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Washington State players, coaches not surprised to see Luke Falk, Gardner Minshew step into NFL spotlight

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 17, 2019, 10:02 p.m.

PULLMAN – The recent wave of quarterback injuries in the National Football League may be an unsettling trend for anyone playing the position at the professional level, but it’s also created an opportunity for less-heralded backups who generally throw their only passes in preseason games.

Backups, mostly, and the occasional third-stringer.

Two Washington State greats have been beneficiaries of those misfortunes, and now multiple ex-Cougars quarterbacks will be starting NFL games in the same week – something that hasn’t happened since New England’s Drew Bledsoe and San Diego’s Ryan Leaf accomplished the feat 19 years ago.

Gardner Minshew, who replaced Nick Foles when the QB went down with a Week 1 collarbone injury, is making his second NFL start for the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday against the Tennessee Titans – the team that initially drafted the other ex-Cougar who’ll be getting a nod this weekend.

Luke Falk, who was on the New York Jets’ practice squad this time last week, will be behind center when his team takes on the New England Patriots Sunday in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Jets elevated Trevor Siemian to the starting role last week when Sam Darnold was diagnosed with mononucleosis and subsequently moved Falk up from the practice squad. Days later, Falk climbed another step on the ladder, replacing Siemian when the QB suffered a season-ending ankle injury Monday night against Cleveland.

The Jaguars could be counting on Minshew well into November, or later, and Falk’s expected to start every game for the Jets until Darnold’s return, which may not happen for at least another five weeks. That could set up an interesting and exciting scenario for WSU fans in Week 8, when the Jets are scheduled to play the Jaguars in Florida.

Cougars players have been following Minshew and Falk closely, and both quarterbacks have been in communication with the one currently operating Mike Leach’s offense.

“It’s pretty crazy to see them doing their thing and another Coug QB doing their thing in the NFL is pretty awesome,” WSU’s Anthony Gordon said. “… I texted Gardner after the (Houston) game, telling him it was a great game and it was unbelievable to see him go down the stretch like that and he responded saying he was excited to see me and stuff like that.

“I texted Luke last night saying, ‘Great job, it’s amazing to see you out there,’ and he gave me a, ‘Thanks man,’ with an American flag (emoji). Typical Luke.”

It took awhile, but the Air Raid offense Leach and Hal Mumme devised more than 30 years ago at Iowa Wesleyan has taken hold at the professional level. This weekend, nearly one-third of the quarterbacks starting for NFL teams have an Air Raid background, or played in a system that drew heavily from the high-volume passing concepts.

Minshew and Falk join a list that includes Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (Texas Tech), the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff (Cal), Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), Arizona’s Kyler Murray (Oklahoma), San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois), Pittsburgh’s Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State), Denver’s Case Keenum (Houston) and, potentially Carolina’s Kyle Allen (Texas A&M), who’d start for the Panthers if Cam Newton is ruled out.

For Leach, seeing each of his last two WSU QBs in starting roles is satisfying, but he shrugs off the notion that it also validates how his offensive schemes translate to the NFL – something that’s been scrutinized a fair bit over the years.

“I don’t really do the thinking for those people, I do the thinking for myself,” Leach said. “I don’t care if they’re validated or not. If they think they’re good quarterbacks, they’re right. If they don’t think they’re good quarterbacks, they’re wrong. It’s as simple as that.”

Falk, who was 20 for 25 for 198 yards in his first game, and Minshew, who was 23 for 33 with one touchdown and 56 rushing yards while nearly leading Jacksonville to a comeback win over Houston Sunday, were key mentors and role models for Gordon at a stage of the QB’s WSU career when education and development were crucial.

If Falk and Minshew succeed, it only benefits Gordon, a redshirt senior who’s thrown for an FBS-high 1,324 yards and 12 touchdowns through three games and holds NFL aspirations of his own.

NFL general managers may be willing to jump for the next WSU quarterback if the last two are thriving.

“It’s awesome, always room for the Air Raid,” Gordon said. “… Air Raid’s ran throughout the NFL as coach Leach alludes to all the time, but seeing pure Air Raid quarterbacks like Nick Foles, Gardner, Luke, Mahomes and Goff, seeing them do great things just bodes well for the Air Raid as a whole and it’s awesome to see.”

Two years ago, Renard Bell was a top receiver for Falk, catching 40 passes for 538 yards and three touchdowns. Last year, the small slotback hauled in 20 passes for 202 yards and five touchdowns as a key target for Minshew.

Bell agreed that Air Raid quarterbacks can thrive in the NFL, and he’s enjoyed watching two of his former teammates crush whatever stigma still exists.

“I like to see them doing very well in their roles, and throwing the ball and having high completion percentages like they did in college shows just because they’re in the Air Raid, they’re going to throw great percentages,” Bell said. “It’s not just that. They’re great players and that’s what they are, that’s what they do. So it’s not just an Air Raid thing. You see they’re doing it in the NFL, you see they’re doing it in the league.

“Give the quarterbacks a shot.”

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