PULLMAN – For the fifth straight year, Washington State will get all the spoils of playing in a bowl game.
The gift packages and sunny locales are sweet incentives for teams that win six games or more in the regular season. For some players, there’s no better perk than the per diem received afterward, which allows them to get home to their families for free.
Coaches carry a different outlook, usually indifferent when it comes to the material items that come with bowl games. WSU players can have their GoPros, Fossil watches, Oakley shades and bowl-branded hats – all part of the gift package at this year’s Cheez-It Bowl – while Mike Leach and his coaches will take the few hundred practice reps guaranteed to the Cougars before they face Air Force on Dec. 27 at Chase Field.
The additional practices, used for bowl preparation but also youth development, are especially valuable for the Cougars, who’ll have to identify a new starting quarterback for the third straight season when 5,000-yard passer Anthony Gordon hangs up his jersey after the bowl game.
Not since 2017, Luke Falk’s senior season, have the Cougars entered the offseason with total clarity at quarterback. The questions will outnumber the answers this offseason, too, but the nearly monthlong gap between the Apple Cup and Cheez-It Bowl will give WSU a chance to invest reps into the signal-callers who might succeed Gordon next fall.
“What’s kind of thrilling about this particular time of year is not only the opportunity to practice, but work with the young guys and to see where they’re at and to continue to develop their skills,” Leach said.
Gordon, Trey Tinsley and Gage Gubrud – all departing seniors – will vacate three roster spots, meaning the Cougars enter the spring with two scholarship quarterbacks: redshirt freshman Cammon Cooper and true freshman Gunner Cruz. Spring camp should serve as a prelude to the quarterback competition next fall, with Cooper and Cruz presumably splitting the majority of the QB snaps, so consider these next weeks a prelude to the prelude.
The Cougars will still invest plenty of reps into their current starter, Gordon, and the players who’d potentially replace him in the Cheez-It Bowl if he were to get injured. But they’ve also allocated more reps to their young quarterbacks, whose opportunities are limited during the regular season outside of Thursday night scrimmages – dedicated to the development of younger players, lesser-used backups and walk-ons.
Since WSU opened bowl practice, Cooper, the 6-foot-4, 216-pound lefty out of Lehi, Utah, and Cruz, the 6-5, 229-pound righty from Arizona, have taken more reps than usual during the various practice drills.
“The whole second half is all those guys,” Leach said. “Yeah, it’s pretty even right now. We split them pretty even right now. One-on-one, skeleton, team. So yeah, we get them all in there.”
The Cougars will also take a look at walk-ons John Bledsoe and Aaron Angelos, but the majority of QB reps will likely be divided between Cooper, a highly coveted four-star prospect out of high school who was considered the 15th-best pro-style passer in the country, and Cruz, a three-star prospect who wowed a number of Power Five schools with his big arm but chose the Cougars, even after a late charge from SEC power Georgia.
“All four of those guys are all smart,” Gordon said last month. “They all have their own pros and cons as well. They all love football and they’re all real committed to it, and I’m sure they’re really excited for this offseason. It’s going to be a big one for them, they’ve been asking me questions throughout the year and I’m excited to see how they progress going forward.”
Leach also plans to browse the graduate transfer market, though he didn’t specifically indicate he’d bring in an experienced fourth- or fifth-year quarterback, as he did two years ago with East Carolina’s Gardner Minshew and last year with Eastern Washington’s Gubrud.
“Well, we’ll look at it,” Leach said. “We’ll see what’s out there. See what’s happening.”
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