- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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It was Day 4 of Washington State spring practices and the Cougars' talented, but young, receivers caught a sudden and severe case of the dropsies.
Bobble, bobble ... and the ball falls to the dirt. Boing! To the dirt. Volleyball set! And to the dirt.
Coach Mike Leach was not happy, according to QB Connor Halliday. And Leach decided that Halliday needed to take some of the blame for the dropped passes.
Mayhem shortly ensued.
"Coach Leach was yelling at me that they were dropping balls and then the strength coach came up and said something to me," Halliday explained. "So it was boiling over and boiling over. This one kid had dropped like five balls. I kind of got in his face and he shoved me. So I took his helmet off and kind of started punching him. We had a great practice after that so it kind of did its job."
While some might flinch at talk of punches being thrown at practices, various media reports on the incident describe the donnybrook as closer to WWE than UFC.
And more than a few Cougars fans are probably pleased at Halliday showing some spit and vinegar. You can bet Leach is.
Washington State finished with 10 wins for a third consecutive season in 2003. It hasn't posted a winning campaign since. In fact, since 2008, it's averaged 2.4 wins per season.
Leach arrived as a potential savior in the winter of 2011. He buoyed the Cougs' sagging spirits. Then BYU manhandled Washington State 30-6 in the season opener, and things were pretty much miserable from then on, other than a shocking comeback overtime victory in the Apple Cup, which put a gratifying hatchet wound in Washington's season.
Further, the season was not devoid of controversy. In front of reporters, Leach more than a few times laid into his players for their effort. Star receiver Marquess Wilson quit the team, making false charges of abuse as he exited that he later recanted.
Leach wanted a level of commitment from his players that he wasn't getting. But that is the past. Will that uncomfortable transition prove to be groundwork for a positive future, or a harbinger of a more dreadful spiral? Was there method in Leach's madness?
Welcome to the spring of 2013, where Halliday throwing nubs -- or dishing out encouragement -- is replacing at least some of Leach's harangues.
Explained Halliday, "I think Coach Leach has put more trust in me. That when we're sputtering as an offense, I've taken it upon myself to bring the offense up and kind of get into the guys, depending on how the practice is going, to yell at them or say, 'Hey, let's take a deep breath and take one play at a time.' When things went wrong last year, I think coach Leach thought it was his job to get everybody going, to get the attention of people. I think hearing a different voice has really helped the offense when we are sputtering."
Halliday and Jeff Tuel had a version of Oregon State's Sean Mannion/Cody Vaz quarterback carousel last year. Halliday started five times, Tuel seven. Both had some great moments. And plenty of poor ones.
Halliday took over the starting job when Tuel got hurt, then lost it when he threw five interceptions with no touchdowns in losses to Oregon State and California. He came off the bench against UCLA on Nov. 10 and nearly led the Cougars to a shocking upset, hurling five touchdown passes. Then he completed just 13-of-33 in a blowout loss to Arizona State a week later. The job was handed back to Tuel for the Apple Cup.
It wasn't an easy situation for either guy, much less the entire offense.
"It kind of sounds silly but it's about not knowing if the guy making the decision has much confidence in you," Halliday said. "If you make one mistake, you're kind of looking over your shoulder. I think Jeff and I both played pretty well in the role of backup, going in when the other struggled."
Halliday threw 15 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions last year, but his most notable problem was accuracy. Leach wants his quarterbacks to complete 70 percent of their throws. Halliday completed 52 percent.
Of course, it didn't help that his line couldn't pass protect him; giving up a worst-in-the-nation 57 sacks. Still, Halliday often held the ball too long, looking for the big play instead of the smart one.
"I'm definitely fitting into [the offense] better," Halliday said. "[Leach] charts every pass in spring and I'm right around 67-68 percent right now ... I understood the offense for the most part last year but I didn't understand where every easy throw was for every play."
Leach promised a hard offseason and he delivered. Instead of loosening up, he tightened the screws this winter. He wanted to know who really wanted to play football for the Cougs.
"It was definitely long and it was definitely a grind," Halliday said. "There were some points in time when there was some bitching and moaning, wondering if this is what they want to do. It was definitely tough. But he was just trying to install the thought process that if you want to be here, you really need to want to be here."
The Cougars have some young talent, and Halliday said the offense has been "clicking" this spring. While the Pac-12 North Division is rugged, Halliday foresees dramatic improvement in 2013.
But even more than wins, it would seem Leach's chief purpose is to break down this program in order to build it up again. He has an idea of a football culture, and he expects guys such as Halliday to work with him to impose that culture.
Said Halliday, "There isn't going to be anybody on the team who is half-in, half-out. You have to be all-in."