyes. So think of a string going from your eyelids to your shoelaces. And as one moves, the other moves with it. That’s the thing a next-level quarterback does – something only half of NFL quarterbacks do now. He does it naturally. So there’s a lot of stuff you like.
S-R: You’d said you were intrigued to watch him play Jim Leavitt’s Oregon defense. What did you see from last Saturday’s game against the Ducks?
TD: I had to listen to it on the radio because I was driving. … He throws the early pick, which I end up seeing on the highlights. It was awful. He bounces back shows the grit, what I call PACE – plays after critical error. I put a lot into that because it shows whether a guy is shook by his mistake or whether he doesn’t look in the rearview mirror and only looks forward. And he performed very well after that first interception. I like that he kind of carried a lot of water in the game. There was a lot of third downs and stuff, listening on the radio, that were tough situations and the next thing you know the announcer – who I happen to know very well, who’s a great quarterback guy – was like, great job by Gardner to step up there or throw it early or great accuracy off the sideline route.
S-R: What would he need to shore up or improve upon before taking the next step? What else will scouts want to see?
TD: They need to see more physical traits, more power in his arm, they’re going to need to see more physicality in his game, which I think is overrated in today’s football because the game is more about being twitchy and precise than it is about being powerful these days. They’re going to say a lot of the same things they said about Drew Brees.
S-R: Do you see him being a potential fifth to seventh round guy, or could he climb?
TD: I rate guys with the backdrop where other guys in other years got drafted, not based on need and narratives. So what happens in the NFL Draft is needs and narratives end up taking over. Guys get overdrafted, guys get underdrafted. A lot of really bad people are evaluating quarterbacks and making decisions that really have no business doing it. So saying all that, I have him as a late second, third-round pick.
S-R: Late second or third?
TD: Yeah, I think he’s a potential NFL starter. That’s where I put those guys that don’t have extreme traits. But I’ve seen a lot of guys lesser than him go in those rounds the last few years.
S-R: Are you interested to see how he handles the Stanford defense he’ll face Saturday?
TD: I think all of them with him will be just because he has to prove so much more than everybody else, unfortunately. Think of how this thing goes. If they didn’t know about you going in, then they looked dumb for not knowing about you. So because nobody had talked about Gardner Minshew up until now, they won’t want to admit that they didn’t know about him. So what he’s fighting is narratives. He’s fighting skepticism. Everybody’s going to look for what he can’t do instead of what he can do. And I’ll give you a comparable: Jarrett Stidham, who I know very well, who’s probably similarly talented and not nearly the player right now. But because Jarrett Stidham got on the radar a couple years ago and people are trying to look smart and put him out there early, they will defend their Jarrett Stidham narratives and the narrative was never there on Minshew. So if you’re going to talk about this, make sure you talk about it at 30,000 feet. This is the reality of quarterback evaluations, it doesn’t matter how good you are to a certain degree. It matters how much momentum you have, so he’s fighting negative momentum.
Spokesman-Review: You’ve already called a few WSU games this year, right?
Yogi Roth: Yep, so I’ve got a little beat on (Minshew) I think. I’d like to think.
S-R: Had you heard much about Minshew or was he on your radar before arriving in Pullman?
YR: You heard about him for sure, just in terms of ‘Who’s this guy that’s committed to Alabama?’ You kind of like went down that road. So you’re like, let me Google this guy. Who is this? … I knew Gardner could play after watching Eastern Washington and talking to Brent Brennan at San Jose State, their head coach, but I didn’t think he was going to be what he’s become. And I think that anyone that did is utterly lying to you. Because I think he’s exploded onto the college scene and probably most importantly I think, I think he’s the best story on the field in the last five to seven years. And I don’t say longer because I can’t think of one and I want to respect the game, because there probably is one. … And of course he had to win the job, but the psyche of him and the approach of him allowed him to win it earlier. And I think that’s really special and I’ve always said this this year about this team, man, is that if there’s one team I could follow all year long it would be this one. Based on what happened with Tyler (Hilinski), based on the small community, based on Mike Leach and his personality, and based on this transfer quarterback. Now you see what he’s doing on the field and with his persona. It’s like the football gods said, you need to go to the place that needs you the most. And that’s Pullman, Washington. And that’s what he’s done. And I really think it’s beautiful, the whole story.
S-R: Does playing in an Air Raid system hamper him or has the NFL adjusted enough?
YR: Well I think the NFL’s completely shifted. I felt it five years ago when Marcus went into the NFL, four or five years ago. I see it in high school, what high school kids are doing every year at the Elite 11, and when talk about it in college. At some point the NFL’s going to have to adjust, and now we’re seeing thast exact thing happen and we’re seeing more Air Raid principles in the NFL and most importantly, we’re seeing Air Raid quarterbacks who were taught to not necessarily be, Mike Leach quote here, “coverage scientists” which have to go through a pure progression system, which means one to two to three to four. … The stat I always go back to is that Goff, Mahomes, Mayfield, combined in college took 14 snaps under center. Now that might not shock people because majority of guys aren’t under center, but I think because they’re from the Air Raid, and they’re thriving it just points a picture that you can now walk in the NFL and your knowledge on a 0-10 scale could be at a two and be Jared Goff.
S-R: What attributes instantly stick out when you watch Gardner play in person or on film?
YR: I think my number one trait I enjoy about him as a quarterback is his eyes. And I believe that your feet follow your eyes. A lot of people talk about his feet in the pocket and how active he is and I couldn’t agree more. … I think if your eyes can be disciplined and match up timing wise with the scheme, your feet are naturally going to get there. Versus you’re racing through your progression, your feet are never set. A lot of people say that’s bad footwork in the pocket. I say, well look at his eyes first. If you look at the touchdown against Utah (to Dezmon Patmon) where he works the safety to the right … he manipulates the safety and the safety’s running all the way to his right, doesn’t even see the receiver coming, the receiver catches the touchdown. I think his second and third reaction game is as good as anyone in this conference. By that I mean first reaction’s when the pocket’s clean, second reaction is when the pocket gets dirty, third reaction is when you’ve got to get out of the pocket. You look at the touchdown to Easop Winston against SC, he’s got to avoid the defensive lineman, move to his right, off his back foot rips a post route. That type of anticipatory skill is special. One guy’s opinion, but I watch every snap and I just think that’s where he’s different.
S-R: And how about his persona?
YR: You drop into his moxie, I talked to him yesterday preparing for the (Stanford) game and asked about coming in and becoming a guy who came into a situation that nobody would’ve idealized with the loss of a starting quarterback and here you are and you’ve been able to galvanize this team. And in beautiful fashion, he flipped it and said, I think it’s the team. And they were so tight because of that, I just had to fit my role and I think when you see the sunglasses or talk to him or see him without his shirt on, whatever it is, you might not see the humility. I see that in him and I think that’s why he’s a next-level prospect. And I think he should be a Heisman candidate.
S-R: He’s really able to balance his confidence with humility…
YR: Yeah and look at Baker. I remember interviewing Baker at the Heisman and I remember him in high school. There’s nothing wrong with having a massive chip on your shoulder and how you exude that is to each your own. And Baker’s way is one way and Gardner’s way is the other. But I’d say this … if you did a blind case study and said, OK take the jersey off, take the helmet buckle off and let me just watch 400 throws of Baker last year and Gardner this year. I think you’d be hard-pressed to say there was a dramatic difference. Now Baker’s difference is he played dramatically more football, he’s been on much larger stage. But you watch them in a bubble – they’re in a vacuum – operating their similar systems, I don’t think it’s dramatic. … I’ve been around all the guys, Jarrett Stidham, Trace McSorley, Drew Lock – I’m with them every summer – and Gardner would fit right in. And does his ball spin like McKenzie Milton’s? Maybe not. But he’s also a little bit thicker. Does he have the verbage maybe of Tua Tagovailoa in terms of a system grasp? Maybe not because he’s not asked to do that. But when all things net out – does he win, does he complete the ball, does he move the chains – and I don’t think he’s a system quarterback. Yeah, I think he checks all the boxes.
S-R: Is there an easy NFL comparison for Minshew? Ryan Fitzpatrick maybe?
YR: It’s tough for me because the knowledge Fitzpatrick has is ridiculous. What he’s dong at the line of scrimmage, Gardner can’t even fathom doing right now. And there’s not one kid in college could. I think Baker’s like a very fair comparison. He’s an inch and a half taller, but that’s who I’d compare him to.
S-R: Are there any weaknesses, or areas he could shore up before going to the next level?
YR: Well you’re going to see him try to answer that question this week. His last three big games – or three of his last four games is probably the better way to say it – he’s faced a Utah defense which is special, but they play what they play, they’re very consistent at what they play. Then Oregon State, passed that test. Then you look at the Oregon game, you saw a team with an elite defensive front, but the back end is still developing. And now in Stanford, you’re going to see NFL linebackers and I think multiple players on the back end that’ll be able to play at the next level and most importantly a defense that is an NFL scheme. So this game to me is going to be the one of three to four … obviously the Apple Cup being another one where you’re going to say, OK what does he do when teams make it challenging and change the picture on him.
S-R: Have you seen another QB like this who’s gone from obscurity to potential NFL Draft pick in such a short amount of time?
YR: Not to the NFL, I don’t think so. Matt Cassel might be a guy, but nobody started talking about him until his Pro Day. It’s a totally different scenario. I remember when Collin Klein kind of burst onto the scene, but most of the time you see transfer quarterbacks – you can go down the list, a lot of times they don’t thrive. Baker was one. Who else has? I’m sure you could research a list and disprove me. But I’m just trying to think off the top of my head.
S-R: He’s really been a godsend for the Cougars, though…
YR: I know the Hilinskis, I’ve been around that family and I know your program, I’ve been around that program. I went to the funeral and the celebration of his life. For this kid to show up, it’s almost like they needed somebody from the outside to come in, to a certain degree, and just blend in and take over when it naturally worked. And I really think that’s a special thing, and I know everybody doesn’t want to address because they’re in the middle of the season and super focused, but I’m going to talk about it at the start of the game on Saturday. We’ve never seen it and his persona makes it great. This guy could easily be a “me guy.” My mustache is everywhere, my shades are everywhere, my Instagram page is blowing up. But he’s not, and I think that’s unique.
Spokesman-Review: What was the first game you saw him play? First impression?
Rob Rang: First game I saw him play, I don’t remember the exact opponent. It was the second or third week of the year. It was a game that was on television, so I took a peak. The first thing I noticed is I thought the ball came off of his hand with a little bit better velocity than Luke Falk. So that surprises me right off the bat. With every game I’ve watched of Washington State so far, I’ve been impressed with Minshew’s accuracy. So the combination of that accuracy – which I thought Falk had good accuracy, but didn’t have that elite arm. And Minshew’s improved arm strength, I think that’s one of the reasons he’s stood out basically every time I watched him.
S-R: Had he been on your radar at all before he came to WSU?
RR: Not as far as being an NFL prospect. Anytime there’s a junior college player who wins a national championship, all that kind of stuff, as a quarterback, you know you’re going to pay attention a little bit to where they go. And then it was a little bit brow-raising when you had a guy I thought was going to sign at Alabama, then decided to go to Washington State. You don’t always see that transition. But no I was not expecting to be having a conversation about Minshew’s NFL Draft stock based on what I heard prior to the season.
S-R: He doesn’t have bad height, but he’s not necessarily tall either. Is his stature a concern as far as the NFL goes?
RR: I think the lack of prototypical height is a little bit of a concern. But at the same time, we’re seeing so many quarterbacks be successful in today’s NFL despite the great height. So I think it’s less of a concern now than it would’ve been 10 years ago, and I don’t see a large number of his passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. So because of those factors, I don’t think that it will be something that will keep him from being drafted or getting his NFL opportunity.
S-R: Does he remind you of anyone currently in the NFL?
RR: You know who he reminded me of – and now it’s going to sound even cliché because of the way they’re dressing – but it’s Ryan Fitzpatrick. He a little bit shorter and he’s got kind of a thick build, he’s got an underrated arm and he’s just got some moxie to him that has always stood out. So the reason I hesitate with that comparison is because there’s a lot of people out there that are going to suggest Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t very good. But when you’re going from Harvard to the NFL and you’ve played as long as he has, then that’s a heckuva football player. And so the same thing with Minshew, he’s had success wherever he’s gone and he does have some moxie, does have some personality to quickly win over his teammates, so I like all those things. And then just physically speaking, they’re similar type players in terms of their build, in terms of their arm, in terms of their accuracy and their touch.
S-R: How will his mobility help him?
RR: I think that is one of the things that’s appealing about Minshew is that, you have some quarterbacks – Lamar Jackson a year ago – who are so athletic that some would suggest they should change positions. You don’t necessarily need a quarterback to be that athletic, you just want them to have that functional athletic ability to be able to buy some time in the pocket, preferably keep your eyes downfield and if they need to scramble for a few yards to keep the defense honest, they can do that. And that’s what I’ve seen from Minshew, is that he doesn’t fall in love with his athletic ability and then leave the pocket and scramble willy nilly. When he decides to do it, it’s because either he is being forced out of the pocket, or the defense just left three yards. To me that just shows he’s an instinctive player.
S-R: After watching Minshew the first time, did he become a player you felt like you had to watch every week?
RR: When I watch a player and I’ve never seen them before, but I get a positive first impression of them, I literally just highlight their name in my notebook. And then the next time I watch them, I want to see if they can still be impressive and knowing that Washington State plays the quality of opponents that they do, I was kind of eager to see how he’d perform throughout the year. I kind of already anticipate your next question of being what game do you want to see the most and that would probably be the University of Washington. Not only because of the Apple Cup feature and the rivalry game, but just the fact that Washington’s secondary is as gifted as it is. Washington’s secondary is the one that I graded Justin Herbert on and the one I’ll grade every other top quarterback that faces them.
S-R: Did it help Minshew to play well against Oregon – a game many NFL scouts were watching to see the Ducks’ Justin Herbert?
RR: I can assure you, the NFL scouts knew all about Gardner Minshew. And they knew about him before the matchup with Oregon. The fact that the Senior Bowl had made him their offensive senior prospect of the week for the entire country a couple weeks ago, that was a statement and that surprised me honestly. That he would already get that type of recognition. So that’s interesting and then the fact that he did play as well as he did, especially in the first half of course, because that’s when he was spectacular. But then when Oregon made that comeback and for Minshew to make the throws he did down the stretch to win that game, I think that absolutely NFL teams know exactly who he is and I would not be surprised at all at this point to see Minshew get an invitation to one of those prominent Senior All-Star games.
S-R: Where do you think he could fall in next year’s NFL Draft?
RR: I think he’s probably fifth to seventh round right now, but I think a month ago he wasn’t even that and a month from now he could be more in that third to fourth round range. That’s the thing, entering the year I thought this was a pretty poor quarterback class. It’s better than I thought. There are some players like Minshew that are kind of moving up the board over the course of the season. And that’s to be expected, it’s quarterbacks, there’s always going to be some players who are going to replace the talent lost.
S-R: Would there be any other “weaknesses” that come to mind when you think about how Minshew will be perceived by scouts?
RR: Just keep being successful. He’s having a heckuva season so far. There were some throws against Oregon where I thought, he got pretty fortunate on that one. The shorter receiver ripping the ball away, that could’ve easily been an interception. He had a couple of throws. So just making each play one by one, not getting too wrapped up in all of the hype that’s going to be created by his success, by Washington State’s success. That’s the thing, there’s a million quarterbacks out there – or a million players out there – who splash. Who show you some talent. But it’s the ones that are consistent throughout the course of the year are the ones that are going to wind up getting themselves drafted.
Editor’s note: These Q&A’s have been edited for brevity.
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