Halliday learns to adapt in Cougars’ offense

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PULLMAN – Of all the curiosities that surround Washington State and its season-opening football trip to Auburn next week, there can be no greater one than this: How will Connor Halliday perform?

That’s the easy choice, you say; he’s the quarterback. But it’s more than that. He’s the quarterback who, before he had ever started a game for WSU, threw for 494 yards in an upset of Arizona State in 2011.

And he’s also the quarterback who mucked through Mike Leach’s first season, taking some wild chances, throwing 13 interceptions along with the 15 touchdowns.

All the while, he was being himself, wearing his heart on his sleeve. Asked last November to address the touchy subject of freshly departed receiver Marquess Wilson, he said, “We love the guy.”

A week later, after a bad loss at ASU, he said: “We’ve played musical chairs with the quarterbacks all year. It’s been frustrating as all-get-out.” (Halliday has said he had a concussion that day.)

Last month, he told me this: “It’s just so hard to realize what Leach wants, because he doesn’t tell you. And he doesn’t tell you for a reason. He wants you to figure it out.”

That’s Halliday, a consensus pick on the preseason Pac-12 all-interview team.

His candor is refreshing, but no doubt what he’d really like is to be the first guy who demystified Leach’s offense at Washington State and made it hum.

Leach, who is much more expansive on things like bear-hunting and pirate culture than he is intricacies of his offense, would boil it all down to this: Take what’s there.

For Halliday, that’s been a serious challenge, for a lot of reasons. He’s always been depicted as somebody who finds the “go” route a lot more enthralling than the check-down to the back. The gunslinger.

That’s not inaccurate. From the time he was a kid coached by his dad, he was told to get the ball out quickly, so the need now to scan the field is an acquired taste. And then there’s his innate confidence. He’s certain he can thread the ball to the split end running the deep post. But in Leach’s world, if the left slot is more open, even if he’s 10 yards closer to the quarterback, the ball needs to go to him.

“He probably says this 50 times a meeting,” Halliday says of Leach. “ ‘Go through your reads.’ If you go through your reads, something IS there, it’s just hard to be disciplined to be able to do it every single time.”

As Leach said wryly of his quarterback after a recent scrimmage, “Everything he does is fast.”

Leach arrived at WSU in a lot better shape than Halliday, who spent all that first offseason recovering from a lacerated liver. That meant no weights and precious little conditioning.

“If I don’t work out or anything, my body wants to be about 165 or 170 pounds,” said the 6-foot-4 Halliday, now at 191.

He thus missed the spring of 2012, which was ominous in a Leach offense that doesn’t feature a playbook.

“With this offense, you’ve just got to do it, figure it out for yourself,” Halliday said. “I knew the plays, but there’s a difference between knowing them and knowing how to run them. It was really hard for me to learn that while playing.”

His inclination was to take the snap and fling it. He was trusting himself, not the system. Of course, the system doesn’t figure on the 57 sacks WSU allowed in 2012. It’s hard to be patient with a raging pass-rusher in your grille.

In a stretch of 29 October throws against Oregon State and California, Halliday threw five interceptions and says the Cal start “was probably the first time in my life where I didn’t feel confident on the football field.”

This year, he had a revelatory spring, going through reads, scanning what was given him, settling for the occasional dump-off. That has been followed by a productive fall camp in his ongoing effort to break some old habits.

Auburn will tell us whether Halliday has learned a more measured approach. It’s counterintuitive, but if he can tap the brakes occasionally, this offense may finally get a move on.

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