Should I Stay Or Should I Go? Luke Falk, Brad Kaaya and The NFL Dilemma

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When I asked Mike Leach on Monday if Tuesday’s Holiday Bowl would be quarterback Luke Falk’s last game as a Cougar, the Washington State head coach was immediate and definitive.

“Won’t be his last game [at Washington State],” he said.

But following the Cougars’ 17-12 loss to Minnesota, Luke Falk himself was less certain when another reporter posed a similar question.

“I’m not focused on that at all,” he said of potentially foregoing his final year of eligibility to pursue the NFL draft. Pressed further, he said: “Next question.”

The next question as it concerns Falk is indeed whether he’ll be back on the Palouse in 2017, or part of the festivities in Philadelphia come April and the NFL draft.

Based solely on his Holiday Bowl performance, the answer seems apparent. He finished 30-for-51 passing, well below the 71 percent completion rating he brought into the postseason, and averaged a paltry 5.2 yards per attempt.

Minnesota’s coverage on Cougar wide receivers rendered the deep ball unavailable, and the consistent pressure the Golden Gophers brought into the backfield hindered Falk’s ability to throw even mid-range passes.

Falk deflected blame from his offensive line, despite Minnesota routinely beating Washington State’s front while bringing just three and four.

“As a quarterback you gotta get the ball out of your hands, gotta do something with it, put it in play, keep my eyes down field,” he said. “We were getting a little pressure, but ultimately I have control.”

One game hardly dictates the NFL readiness of a player, but 2016 ended on a decided down note. He was picked off in each of the last four games, including three in the Apple Cup loss to Washington. He finished with just one touchdown in each of the final two contests, and he failed to complete 50 percent of his attempts at Colorado.

A lackluster finish might suggest Falk needs more seasoning for the NFL. Another school of thought contends a player with tenuous stock — a quarterback with tenuous stock, in particular — is best served leaving before scouts and front office staff can find more to criticize.

That could certainly be the case for Falk, who ended 2016 facing three excellent defenses. Colorado, Washington and Minnesota got to Falk for two, two and three sacks — and plenty more hits on balls that got out of his hand just before the defender arrived.

That in and of itself is reason to consider an early exit. So, too, is Washington State losing key wide-receiving weapons like Gabe Marks and River Cracraft. Cracraft’s late-season injury eliminated the Cougars’ greatest deep-ball threat, of no coincidence to Washington State’s campaign-ending skid.

Further, Luke Falk has already defied the odds even garnering as much favorable NFL draft talk as he has. Leach has coached a bevy of excellent college quarterbacks, but no NFL standouts. Kentucky’s Tim Couch was the last to emerge from a Leach offense as a high-level NFL draft prospect. As the first, his lack of success in the pros may have unfairly spoiled how the League evaluates air-raid quarterbacks like Falk.

Still, the way in which he ended 2016 isn’t an accurate reflection on Falk’s campaign as a whole. He was among college football’s best passers, throwing for 38 touchdowns and nearly 4,500 yards. Despite his numbers late, he ended 2016 completing 70 percent of his pass attempts. And, without him guiding the offense, Washington State doesn’t play for a Pac-12 Championship Game opportunity.

Coming so close to team and individual glory has to weigh on Falk’s decision. Why not chase a Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl and delay being thrown to the NFL wolves for a year?

Brad Kaaya faces a similar dilemma.

There are differences. The Miami quarterback came into the 2016 season already generating some NFL draft buzz — Falk’s gained momentum over the course of the season — and his junior campaign ended on a decidedly higher note.

Kaaya tied a Hurricane postseason record with four touchdown passes in a 31-14 rout of West Virginia. Miami finished 9-4 in head coach Mark Richt’s first season, seemingly the start of bigger things to come.

Kaaya recognizes that.

“Regardless of if I’m here or not next season, I think this team is headed to greatness,” he said in the Russell Athletic Bowl postgame press conference.

Behind Kaaya’s big arm, The U. looked destined for greatness early in 2016. A four-game losing skid midway through the campaign dampened an otherwise promising year, and Kaaya’s individual performance over that stretch was decidedly middling: five touchdowns against three interceptions, with completion percentages of 59.4, 51.6, 60.5 and 61.9.

Only Notre Dame qualifies as a bad loss in that stretch, but defeats against North Carolina and Virginia Tech ostensibly denied Miami its first ACC Championship Game berth.

Then there’s Florida State. Oh, Florida State.

Kaaya was so close to being the quarterback when Miami ended its losing streak to its bitter, in-state rival. A 20-19 loss extends Kaaya’s all-time record against the Seminoles to 0-3. Ten points separates the Hurricanes from flipping that mark over the same, three-year stretch.

Miami’s knocking on the door. Brad Kaaya could be the play-maker at the forefront when the ‘Canes burst through. More importantly for his future, he could use his senior season to develop further behind an improving team.

Even in the blowout of West Virginia, the headline splashed across NFL.com states Kaaya’s performance was “uneven.” Pro types still seem iffy on Kaaya.

That means little if he’s a first-round pick, inked to a massive contract up front with endorsement deals to follow. But if his standing is tenuous, another year of college football may not be the worst thing for his future. Ditto Falk.

Echoes of cautionary tales repeat around this time of year. With all of three games of meaningful play to his name, Cardale Jones was second-guessed for returning to Ohio State. Motivated by the pursuit of conference and national championships, Matt Barkley returned to USC for his senior season.

Barkley was a fourth-round selection in 2013, despite earning first-round praise from analysts ahead of the 2012 draft.

On the flip-side, Marcus Mariota could have declared after 2013. He improved as a passer in 2014, won a Heisman Trophy and played for a national championship. He came into the NFL better prepared and excelled, quite literally, from Game No. 1.

The question if a quarterback make the right decision entering the NFL draft — or eschewing it for a year — cannot be definitively answered immediately. Not as definitively as Leach declared Luke Falk coming back to Washington State, anyway.