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A legacy of elite frontmen: New lead slingers take the reins at Washington State, Eastern and UW, schools where excellent QB play is the standard

Aug. 31, 2022 Updated Thu., Sept. 1, 2022 at 12:47 p.m.

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Matt Kegel’s first collegiate start came in one of the most hallowed venues in all of college sports: the Coliseum on the campus of the University of Southern California.

Leading up to that game on Nov. 11, 2000, neither the Cougars nor the Trojans were having a great season. Each was 1-5 in Pac-10 play. Just a few weeks later, USC would fire coach Paul Hackett and replace him with Pete Carroll, who had been fired by the New England Patriots the year before.

But this game, played in front of 40,000 fans on a cloudy Los Angeles afternoon, bore great significance to Kegel.

“All the years that led up to that, in the 19 years of development, commitment and study and knowledge, all came together,” Kegel said this week. “That was my first real opportunity on a national stage to lead a team and showcase my ability. The ball bounced my way, and we got some good results.”

Playing because usual starter Jason Gesser had broken his leg the week before against Oregon, Kegel completed just 12 of 32 passes, but they went for 242 yards, and he committed no turnovers. The Cougars took a two-score lead into halftime and won the game 33-27.

The next weekend, Washington dismantled WSU, 51-3, ending the Cougars’ season with a 4-7 overall record. But the next season, Gesser returned and started all 12 games, 10 of which the Cougars won. The year after that, in 2002, the Cougars won 10 games again.

Kegel didn’t play much those two years, during which he completed 47 of 83 attempts.

But he stuck around, and he knew what his role was.

“I was raised as a loyal person,” said Kegel, who was born in Havre, Montana, “and when I gave my commitment to play football at Washington State, that was a commitment to uphold and a dream to fulfill.”

It wasn’t always easy.

“It took loyalty and willpower to stay and compete every day knowing you’re a backup,” Kegel said. “I felt like I always competed and prepared to be one snap away and be the guy, and unfortunately for me it was a four-year wait.”

But that wait prepared him for other circumstances in life later, he said. And anyway, he was waiting for something special: the chance to be a starting quarterback at Washington State University.

This was the program that had by then attracted, developed and succeeded under the likes of Ryan Leaf, Drew Bledsoe, Mark Rypien and Jack Thompson, three of whom were top-three picks in the NFL Draft.

It is the program that has since seen eight more of its quarterbacks drafted or signed by NFL teams.

And in the state of Washington, it is not alone.

The Washington Huskies can also claim to be a quarterback powerhouse, with graduates such as Warren Moon, Hugh Millen, Chris Chandler, Billy Joe Hobert, Mark Brunell, Damon Huard, Brock Huard, Cody Pickett, Jake Locker and Jake Browning.

Then there is Eastern Washington University in Cheney, which in only the last 17 years has produced three quarterbacks who were named the national FCS offensive player of the year, and three more who were named All-America selections.

All three of those programs are beginning this football season with new quarterbacks who have yet to prove their pedigree at each institution. Cameron Ward will start at Washington State. Michael Penix Jr. will do so at Washington. Gunner Talkington is now the starter at Eastern Washington.

All follow in a line of great quarterbacks, many of whom went on to play and even star in the NFL.

All three are out to prove this fall that they are the next frontman to lead his team to great seasons. Because at these programs, through exhaustive recruiting and rigorous development and retention, excellent quarterback play has become the standard.

So, when Kegel became the full-time starting quarterback for Washington State in 2003, he felt he was ready.

“Most quarterbacks that get to that position in programs like Washington State or Washington have put in the work, and they know what it means to get your hands dirty, and to potentially reap the benefits of all your years of blood, sweat and tears, and dedication and study,” Kegel said. “Most of these things don’t happen overnight, and a lot of prep for many years goes into the development of a quarterback and any type of collegiate athlete.”

‘Is he going to be an All-American?’

Damon Huard was recruited by the University of Washington to play quarterback there in the early 1990s, and the pitch was pretty straightforward.

Billy Joe Hobert – who quarterbacked the 1991 Huskies to a 12-0 record and a national championship – had been a teammate of Huard’s in high school. Huard’s brother Brock would later follow both down the road to the Seattle university.

“We were a feeder program for the University of Washington,” Damon Huard said. “No other program fed UW like Puyallup did in the 1990s.”

It wasn’t just Hobert who influenced Huard’s choice.

“Warren Moon, Cary Conklin,” Huard said, listing just two prior Huskies quarterbacks. “Every one of them played in the NFL. It seemed like the right thing to do.”

Huard admitted that he also liked the offense run by Mike Price at Washington State. But Huard ultimately canceled planned visits to Miami and Notre Dame, and from 1992 to 1995, he started 31 games for the Huskies. Later he won two Super Bowls as a backup quarterback with the New England Patriots.

Huard – whose son Sam is a quarterback at Washington – is now director of community and external relations for UW. He remembers when coach Chris Peterson was encouraging Jacob Eason – a Lake Stevens native who first played at Georgia before opting to transfer elsewhere – to come play quarterback for his hometown Huskies.

“Look, dude, it’s special to be a Husky QB,” Huard said, paraphrasing the pitch made to Eason, who accepted and started for Washington in 2019.

That’s a similar pitch to the one made by Aaron Best at Eastern Washington, a program that just fielded one of the most prolific college offenses in history under the leadership of quarterback Eric Barriere.

Barriere finished his career with 15 games in which he amassed at least 400 yards of offense, tying Steve McNair for the record in the Football Championship Subdivision. Barriere won the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the best offensive player in the FCS.

“That’s always going to be the expectation, is to find the next All-American,” Best said. “That’s where we start our conversations off. You’ve got a guy (at the high school level). My question back is: Is he going to be an All-American? That’s the standard we live by, is All-American quarterbacks.”

‘Our eyes sometimes lie to us’

Yet that’s not always such an easy thing to predict. Troy Taylor, who is now the head coach at Sacramento State of the Big Sky, was Eastern’s co-offensive coordinator in 2016, but before that he was the head coach at Folsom High School just outside Sacramento, California. Those experiences have given him a look at recruiting from both sides of the desk, as a high school coach and a college recruiter.

“The things that are the most important, you can’t measure objectively,” Taylor said. “A lot of it is subjective and projecting future success based on past performance can be hard.”

That’s because the level of talent surrounding a quarterback can be so different and can influence a quarterback’s play in so many different ways. A quarterback with a fantastic offensive line will have the time to make more throws, for example, than one who is running for his life every play.

College recruiting also has a certain momentum, Taylor said, where, as players are mentioned, they just climb and climb. He gave the example of two quarterbacks he had at Fulsom.

“One guy had a beard, 6-foot-3, 210 pounds and could throw the ball 70 yards,” he said. “You’d walk out onto the field and you’d be like, ‘Who’s that guy?’ ”

That player was going to be a junior. But there was a freshman competing for the starting job as well, and nobody really said much about him, Taylor said. The week of the team’s opening game, he decided they would play both, but that the freshman would start.

The junior quit. The freshman threw 11 touchdowns – in just his first game. That freshman’s name?

“He was Jake Browning,” Taylor said.

At Folsom Browning set California prep records for passing attempts (1,708), completions (1,191), yards (16,775) and touchdowns (229). At the University of Washington, he started 53 games and won 39 of them, more than any other quarterback in Pac-12 history.

“That’s just a little microcosm of how hard it is to evaluate. Our eyes sometimes lie to us. So it starts with evaluation and recruitment,” Taylor said. “And then it’s development.”

With playing time comes development

When Dan Hawkins talks about quarterbacks, he doesn’t like to use the word “coaching.”

“I always talk about handling the quarterback,” said Hawkins, who first became a head coach at Division III Willamette before coaching at Boise State, Colorado and, for the last five seasons, at UC Davis.

“(Former NFL coach) Bill Walsh used to say very few people know how to evaluate quarterbacks and even fewer know how to coach them,” Hawkins said. “I think that’s probably true.”

The term “handling” implies that there is a specialness to the position, that the play of that person is somehow more important than others’ play. And it is hard to say otherwise.

“You don’t have to have to be great at QB to win, but it will help you win,” said Timm Rosenbach, a WSU quarterback from 1986 to 1988 who is now the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Montana.

Montana won 10 games last year, starting with a 13-7 victory over Washington in which the Huskies gained just 232 yards on offense. The Grizzlies dealt with injuries at quarterback much of the season, and they finished seventh among the Big Sky’s 13 teams in passing offense.

“We won 10 games, but a lot of that was our defense,” Rosenbach said. “You can win a championship that way for sure, but if you have a great quarterback, you always have a chance.”

That formula worked for Washington State in 2003, when Rosenbach was in his first year as the Cougars’ quarterbacks coach after serving as the offensive coordinator at Eastern Washington the two years prior.

“A great defense can make an average offense or QB pretty good,” Kegel said. “I wouldn’t say that was the (case) in my time, but it certainly didn’t hurt to have a record-setting defense on my team.”

Kegel threw for the fifth-most passing yards (2,947) and had the fourth-best passer rating (128.1) in the Pac-10 that season, trailing the likes of Matt Leinart (USC), Aaron Rodgers (Cal) and Kellen Clemens (Oregon). All three of those players were later taken as first- or second-round picks in the NFL Draft.

But the Cougars fielded a top-three defense that season, and it culminated in a 28-20 victory over Texas in the Holiday Bowl. Kegel completed 18 of 32 passes for two touchdowns and two interceptions.

“That was one of many fond memories of that season,” Kegel said. “We walked the walk on that team, and to compete against a big-boy program like Texas and really for three quarters put it to them was a fun time in my life. That’s a lifelong memory.”

Importantly, Kegel wasn’t entirely inexperienced when he took over as starter that season. While he had only started the two games at the end of the 2000 season, he appeared in every game in 2001 by running the first series of the second quarter, which was by coach Mike Price’s design, Kegel said.

“That was a commitment that he had with me, and that kept me engaged and excited and a part of the team,” Kegel said. “I think it was as valuable for coach Price and the staff as it was for me to be ready.”

Rosenbach said Kegel’s play in 2003 was a testament to the quarterback’s ability to get the job done and to battle.

“He knew the situation. He knew that he may have to come in at any time (in earlier seasons) to pinch-hit for Jason (Gesser), and he was going to wait his turn, and he won 10 games,” Rosenbach said.

That season Kegel was the most veteran in a talented quarterback room, Rosenbach said. Josh Swogger was right behind him, Alex Brink was a freshman, and Mike Reilly, who redshirted that season, went on to be star quarterback at Division II Central Washington and eventually was named the Canadian Football League’s Most Outstanding Player in 2017.

“Wazzu’s the place where you’re sitting in the room as the quarterbacks coach with five guys,” Rosenbach said. “Three can play at the next level, and only one can get on the field at a time.”

The one-at-a-time truism is all the more apparent and relevant in an age when transferring between NCAA schools is easier than ever. It’s a reality coaches are continuing to grapple with.

But transfers – especially at the FCS level – are nothing particularly new. Swogger, for example, transferred from WSU to Montana and led the Grizzlies to the FCS semifinals and a 12-win season in 2006.

“You’re always developing,” said Cal Poly coach Beau Baldwin, who won a national title as Eastern’s head coach in 2010. “You want to try to recruit guys who have the ability to be starters someday, but it’s not easy in this world of revolving doors and transfers.

“Once you start going down the road of bringing in transfers, sometimes it’s hard to get back to just the development of the high school kid.”

While Baldwin was at Eastern, he tried to follow that philosophy, though he made a notable exception when he got Bo Levi Mitchell, the eventual MVP of that national title game, to transfer from SMU. But Baldwin already knew Mitchell; he had hosted him on a recruiting visit to Cheney two years earlier.

Yet no matter how well a coach knows a player or how they end up on campus, there is no substitute for game action, coaches said, which complicates the whole process of maintaining great quarterback play. Do you go with a two-quarterback system, like Taylor did last year at Sacramento State? Schedule three easy non-conference games so that the backup gets to mop up after halftime?

Like Price with Kegel, coaches will try to get game experience for their backup quarterbacks precisely because that time in games is so valuable and because someday, hopefully, that backup ascends, and coaches want to know how players will react.

“You can’t replicate what a game situation is like for a quarterback,” Taylor said. “You can’t prepare how you’re going to react to getting drilled by a 325-pound guy. … You have to live it and see how they react.”

Montana coach Bobby Hauck, who played three different quarterbacks last season because of injuries, described his own straightforward approach.

“I think you get better by playing in football, so developing quarterbacks, I think it’s a huge advantage if you can get your other quarterbacks other than your starter in the game and give them a chance to play,” Hauck said. “So, the more they get a chance to play, the more ready they’re going to be when they win the job.”

All of these approaches imply a desire to minimize variables along the stages of quarterback recruitment and development: the more talent in the room, the more likely it is that at least one will become great. And the more who become great, the better the program.

‘We have something different’

When Price was recruiting quarterbacks to come to Washington State during his time there from 1989 to 2002, he was aggressive in trying to get the best.

They would identify the top 10 quarterbacks nationally who fit their system, and then Price hopped on a plane to see them all.

“All the great QBs who were playing, I was looking at them,” Price said earlier this month.

But when he recruited those athletes, there was already momentum. They ran a system quarterbacks liked because they threw the ball a lot. And by the mid-’90s, the Cougars had produced a future Super Bowl MVP in Rypien and a first-overall draft pick in Bledsoe.

“They see Rypien, Bledsoe and Leaf, and they see themselves being able to play that position here at this school,” Price said.

Just like Huard said of Washington, the recruiting at Washington State benefits because programs with great anything – not just quarterbacks but especially them – self-germinate their own flowering.

It is the case, too, at Eastern Washington, where a school future record-setting quarterback Gage Gubrud hadn’t much heard of until Vernon Adams Jr. led the Eagles to a win over Oregon State in 2013.

Now, Gubrud is part of that fraternity of great quarterbacks.

“It’s a great thing to be able to say, even going to job interviews (for non-football positions),” Gubrud said. “You say, ‘I played quarterback at Eastern Washington,’ and everyone knows not just the program but the great tradition they’ve had at quarterback.”

Kegel said that Jack Thompson, the first of Washington State’s star quarterbacks, remains crucial to maintaining not just the legacy of Cougars quarterbacks but their connectedness as well.

Kegel has gotten to know not just the quarterbacks with whom he played at Washington State but also those who came before and after him.

“To have an opportunity after our playing days are done to come and develop a relationship with the person is almost as valuable as watching them and knowing them on the field,” Kegel said.

Thompson said he does what he can to foster those relationships because of his love for Washington State, as a program and as a university. And, he said, the quarterbacks genuinely like each other.

“We have something different, and I think that is very enticing to quarterbacks being recruited,” Thompson said. “They see the special bond up close and in person, and that’s a difference-maker.”

After his time at Washington State, Kegel signed with the Minnesota Vikings and spent about six months there before the team released him. After that, he moved back to his home state of Montana, and since 2006 he has worked for Medtronic, a medical device company. He and his family live in Great Falls, and he makes it back to Pullman for Cougars games and other events during the year.

By the time Kegel was the starting quarterback, he felt like he had confidence he could do what was asked. He felt he was ready to do what every quarterback wants: to face down a defense and make a play for his team.

“No matter what you’re doing in this life, if you walk in with confidence and the belief you’re going to be successful, you’re going to be successful,” Kegel said. “The younger players who get in the battle, they get that feeling, whether it’s the intensity of the game or the adrenaline rush they feel. But it is something we strive for from a young age, and especially a quarterback.

“We want that feeling,” Kegel said. “We want to be in that position.”

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