If you’re a starting quarterback in Mike Leach’s unconventional Air Raid offense, you’re going to pile up plenty of passing yards, and begrudgingly or not, the guardians of major awards are going to slap you on their preseason watch lists.
Sure enough, Luke Falk is up for the Maxwell, the Manning, the Davey O’Brien, the Walter Camp. If the lofty Heisman Award stooped to the concept of watch lists, Falk would be on that one too.
But it’s not necessarily the Air Raid’s commitment to copious passing that could earn genuine respect this season for the junior QB and Washington State as a whole. It’s another of the system’s unusual qualities: the high degree of freedom it grants quarterbacks to decide against passing.
For one thing, the Cougars might have their best group of running backs in decades. For another, Falk is exceptionally adept at deciding, at the line of scrimmage, whether to proceed with the pass play that’s been signaled from Leach or to change course and hand the ball to Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks or James Williams.
“The best I’ve ever seen,” WSU running backs coach Jim Mastro said of Falk’s run-check discretion. “You saw last year where we were. He was almost flawless the whole season in getting us into the right runs. Not only the right runs, but the right plays in our offense to get our backs the ball — it’s not always a run. But he’s as good as I’ve ever seen.”
If you’re trying to explain Washington State’s 9-4 season last year, its first winning record in a dozen years, don’t stop at the 6-foot-4 quarterback’s nation-leading 380 passing yards a game, his 69-percent completion ratio or his 38 touchdown throws vs. eight interceptions.
Consider also the Cougars’ 5.7 yards per rush, discounting sacks. They still finished last in the country in official rushing totals (which include sacks), but their run-game efficiency was incomparably improved over Leach’s debut season in Pullman in 2012.
Much of the credit must go to Falk, who enjoyed a certain amount of run-check autonomy during his prep days at Logan, Utah, and has only enhanced his shrewdness at reading defenses during his 15 starts for the Cougars.
Asked to compare Falk’s run-check abilities with those of his other QBs at Washington State and Texas Tech, Leach said, “I’d say way ahead of most, if not all. They’ve all been good at checking pass. I think he does a good job of commanding the unit, kind of keeping everybody locked in.”
That delicate process is likely to get easier this season, given the experience of the offensive unit as a whole and the backfield in particular. Mastro’s stable of running backs is so loaded that last week he relinquished one of them, Keith Harrington, to the receiver corps.
“As far as freakish athletes, I’ve never had three like this,” Mastro said of Morrow, Wicks and Williams.
Even after forfeiting Harrington (244 rushing yards and 312 reception yards last year), Mastro is left with plenty of savvy for this season and beyond. The junior duo of Wicks (6-0, 227) and Morrow (5-9, 201) are bringing a new maturity and consistency to the mix after tallying 610 and 347 rushing yards last year, respectively, in addition to 128 and 294 via pass.
“They’re bigger, faster, stronger — they’re men,” Mastro said.
But what really clinched the decision to move Harrington to inside receiver was the progress of second-year freshman Williams (5-11, 199), who in his best moments combines Wicks’ grit with Morrow’s dynamism.
“He’s close — the only thing holding him back is he’s got two studs playing in front of him,” Mastro said. “He’ll play. He’s doing some great things for us.”
Depth at quarterback is a hazier matter, especially after the academic lapse and subsequent departure of 2015 backup Peyton Bender, plus the exit last week of walk-on Christian Jorgensen. Nobody on the roster aside from Falk has taken an NCAA snap, and the new second-stringer is a second-year freshman, Tyler Hilinski, who has made big strides in recent months but needs to make more.
There are two junior-college transfers quickly absorbing Leach’s system; walk-on Trey Tinsley is taking a cue from Falk’s studiousness and appears to be ahead of scholarship recipient Anthony Gordon.
But still, there’s a significant gap between Falk and his understudies — yet another measure of how far this impressive quarterback has come.