The backup quarterback is especially important in Mike Leach's pass-heavy offense. Redshirt freshman Tyler Hilinski says he's ready to step into that role.
This summer, in between classes, conditioning workouts, and 7-on-7 drills, Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski and his roommate, senior receiver C.J. Dimry, cultivated a new habit together.
Every afternoon, Hilinski and Dimry would meet at the football operations building, head to the film room and sit there watching film together as they ate lunch.
Over the course of the summer, they watched a little bit of everything the Cougs had on tape since Mike Leach got to WSU.
“We had a good routine eating lunch every day in the film room,” Hilinski said. “Me and C.J. have gotten real close.”
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It was a mentally stimulating, time-consuming ritual, and one Hilinski says he wishes he’d adopted much earlier in his football career.
“I feel like that’s the most important part of this game,” Hilinski said. “Man, I wished I’d watched this much film in high school. It would have been a lot different.”
Not that he did poorly in high school at all. Hilinski broke nine passing records at Upland (Claremont, Calif.) High School and led his team to the semifinals of the CIF South Section playoffs during his senior year, picking up a host of college scholarship offers along the way.
After redshirting last year as a freshman at WSU, Hilinski enters this season with a significant increase in his responsibilities.
Peyton Bender, the sophomore quarterback who backed up Luke Falk last season, was ruled academically ineligible at the end of the spring semester and has since transferred to a community college in Mississippi.
Hilinski hasn’t officially been named Falk’s backup yet, but based on his performance through spring practice and in the two scrimmages the Cougs have held this fall, he’s widely acknowledged as the guy the Cougars will count on to lead the offense should Falk get hurt.
No team likes to think about losing their star quarterback, especially one as accomplished as Falk, who led the nation in passing average last season and is considered a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate this year.
Still, recent history has shown that in Mike Leach’s pass-heavy Air Raid offense, having a capable backup who can command the offense with competence is key to the Cougs’ season-long success.
Bender played in five games last year and earned his first career start against Washington in the Apple Cup because Falk was out with a concussion.
Falk himself burst onto the scene the year before in relief of Conner Halliday, who broke his leg in the ninth game of the 2014 season against USC. Falk finished out the season for the Cougs, starting the final three games and positioning himself as the man to beat in the quarterback battle that took place the following spring.
That was the spring Hilinski joined the team as an early enrollee freshman out of high school – young, confident and hoping to win the starting job.
However, he soon realized that he wasn’t quite on the same playing field as some of the older guys in Leach’s quarterbacks room.
“I wasn’t ready at the time,” Hilinski said in an interview earlier this month. “But I came in with the mindset like ‘Oh yeah, I can play.’ Like any guy, I had a lot of confidence in myself, but it takes time. You’ve got to learn the offense, you’ve got to do a lot of things before you can just step up and be ‘the guy.’”
Growing into his own
Hilinski has had his share of growing pains since he arrived at WSU. He struggled with homesickness early on, and was disappointed when he lost out to Falk and Bender in last year’s quarterback competition. But his close-knit family played a huge part in helping him get through those early hurdles.
Hilinski is the middle child in a family of three highly skilled quarterbacks. His older brother, Kelly, currently plays for Weber State, while his younger brother, Ryan, is high school sophomore and the starting quarterback at Southern California powerhouse Orange Lutheran.
Because Tyler and Kelly were only a year and a half apart, they were inseparable as kids. Tyler even served as Kelly’s backup on the football team during his sophomore year – Kelly’s senior year – at Notre Dame High School in Sheman Oaks, Calif.
(Tyler played two seasons of football at Notre Dame before he transferred to Upland for his junior and senior seasons when his family moved to Claremont to be closer to his ailing grandfather.)
“We were best friends growing up. Being that close in age in age, you don’t need other friends. You have your brother and that’s all. We still do everything together now,” Kelly Hilinski said.
Kelly and Tyler played on many of the same football teams throughout childhood, but because Kelly was older, he got to be the quarterback, while Tyler started out as a receiver and linebacker.
“He was a little smaller and more angry growing up, and he liked hitting kids on defense,” Kelly said, laughing.
Still, by the time Tyler was in seventh grade, he’d switched to quarterback. During his sophomore year at Notre Dame, he became Kelly’s backup, and the two brothers pushed each other on and off the field.
“It was a good, healthy rivalry,” Kelly said. “There’s nothing like having a brother that close to you being your best friend, at the same position.”
Tyler has a fierce competitive streak in him, Kelly says.
“When you play him at anything, whether it’s video games like Madden, or ‘21’ on the court or hitting the crossbar (with a football) he always finds a way to win,” Kelly said. “I think he threw a controller at me when I was 6 or 8 and he gave me a black eye for the Christmas recital. There’s definitely been full-out brawls and more than one piece of furniture broken at our house. We broke the same door like six times. It’s just brotherly love.”
That competitive streak fuels Tyler in everything he does, and a lifetime of trying to best his older brother gave him the fortitude to stick out his first year and a half at WSU even after Falk and Bender were named the starter and the backup, respectively, and he was asked to redshirt.
In contrast to many quarterbacks in today’s college football world who end up transferring in search of playing time early in their careers if they don’t win the starting job right away, Tyler has never considered leaving WSU.
“I don’t ever remember having a conversation about ‘where else can we go?” said Mark Hilinski, Tyler’s father. “I think Tyler’s impression at the time was that ‘I’m just getting better every day, and the best guy plays on this team, and I’ll be better tomorrow than today.’ He’s a very loyal kid.”
Being ‘the guy’ who backs up ‘The Guy’
In hindsight, Hilinski says his redshirt year was instrumental in his development.
He studied the offense, absorbed as much as he could during position meetings and, this offseason, also worked independently with former UW quarterback Billy Joe Hobert to smoothen the hitch he had in his throwing motion.
“I just really wanted to compact it and make it as efficient as can be, not trying to have a hitch and trying to just get from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ as fast as I can,” Hilinski said.
In the summer, in addition to lunchtime film study, Hilinski and Dimry also got together regularly for extra throwing work with Tavares Martin and River Cracraft.
All the extra work appears to be paying off. This year, Hilinski believes he’s ready to be “the guy” if called upon to do so.
The 6-foot-3, 206-pound quarterback has made strides in all areas of his game, and his coaches have noticed.
“I think just in general, he has better command of what we’re doing offensively – which I think started definitely in the spring – and a little better feel for his personnel, so I think he reacts more smoothly with his personnel than he did before,” Leach said. “He doesn’t get sacked very much, he has good feet in the pocket, he pushes the ball downfield and he’s a pretty smart guy.
“In the huddle, he energizes the whole thing. … And he’s really smart as far as picking things up.”
Dave Nichol, the outside receivers coach who also works with the quarterbacks, observes that Hilinski has improved his decision-making on the field, while strength coach Jason Loscalzo says Hilinski responded with aplomb after he sat down for a chat with the quarterback at the end of winter workouts and challenged him to double his efforts in the weight room and embrace a leadership role.
Hilinski gained 15 pounds this offseason and says he’s also taken lots of cues from Falk. He now strives to be “the first guy in and the last guy out” of the weight room.
“I think I’ve taken a step in being a leader and showing guys through my examples, what I’m doing and how it should be done,” Hilinski said. “If anything happens, if Luke gets hurt, I have to come in and step up, and they have to be able to trust me.”