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Thiel: Cougs’ Leach may be on to something

Would Mike Leach think about a hired gun every season? / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

Gardner Minshew’s single football season at Washington State might have meant more than an 11-2 record, a No. 10 ranking in the final Associated Press poll, and the elevation of fake-mustache production to the hottest industry in U.S. manufacturing.

Minshew may have amplified a trend that could become a Palouse tradition: The annual hire of the best available graduate-transfer quarterback to operate the Cougars’ Air Raid offense.

WSU can pull it off because coach Mike Leach invented perhaps the best single-sentence recruiting pitch since, “Kid, you want it in 50s or 100s?”

In his recruiting call, Leach told Minshew, who was ready to transfer to Alabama just to sit on coach Nick Saban’s bench, “How’d you like to lead the nation in passing?”

It’s football catnip for the cats who want to show out for the NFL.

Minshew was seduced, and Leach delivered, or close enough. Minshew finished second in the nation to Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, vanquisher of the Washington Huskies in the Rose Bowl, in passing yardage (4,831 to 4,779). Minshew was also second in completion percentage (70.7).

Minshew isn’t much of a pro candidate, which is almost always the case with Leach quarterbacks, but if he wants, he’ll get workouts and tryouts. More importantly, he’ll never again have to buy a beer anywhere in eastern Washington.

The notion of trend to tradition developed after news Wednesday reported by several media outlets that Alabama’s Jaylen Hurts, the best backup quarterback since Steve Young carried Joe Montana’s laundry, entered his name in the NCAA transfer portal.

That’s the dorky bureaucratic handle for college free agency. A junior, Hurts graduated in December with a year of eligibility remaining.

The SEC’s offensive player of the year as a freshman, Hurts was 26-2 with championship game appearances in each of the past two seasons as starting quarterback. But he was beaten out for the starting job by sophomore Tua Tagovailoa, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

Hurts won over the college football world by his willingness to stay at Alabama and accept with grace the diminished role. He did play in 13 of 15 games, rushing for 167 yards and two touchdowns and passing for 765 yards and eight scores. He even caught two passes.

Before the CFP semifinal game against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, Hurts told reporters, “I’ve been counted out. I was supposed to do this, I was supposed to do that. Even last year after the (championship) game, I was supposed to be gone. This year, I was supposed to redshirt and do all those things.

“But I’m here. I’m here for this team, and that’s what is most important to me.”

But now he appears to be gone, although he can withdraw from the transfer portal without losing his final year of eligibility.

NCAA rules permit graduates to transfer without a penalty of a year’s sit-out, which is required of undergraduates. Those who have enrolled in a graduate program rarely stay in it after football eligibility expires. From 2011 to 2017, the NCAA reports that the number of graduate transfers has quadrupled.

If Hurts, a Houston native, moves on to play elsewhere, he’s good enough that he will have his choice of schools with higher profiles than WSU, as this ESPN story explains.

Even though WSU may be out-classed for Hurts, the point remains that other QBs this season and in future ones will find WSU more attractive after Minshew’s trail-blazing. He also solved any question over the speed with which a good QB can absorb Leach’s spread offense. It may look a little complicated at first, but the short-pass mayhem is actually simple after repeated practice.

The potential of annual hired guns makes it harder to recruit four-year QBs,  a threat sufficient for the school’s president, Kirk Schulz, to fire out a cautionary tweet Thursday.

Good to know the university president has the time and knowledge to dive into football recruiting. That’s SEC-level overwrought-ness.

Nevertheless, the hired gun is a tactic for which the Huskies have no counter. Because of higher grad-school academic standards and an early application deadline of mid-December — before a potential transfer’s season may be done — Washington can’t play that game.

When the subject of Minshew’s success came up during Apple Cup week, Huskies coach Chris Petersen admitted he was irked at the unequal playing field.

“It’s a lot harder for us to get transfers — that’s my problem with this whole thing,” Petersen said. “It’s not all the same, in terms (of academic standards and timelines).  I just know we haven’t gotten one in here yet. It’s really hard to get that done. At other places, it’s not . . .

“Let’s be real: They’re not going there to get a degree. If everybody is on the same page and a guy is going to come play football, then it’s all good. I’m happy for the guy. I really am. It wasn’t working out where he was, and he’s having this unbelievable experience (in Pullman). I think that’s great. I think you’re going to see more and more of it, but we’re not seeing it here.”

After five consecutive Apple Cup wins, the amount of eye moisture for Petersen’s problem in the Palouse is minimal. But if Hurts should suddenly appear on the WSU campus in a photo enrolling in the veterinary science school’s Master’s program of integrative physiology and neuroscience, with a football tucked under his arm, I would pay large coin to stand in Petersen’s vicinity to observe the subsequent cardiovascular event.

And the Apple Cup would become waaay more compelling.


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