Luke Falk, Washington State bullish on 2016 after breakthrough season

Luke Falk earned a coveted black shirt this offseason during Midnight Maneuvers -- Washington State's brutal 10 p.m. conditioning workouts concocted by coach Mike Leach to separate the wheat from the chaff -- but the first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback had to give it back when the drills ended.

That seems appropriate. Impermanence has been part of Falk's story. He has arrived at Point B from Point A in unconventional ways, and most of the narratives describing his journey are inadequate.

Recall the "Who the heck is this guy?" moment when, in his first career start as a redshirt freshman in 2014 after Connor Halliday suffered a horrific injury, he threw for five touchdowns and 471 yards with no interceptions in a win at Oregon State. At that time he became a quaint, walk-on-makes-good story.

That wasn't reflective of who the 6-foot-4 Falk was. Walk-on? He'd been offered a scholarship to Florida State before his junior year. Quaint? He was a pupil of highly publicized private QB coach Steve Clarkson. His aborted junior year transfer to football factory Oaks Christian in Thousand Oaks, Calif., was featured on a CNN series, "Extreme Parenting," an unflattering portrayal of the lengths affluent families will go to promote the success of their children.

Falk missed his junior year of high school after moving back to his hometown of Logan, Utah, and then suffered through unhappy recruiting detours to Florida State, Cornell and Idaho before ending up at Washington State as a non-scholarship player buried on the depth chart behind more celebrated QBs like Austin Apodaca and Tyler Bruggman.

Apodaca is now at New Mexico State, and Bruggman is at Montana State by way of Louisville and Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College. Falk is a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate after leading the nation in passing in 2015, his 380.1 yards per game being 17 more than any other FBS quarterback.

Quaint? Falk's completion percentage of 69.4 ranked second in the nation, and his 38 touchdown passes ranked fourth. He led the Cougars to their best season since 2003, a 9-4 finish capped by a victory over Miami in the Sun Bowl.

It is possible that his circuitous route played a critical role in getting him to this point.

“That’s where I learned to compete and really work hard," Falk said. "I had a lot of negative stuff happen in high school, not playing, some family issues -- kind of the motivating factor for me is proving to people I can play, proving people wrong. If those years didn’t happen, I don’t know where I’d be, but I’m very grateful they did and I have an opportunity here.”

Last year wasn't all about redemption. There was also the Apple Cup against rival Washington. Falk sat out with a concussion, and the Cougars were trounced 45-10.

Falk sees other warts on the 2015 season. The Cougars' other three losses were by a combined 15 points. And each was painful, including an inexplicable season-opening defeat to Portland State, losing an aerial battle to California's Jared Goff, and an excruciating 30-28 home loss to eventual Rose Bowl winner Stanford.

“Not finishing games -- that reflects on me at times," Falk said. "There were certain reads, certain throws. Every game you can critique yourself. I think the big thing this year is just being more consistent. That was the downfall last year. Just making the right read and putting the ball in play. We’ve got enough play-makers that if I put the ball in play, they’re going to do the rest.”

While the Cougars have lost some notable players on the offensive and defensive lines, they also have a strong group of starters returning. The skill players remain outstanding. Led by Gabe Marks, a first-team All-Pac-12 pick, Falk's wide receivers are probably the deepest unit in the conference.

Falk is quick to point out Leach isn't treating him any differently. Falk said he doesn't care about the Heisman talk, and he's pretty sure Leach doesn't either. If he misses an open target, he knows he'll get the inevitable "Leaching" -- as in, “You could punt it to him he’s so wide open!”

“That’s what I love about Coach Leach. He takes the same coaching approach with me every day," Falk said. "I’ve got to go out there every day and earn it and compete. He’s really hard on me but it makes me better. He’s going to shoot me straight and I know exactly what he’s thinking."

Falk put up big numbers, earned a black shirt and owns an intriguing backstory. But as he eyeballs 2016, he knows all that doesn't really matter. He notes, "It's all in the past."

But what lies ahead, that potential Point C, has Washington State fans leaning forward in expectation.