PULLMAN – Connor Halliday would like to do a lot of things this fall: Lead Washington State to another bowl game, throw for a gazillion yards in Mike Leach’s offense, and generally make his fifth and last year at WSU one to remember.
But first things first. The slender Halliday has always had trouble bulking up, so it was something of a eureka moment when, on a day in May, he stepped on a scale and found he had scaled Kilimanjaro.
“First time I’ve ever hit 200,” he said. “I’m pretty excited about it.”
If that turns out to be a steppingstone to a 6,000-yard passing season, he’ll have to thank none other than Rick Neuheisel.
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Part of Halliday’s summer included a call from the coach-turned-analyst, who had decided to expand his five-quarterback “Under Center“ series on Pac-12 Networks to include Halliday and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan. Seems only natural, since Halliday not only obliterated the NCAA record for pass attempts with 89 against Oregon last year, but also has a window into the mind of Leach (if there is such a person).
Here’s how the 24 hours went: Neuheisel picks up Halliday and WSU publicity director Bill Stevens at LAX, and knows intuitively that the way to a Northwest football player’s heart is through In-N-Out Burger.
“Two double-doubles and animal-style fries to start out the trip,” Halliday said. “How do you get better than that?”
Next morning, breakfast at the hotel, an appearance on Neuheisel’s Sirius radio segment with Jack Arute, a bike ride down Manhattan Beach – “Beautiful day, girls playing volleyball … “ Halliday says – and then a Neuheisel-inspired jaunt to a local institution, Uncle Bill’s Pancake House.
Now it’s back to Neuheisel’s for the filming of the TV show.
“Hope you’re hungry,” says Susan Neuheisel.
“I’ve had like two breakfasts today,” Halliday protests.
“Well, I had tacos catered,” Neuheisel’s wife says, “so you’d better eat.”
Three chicken tacos later, Halliday sagged down to the Neuheisel basement for the show. Before the day was done, he was packing on more tacos and squeezing in a final trip to In-N-Out. Any more time in L.A., and he might have been pushing three bills.
And the show itself?
“We killed it,” says Halliday. “Our back-and-forth was really good.”
Saturday, the Cougars began training camp in Lewiston, Idaho, and there’s a suspicion Halliday could be really good in 2014, born of his multiple experiences at WSU and the considerable history of Leach’s veteran quarterbacks at Texas Tech.
“He’s in complete control,” says receiver Kristoff Williams. “Guys really look to him and respect him. He’s really a team leader.”
Halliday has had a wildly varied career at WSU, during which he’s thrown for a lot of touchdowns, been intercepted a lot, suffered a severe internal injury, shown an occasionally demonstrative side with teammates on the field, and through all of it, unfailingly worn his heart on his sleeve.
“You can say whatever you want about me,” Halliday mused here earlier this summer. “I’m going to be a resilient guy. I kind of think that’s the Cougar way, you know?”
Some career. In a game he didn’t even start, he threw for 494 yards and led an upset of Arizona State in his first serious action in 2011. The next week, in a Pullman snowstorm against a rugged Utah defense, he soldiered through three quarters with a five-inch laceration of the liver, an injury that might have ended his playing days.
Then there was WSU’s prickly transition season to Leach in 2012, “an unbelievably awful season,” he remembers, “players and coaches not ever getting along and figuring it out.”
And finally, in 2013, an end to WSU’s decadelong bowl drought, marked by more Halliday histrionics.
There was a Cougar collapse against Oregon State, in which Halliday threw three late interceptions in the span of five plays, including one that seemed guided more by hope than intent. Afterward, Leach said he thought Halliday “gave in.”
Halliday’s father was there, and back home that night, the quarterback was at rock bottom.
“I had put so much work into that offseason,” Halliday says. “At that point, it was, man, ‘I can’t believe this is what’s happening.’ I kind of broke down a little bit. It was kind of at a point where, what else can I do?”
Well, he could throw it some more. The next week at Oregon, the Ducks blew open a competitive game, and everybody waited for Leach to wave the white flag, preserve the starting quarterback and send in the backup.
Still, Halliday threw and he threw — 89 times, blowing away Drew Brees’ NCAA record of 83, completing 58. Afterward, Oregon’s then-defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti lambasted Leach (Aliotti later apologized).
“I don’t know how much I can say,” Halliday said. “In the first quarter of that game, I really messed up my shoulder. I got hit super late on their sideline. Throwing the ball killed me, it hurt terribly.”
But Halliday had seen game film of Graham Harrell chucking it at Texas Tech when his team was up by 45 points. So he knew Leach was leaving him in.
“He does a good job taking out the O-line and putting in backups at receiver,” Halliday says. “But it’s gotta be like 50 points to take out the quarterback.
“It’s awesome for the guy who’s playing. It’s got to be a little bit frustrating, being a backup for coach Leach.”
Ah, the dynamic with Leach. “Yeah, coach Leach and I, our relationship is really good right now,” Halliday says. “It works well, because we’re very honest people.”
At Pac-12 media days, Halliday recalled the 2012 Oregon game at CenturyLink Field, when he was a sophomore new to the ways of Leach. Halliday was riding a stationary bike, trying to keep a balky back loose.
“He always talks to his quarterback before you go out for the next drive,” Halliday said. Leach told him if he saw Cover 4, call Six — four vertical receivers.
“He walked off,” Halliday says. Two minutes later, he said it again. Thirty seconds later, he said it again.
Voice rising, Halliday replied, “All right, coach, I got it!”
“Look around the stadium,” Leach fired back. “There’s 60,000 people here. You see all the way to the top of that nosebleed section? There’s 60,001. If you ever talk to me like that again, guess who that one’s gonna be? You guessed it, (bleeping) you.”
Now, the same day Halliday was relating that story, Leach was holding court with Pac-12 media in Los Angeles, talking about the 6-foot-3 gunslinger from Ferris High in Spokane.
“Clearly, he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the entire nation,” said Leach. “Wherever you’re from, you might be rooting for your guy. I don’t really care what you think. He’s better than your guy is.”
In many cases, he is, but it’s Halliday’s lot to be part of a Pac-12 in 2014 bloated with quality quarterbacks. Still, it seems far-fetched that the 75-man watch list for the Maxwell Award – given to the nation’s best player – could include three players each from Arizona State and USC, plus Cal quarterback Jared Goff, but not Halliday.
He spilled out some of that frustration, telling the Spokane Spokesman-Review at the league’s media event, “I understand that WSU isn’t the big deal here and there’s Marcus Mariota (Oregon) and all those guys, but at the same time, it is a little frustrating. I’m going into my senior year and what else in the world do I have to do to get a little recognition? I broke damn near every school record last year, so that’s my deal, I guess.”
What else can he do? Well, there are the interceptions — 22 last season. But Halliday attempted a nation-leading 714 passes last year – only five others even reached 500 – and he played the final five games with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 16-5 against teams that finished a combined 40-26.
So there’s hope. More than hope, there’s belief, and the fact WSU also returns its top seven receivers. Halliday is stoked, while stressing that the Cougars have been betrayed before by getting ahead of themselves.
“I can’t wait,” he said. “I haven’t been this excited for anything in my entire life, to be honest. But I’ve got to be able to stay grounded.”
Through the air, of course.
Connor Halliday file
|The quarterback is entering his fourth season of action with Washington State.|
|Notable: Led Cougars to New Mexico Bowl last season, where he threw for 410 yards.|
|WSU’s Connor Halliday could be poised to put up 2014 passing numbers in the tradition of some of coach Mike Leach’s quarterbacks at Texas Tech.|
|Graham Harrell||2007||NCAA-record 512 completions|
|Cody Hodges||2005||Led nation with 29.4 completions per game|
|Sonny Cumbie||2004||4,472 passing yards topped all QBs|
|B.J. Symons||2003||5,833 yards passing is NCAA 13-game mark|
|Kliff Kingsbury||2002||Four-game NCAA record of 176 completions|
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com