PULLMAN – Saturday morning, hours before Mike Leach ended any speculation and named Washington State’s starting quarterback, another piece of college football news involving a signal-caller from the Pac-12 sent a shockwave throughout the conference’s footprint.
Jake Haener, a redshirt sophomore who’d been in a tightly contested position battle at Washington, was on the move after bowing out to transfer Jacob Eason. Less than a week later, the name of another Pac-12 backup hit the NCAA transfer portal. Jack Sears saw the writing on the wall at USC as soon as J.T. Daniels reclaimed his starting job for the Trojans. For now, Sears will stick it out as Clay Helton’s No. 2, but his departure is imminent.
The “Portal Era” of college football has made it easy for players to roam as they wish and no position, it seems, has benefited from the shift in landscape more than quarterback. As the college football season opens this week, at least one FBS transfer quarterback will be starting in each of the 10 FBS conferences, including four of the five major conferences – each except the ACC.
Which brings us to Anthony Gordon, who’s marched to a totally different beat than every other Power Five starter out there.
In case you’ve only heard his name in passing – and at this point, most haven’t even done that – Gordon is the 6-foot-3, 210-pound redshirt senior at Washington State who’s been tabbed to replace reigning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and fifth-place Heisman Trophy finisher Gardner Minshew.
In a college football environment littered with graduate transfers, FBS transfers and third- or fourth-year starters, Gordon may be the rarest of exceptions. Good luck finding another quarterback on the Power Five map who came in as a junior college transfer, spent three years in the waiting room and finally won the job with his redshirt senior year on the horizon.
“A lot of guys in his position would’ve got out of here, just being honest,” said Easop Winston Jr., a senior wide receiver at WSU and former teammate of Gordon’s at City College of San Francisco. “But he just believes in himself. He wasn’t going to go anywhere else. He believed in his heart he would play here. I think he’s closer to his dreams. I tell him every day, I have so much respect for you for hanging in there through that.”
It isn’t that those other transfers should be knocked, just that Gordon’s story deserves some major praise.
Venture into the transfer portal and try his luck elsewhere? No chance. It may sound cliché, but who cares: Gordon’s love for the Cougars is rooted too deeply at this point.
Ditch football and return to baseball, the sport that made him a 36th-round MLB draft pick as a high school senior? Try again. The Pacifica, California, native still keeps tabs on his hometown San Francisco Giants, but America’s pastime is nothing more than a hobby for Gordon these days.
Throw in the towel when Leach, for the second straight year, brought in a graduate transfer to compete for QB1? Well, that would belie Gordon’s competitive spirit and devalue every spiral he’s thrown in practice the last year three years.
“It’s a good sign of, not to get all in America and young kids, but patience,” inside receivers coach Dave Nichol said. “And keep working.”
But in many ways, Gordon is still being devalued. That’s a battle he’ll fight until his first game-winning throw, or 500-yard outing.
When the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award revealed its summer watch list, a Washington State QB was included among the 50 names. Not Gordon, though.
When ESPN broke down “How each AP Top 25 team makes the College Football Playoff,” author Edward Aschoff penciled in Eastern Washington transfer Gage Gubrud as the starter for 23rd-ranked WSU. As did Athlon Sports, when the publication evaluated all 130 FBS quarterbacks in a power rankings format.
Gordon couldn’t even crack The Athletic’s list of “The college quarterbacks we’re not talking about enough.”
Probably because he wasn’t being talked about at all.
Yes, Gordon’s starting the season for the Cougars, and there’s still a cast of critics out there that wonder if he’ll be the one to finish it.
“A bunch of people are probably still thinking I might flinch or something, but I spent four years, I’ve been waiting for this, I’ve been starving for this opportunity and to finally get it, I’m ready,” Gordon said. “I think a lot of people are going to find out they’re wrong for doubting me.”
Terra Nova traditions
It was Oct. 17, 2014, and the Terra Nova Tigers had just surrendered a 49-38 home loss to Sacred Heart Prepatory School, a league rival located not far from Stanford’s campus in Palo Alto, California.
As Tim Adams was walking off the field in the coastal town of Pacifica, he was approached by Sacred Heart’s top player. The blonde, shaggy-haired linebacker was left mesmerized by the play of the Tigers’ quarterback, and he had a compliment to pass along to Terra Nova’s coach.
“I don’t understand how the heck your quarterback was fitting balls in there,” said Ben Burr-Kirven, the former UW linebacker and reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year who’s now playing for the Seattle Seahawks.
“… His arm has been live his whole life,” Adams said, “but the ability and the confidence for him to fit the ball into tight windows on level two and level three between linebackers and free and strong safeties and corners and outside backers, it just is amazing.”
Gordon hit on 73 percent of his passes that night and had four touchdowns. The numbers were usually more robust than that. Gordon once threw for seven touchdowns in a single game. No, wait, in one half of a game. Adams pulled his starter at halftime because the Tigers had an important playoff game on deck, and to this day the “what ifs” still churn through his mind. Thirteen or 14 touchdowns? In one game?
“It would’ve been California record-book stuff,” Adams said.
And “what if” Gordon played all three years on the varsity squad? He wasn’t elevated until his junior season because his parents were reluctant to toss him to the wolves as a sophomore.
“I’m kicking myself in the ass,” Adams said. “Why didn’t I battle the mother a little more when he was a sophomore to get him up before his junior year?”
It took the slight, scrawny Terra Nova quarterback just two seasons to amass 7,600 passing yards and 78 touchdowns. He completed 519 passes and recorded a career completion percentage of 65 percent. In 2013, his 4,899 passing yards ranked sixth in the country, according to MaxPrep’s database, topping the output of a few other notable high school senior QBs such as Kyler Murray, Brett Rypien and even his former WSU teammate, Minshew.
All of Terra Nova’s major passing records belong to Gordon. Well, they belong to Anthony Gordon, and here’s why that’s an important thing to clarify.
The Gordons might as well be the Mannings of Pacifica, California.
Six members of the family have been the varsity quarterback at Terra Nova. Three have held the mark for single-season touchdowns. Anthony’s youngest sibling Dominic is a sophomore on the current varsity squad who has ambitions – and plenty of time – to break big bro’s record.
When throwing the football was not necessarily en vogue, Anthony’s father Ryan set the single-season record with 24 touchdowns in 1994. Phil Gordon, Ryan’s brother, has a short seven-game quarterbacking the Tigers in ’95 when Terra Nova’s starter went out with an injury. Seven years later, uncle Greg Reynolds took aim at the record and set the standard, with 32 touchdowns as a senior before going on to a baseball scholarship at Stanford and eventually becoming the second overall pick of the 2006 MLB draft.
Terra Nova commemorates its standout QBs by hanging a photo of the current record-holder in the school’s weight room. That tradition has spawned another one within the Gordon family. When Greg broke Ryan’s touchdowns record, he sent his brother on a scavenger hunt during the family’s annual Easter egg hunt, held at Anthony’s grandparents’ house. The search took Ryan to the chicken coop, where Greg had left his brother’s Terra Nova photo.
“(Greg) wrapped up my picture with a little note saying, ‘Now my picture’s up there,’ ” Ryan said.
When Anthony smashed the record as a senior, throwing 49 touchdowns, he removed his uncle’s photo from the weight room and gave it to Greg at a family dinner.
“He was real fired up about it,” Anthony said.
Middle brother Nate Gordon was more of a runner than a thrower, but he still tossed 29 touchdowns as a senior and led Terra Nova to the Central Coast Section title game.
“It was almost like it was destiny, because the quarterback that was there two years before I was there, he was at like 31 touchdowns, one away from the record,” Anthony said. “Unfortunately, he got hurt and it was almost like the stars are aligning. … My brother Dom is a big pocket passer, so I hope he’ll be able to keep it in the name.”
Dominic affirmed his intentions: “I’ve brought it up to him about handing him his picture one day and telling him I beat him.”
‘Finally a quarterback’
College coaches would file in and out of Adams’ office in Pacifica to inquire about Gordon. “25-30 DI coaches,” dropped by, he estimated. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh sent his son Jay, a West Coast recruiter for the Wolverines, to Terra Nova to watch Gordon throw and spend time with the QB in the film room.
“He can play,” Jay Harbaugh told Terra Nova’s coach, according to The Mercury News.
But, seldom were the flattering compliments followed by, “Will he come play for us?”
“It was just pretty tough … everyone’s telling me, ‘You’re very talented, someone’s going to get a great quarterback,’ and all this, and why won’t you take the chance then?” Gordon said.
While his passing stats drew coaches in, Gordon’s slight frame, just 6-2, approximately 170 pounds at the time, is what turned them away.
After passing on an opportunity to play professional baseball for the New York Mets’ organization, he accepted a football offer from City College of San Francisco – another program with impressive Gordon family lineage. Ryan was a quarterback for the Rams in the 1990s, until he retired from football altogether when his wife Gina got pregnant with Anthony.
The Rams could’ve grayshirted Anthony, but his parents wanted their son enrolled in school full time. When CCSF’s starting QB, Zach Masoli, went down with a long-term injury before the season started, first-year coach Jimmy Collins called on Anthony to become the program’s first true freshman starter since … Ryan Gordon, in 1995.
“We kind of hoped to sit him out his first year and develop him,” said Collins, now in his sixth season at CCSF. “So he got thrust in right away and was just doing some things younger guys couldn’t do because he just had great instinct.”
Gordon’s intuition was perhaps best encapsulated by a play the quarterback made in a mid-November game at the College of San Mateo. Flushed out of the pocket, Gordon had one defensive lineman on his right throwing shoulder and another closing in. He casually transferred the ball from his right hand to his left and dumped it to Winston Jr. on the run for a first down.
“Just to get it to me,” Winston Jr. said. “I looked at him next play. I was like, ‘How the heck did he do that?’ ”
“I remember it well,” Collins said.
“First quarterback I’ve seen to do that,” said Robert Taylor, the former WSU safety who also played at CCSF and still considers Gordon one of his closest friends.
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Gordon didn’t look the part when he first arrived at CCSF, even leaving Taylor a bit skeptical of the player leading the Rams’ offense.
“I told Gordo when I first got there, ‘I want a championship,’ ” Taylor said. “And I didn’t really think too much of him, because he’s this scrawny kid playing quarterback. I didn’t know what to expect. But then he started ballin’, ballin’, ballin’. ”
In Gordon’s first start against Sierra, the quarterback had a few early miscues and Rams fell into a 24-9 hole with 3:20 left in the fourth quarter. But the rookie dazzled late. Gordon led one touchdown drive, capped by a 2-point conversion, then finished off the comeback with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Winston, followed by a second conversion to complete a 25-24 comeback win.
“It was Anthony and Easop,” Collins said. “Anthony to Easop, Anthony to Easop, Anthony to Easop. … But Anthony struggled, his first game wasn’t great. But his last 4 minutes of his first game were things anyone who was at that game will remember for the rest of their lives, no matter who they were rooting for.”
The one-loss Rams played Saddleback College for the CCCAA State Championship later in the season – another game Collins still insists was fundamental in Gordon’s evolution from pure gunslinger to savvy game manager.
The Rams were facing third-and-medium on the opponent’s half of the field in the second quarter when, “Anthony turns and says to me, ‘If they line up like this, can I change the play to that?’ And I said, ‘Oh yes, please do.’ ”
Saddleback’s defense lined up as Gordon anticipated, so the freshman QB intuitively checked the play call and popped a slant for a first down. The Rams finished the drive off in the end zone.
“(Special teams coach) Bryan Blake turns to me and says, ‘We’re winning the whole thing,’ ” Collins said. “ ‘He’s finally a (expletive) quarterback.’ I’ll never forget it.”
Which is also an apt segue into Gordon’s career on the Palouse.
When Peyton Bender was ruled academically ineligible for the 2016 season, and eventually left WSU on not-so-great terms, it opened a QB scholarship on the Cougars’ roster. Gordon had picked up some light interest on the recruiting trail after leading CCSF to the state and national championship behind a stat line that read: 3,864 passing yards, 37 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
But his parents and coaches urged him to return to City for his sophomore season. More offers would build up and the right one would eventually come along. It did, just a little prematurely.
Jim Mastro, WSU’s running backs coach and Northern California recruiter, had already handpicked two CCSF players – Taylor and Shalom Luani – and would pay Collins visits during bye weeks and recruiting windows.
“For lack of a better word, I think I was a bit obnoxious about promoting him,” Collins said.
Taylor, too, had to strike a balance between selling WSU coaches on his friend and respecting the recruiting process.
“I was constantly checking in to see if we could get my boy on line,” Taylor said.
Mastro phoned Gordon on June 2. After greeting the quarterback, he handed the phone to Leach.
“ ‘Hi, is this Gordo?’ ” the WSU coach asked. “ ‘That’s going to take some getting used to. … I’m extending you a full scholarship.’ ”
Gordon made phone calls to both of his parents and a few coaches, but to no avail. So he committed to the Cougars on the spot, sight unseen.
A redshirt season was imminent for the small and wiry Gordon, but he believed there was a path to the Cougars’ starting job in 2017 if Luke Falk bypassed his senior season and went into the NFL. Falk stayed, and Gordon sat as the third-string quarterback behind Tyler Hilinski.
“Really, I think the guy who helped him a lot when he first got there was Tyler,” Ryan Gordon said. “(Anthony) just said he would really help him break down film and kind of learn the offense and, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on,’ and things like that. … We’re forever grateful for that.”
Gordon expected to compete with Hilinski and Trey Tinsley for the starting job in the spring of 2018, but Minshew filled the scholarship that was vacated when Hilinski took his life in an off-campus apartment.
So a pair of JC transfers, Gordon and Tinsley, went tooth-and-nail all spring until Minshew made it a three-man race in August. Minshew upstaged both after about two weeks of fall camp, putting together a strong outing when the Cougars held their second scrimmage at Martin Stadium.
Minshew’s best day may have been Gordon’s worst, but only a few know Gordon tweaked his hip early on the scrimmage while diving into the end zone. A consummate gamer, Gordon didn’t tell his coaches in fear that it may derail any last chance he had of winning the job.
At some point the next week, Leach invited each of three quarterbacks into this office one at a time, delivering good news to only Minshew.
“I left the meeting a little upset, a little mad,” Gordon said. “Body language probably wasn’t too great, but I knew everything happens for a reason. Believe in God and all that. He has a better plan. So it didn’t work out and I just use it as my fuel.”
Becoming ‘Air Gordon’
In some ways, Gordon didn’t feel as though he belonged as much last year or had the right mental makeup to lead the Cougars. All that’s changed a year later.
In the past, Gordon skated by with arm talent. In the Pac-12, he’s learned, it’s a much more complicated puzzle.
“Last year, I was just kind of thinking, ‘I’m going to play so good, they’re going to have no choice but to hopefully name me the starter,’ ” he said. “But there’s a lot more to it. It’s not just about how good you play, it’s about how the guys react to you and stuff.”
Minshew didn’t throw a tighter spiral than Gordon, he didn’t have a stronger arm and he didn’t have more experience throwing to WSU’s wide receivers. But what he demonstrated was an uncanny ability to lead the Cougars through their best and worst moments.
“You need to be a leader; you need to be somebody the guys can go to and through adversity,” Gordon said. “Gardner, throughout the season, we had a lot of game-winning drives and stuff, and Gardner kept his calm, cool and collectiveness the whole entire time. That’s something I’ve been really trying to draw from, the way his personality was and all that while giving my own taste to it as well.”
Don’t be surprised if you see hints of Falk, traces of Hilinski and a touch of Minshew in Gordon’s game this season.
“I think it’s helped a lot,” Leach said. “Steve Young talked about that. He said, ‘I played behind the best college quarterback, Jim McMahon, I played behind the best NFL quarterback, Joe Montana, and it helped me a lot.’ ”
Gordon will emulate his predecessors, but he’s still a symbol of the slow, foggy, surfer town he calls home – and now has a full head of hair to show for it.
“That’s him, he’s a Pacifica guy, big beach guy,” Winston Jr. said. “Every time he goes home, I tell him, ‘I know where you’re going when you go home.’ ”
But the only redshirt senior in major college football making his first career start this weekend has a lot more to show you.
“That man is a dog,” Taylor said. “He has a dog mindset, and he reminds me a lot of a Baker Mayfield.”
“He’s going to talk to the defense because that’s only going to up his game,” Winston said.
Gordon hasn’t collected many headlines the last few years. Not like the grad transfer he just beat out. But that doesn’t mean WSU’s new starter hasn’t been busy, taking cues from the record-setting QBs that preceded him while he anxiously waiting his turn.
“I like working in the shadows,” Gordon said. “I don’t think anyone’s seen this coming.”