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Behind Connor Halliday, Washington State hoping to make Pac-12 push

LOS ANGELES -- “For every story that you’ve heard about Mike Leach, I’ve experienced it -- a few times. And for every story you’ve heard Mike Leach tell, I’ve heard it 30 times.”

Those are the words of Connor Halliday, and such is the life of the Washington State quarterback. Fans probably know Halliday because he attempts 65 passes per game and last year threw an NCAA-record 89 attempts in one outing (a 62-38 loss at Oregon on Oct. 19). They might know him as Leach’s latest project, or at least as the captain of Leach’s latest project in Pullman. (To be clear, that’s team captain, not military captain, another topic Leach probably has a few stories about.) But his teammates know Halliday as the guy who spends the most time around one of the most eccentric personalities in college athletics.

At Pac-12 media days this week in Los Angeles, Halliday held court with a table of reporters who wanted to know what Leach is really like. Long considered the most interesting man in college football, Leach has a habit of opening his mouth and filling a notebook. But now the Cougars are interesting, too, because they’re no longer stuck in the Pac-12 basement.

Washington State went to the postseason for the first time in 10 years in 2013, Leach’s second year at the helm. The Cougars lost a heartbreaker, 48-45, to Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl to finish 6-7. Still, given the return of Halliday -- one of the top quarterbacks in a conference loaded with good ones -- there are new expectations around campus.

The Cougars might not be in conversations for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but Halliday says there’s an obvious excitement and fearlessness in the locker room, both of which were missing for many years. A favorable schedule -- Washington State opens with nonconference games against Rutgers, Nevada and Portland State and avoids UCLA in Pac-12 play -- should add to the optimism.

“There’s a belief we can go 12-0,” Halliday said on Wednesday. “Before this year, I don’t know if there was ever that much confidence.”

It’s easy to see Leach wander around Paramount Studios in Hollywood, or hear him go off on a tangent, and wonder how he succeeds as a football coach. But Halliday and linebacker Darryl Monroe say it’s easy to misunderstand Leach. They mean that figuratively, though surely it could be applied literally, too.

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“Just because he’s fun and weird and outgoing, don’t think he’s not disciplined,” Monroe said. “He has more structure than some of the most strategic coaches you will meet. He’s very detailed.”

As for the idea that Leach might be having more fun than anyone else in college football -- and maybe in life -- Halliday gives a weary look. “Fun,” he said, “is not a word I would use to describe what we do.”

Leach believes in monotony and simplicity. Halliday says Washington State’s practices have been the same for the last three years of his life, and the same for the last 24 of Leach’s coaching life. The Cougars aren’t controlled by a clock or practice schedule, and the day starts whenever Leach wants. Sometimes, that’s 10 minutes earlier than expected, or 45 minutes later.

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“Our quarterback meetings, something that should last an hour an a half, last three hours, 30 minutes,” Halliday said. “Between the storytelling, the phone calls he takes -- hey, we’re on his time. You’re going to get the [stories] anyway, so you might as well get something out of it. I really enjoy watching film with him.”

Still, Halliday admits the younger quarterbacks hesitate to ask questions, leery of how long an answer might be.

A quick film study of the Cougars reveals some obvious issues: They rely on throwing too much. Leach’s Air Raid attack is certainly heavy on passing, but even Halliday knows “if you’re throwing the ball 89 times, there’s a problem.” He anticipates Washington State's running game will get significantly better this season and says people will soon be familiar with Jamal Morrow, a 5-foot-8, 187-pound redshirt freshman who will earn his share of carries.

As for Halliday, who completed a staggering 449-of-714 passes (63 percent) last fall, Leach didn’t give details on what he must improve. His analysis was simple: Halliday must “keep doing the same things over and over. Do it better, and just keep working.”

Repetition, Halliday points out, is Leach’s motto -- both in practice and storytelling.