SPOKANE, Wash. -- A quarterback battle looms as Washington State opens spring football drills Thursday.
Veteran Connor Halliday was a part-time starter last year, along with the graduated Jeff Tuel. Coach Mike Leach said he'll face a challenge from redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca.
"Both are hard-working guys and competitive," Leach said. "They both have some talent and both are getting better.”
Halliday appeared in nine games last year, throwing for 1,874 yards with 15 touchdowns. But he also threw 13 interceptions, a situation that got him yanked from some games.
Leach said Halliday has a slightly stronger arm than Apodaca, a 6-foot-3, 191-pounder from Longmont, Colo.
The quarterbacks will start out splitting repetitions equally, and then if one starts to take control the split will go to two-thirds and one-third as the spring progresses.
"We want somebody to secure and lockdown the position," Leach said.
No other quarterback is likely to be in the mix, he said.
Leach returns eight starters each on offense and defense this season. But he said Wednesday that all the starting jobs are open in the spring.
"All positions are up for grabs," Leach said.
In all, the Cougars have 43 returning letter winners from a team that finished 3-8 overall, 1-8 in the Pac-12 in Leach's first season in Pullman. It was his first losing season as a head coach. Their only league win was over archrival Washington in overtime in the Apple Cup.
Spring drills will include 15 practices and run until April 23. The annual Crimson and Gray scrimmage will be April 20 in Spokane.
One player who won't be back is wide receiver Marquess Wilson, the leading receiver in WSU history. Wilson quit the team late last season, and issued a statement accusing the coaching staff of physical and mental abuse. Wilson almost immediately recanted the accusations, but the university and the Pac-12 conducted separate investigations into the allegations. Both cleared Leach and his coaches of any wrong-doing.
Wilson would have been a senior this year.
Most of the other top receivers from last year are back, including Brett Bartolone, Gabe Marks, Isiah Myers and Dominique Williams.
"I think our receivers have improved," Leach said.
Both the offensive and defensive lines remain a concern.
"I'd like to be bigger, stronger and older," Leach said. "We are awfully young up there.”
Center Elliott Bosch, an all-Pac-12 honorable mention, is back. Defensively, the Cougars return award winners Deone Bucannon at safety, Xavier Cooper on the line and linebackers Cyrus Coen and Darryl Monroe.
Leach declined to predict if any of the 20 freshmen he signed this season will play right away.
"I've been wrong about that more than any other item I've been wrong about," Leach said. "It's like betting on quarterhorses or something.
Leach said it is difficult in this age of modern communications to disconnect from football in the off-season. He did spend some time with his kids and went skiing for five days at Schweitzer Mountain near Sandpoint, Idaho.
"The snow was bad but it was good to be out skiing," Leach said.