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A closer look at the WSU QB battle between John Mateer and Zevi Eckhaus

Washington State Cougars quarterback John Mateer (10) throws the ball against the defense during WSU’s first spring scrimmage on Saturday, Apr 6, 2024, on Gesa Field in Pullman, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Somewhere in the discussion about John Mateer, Washington State’s third-year quarterback finally vying for the starting gig, one reality has gone a tad understated.

“John really hasn’t played that much football,” WSU offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle said after Tuesday’s practice, the team’s seventh of the spring slate.

Arbuckle has a point. Mateer may have played a backup role the past two seasons, may have gotten on the field for some quarterback-run calls, but even now that he’s in line for the starting gig next fall, his opportunities haven’t exactly come in spades.

In 2022, his true freshman season, Mateer completed 2 of 2 passes for 32 yards and one touchdown, plus four carries for 58 yards. Last season, he connected on 13 of 17 passes for 235 yards, two scores and one interception, in addition to 21 carries for 93 yards and three touchdowns.

All fine numbers, to be sure, but it isn’t the portrait of a quarterback with loads of experience on the field. It bears a reminder because as Mateer competes for the starting job, battling Bryant transfer Zevi Eckhaus for the opportunity, the truth is neither guy has a full resume of quarterbacking an FBS team.

“Both those guys, John and Zevi, have come out every day, shown a lot of the tools and talents that they have,” Arbuckle said. “But the great thing about spring ball, too, it shows kinda what they struggle with and what they need to be developed in. So that’s been the exciting part – just seeing how we can make them grow and make them better, and make them more comfortable within this scheme.”

Still, Arbuckle mentioned Mateer’s lack of experience for a reason: He has been turning the ball over too much lately. Head coach Jake Dickert affirmed as much after the team’s scrimmage on Saturday, in which Mateer tossed one interception, saying Mateer needs to limit picks in the future. He still has to win the job, after all.

It didn’t take Arbuckle long to diagnose the problem: Mateer has been pressing too much. He feels the gravity of his responsibility, Arbuckle said, which is prompting him to force throws, force scoring drives. He wants it a little too much, in other words.

In past years, Arbuckle said, Mateer understood that when he took the field, he was doing so in a relief role. He was in the game in garbage time. He was in for one play, a quarterback keeper. Mateer didn’t feel much pressure in those situations.

“He kinda feels that weight now,” Arbuckle said. “So he’s just pressing a little bit, forcing things. But it’s good to see on film. It’s good to get them out now, early in spring ball instead of in the fall. He’ll get going there. I have zero doubt he’s gonna respond and answer to it. Right now, I just think it’s kind of a maturity thing for him, but he acknowledges it, and that’s the best part about it, so we can get going on it, and we can learn from it.”

On the field, Mateer and Eckhaus resemble different archetypes as players. Mateer might have speed on his side, but relatively speaking, he’s more of a pocket passer. Eckhaus, coaches say, feels more comfortable scrambling and making plays on his feet – which might open the door for a world where both guys take snaps.

Dickert and Co. want to name a starter, though, which is what makes these spring practices important for both players. They’re developing rapport with their receivers, and this spring, WSU has a host of new ones.

“John likes to put some fire on it. Johnny comes with some heat,” said rising sophomore receiver Carlos Hernandez, one of two returners at the position. “I think Zevi has a nice touch. He doesn’t throw too hard – he’ll throw it nice and soft so it’s an easy catch. But John, he tries to fit it into gaps and stuff, so he’s gonna put some fire on it to get it to you.”