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.