Hilinski’s quarterback ability is no surprise

At first glance, the 6-foot-4-inch signal caller donning the No. 3 royal-blue WSU football practice jersey looks the part of any position besides quarterback.

But watch redshirt sophomore quarterback Tyler Hilinski scramble outside the pocket during a practice play using his gazelle-like stride and sub-five-second 40-yard dash, extending his receivers beyond the line of scrimmage.

Hilinski’s nimble footwork and swiveling head movement is matched by his lunchbox-sized hands and downfield throwing ability, a byproduct of the 36 pounds of lean muscle the Claremont, California, native has put on since arriving in Pullman in January 2015.

The third-year quarterback’s rapid ascension in spring practice, punctuated by a 295-yard passing performance and a four-yard scramble for a touchdown during Saturday’s Crimson and Gray spring game, has flooded headlines of practice reports this month. Yet Hilinski, along with players and coaches, insists his success is no surprise.

“I think he has been on his way for quite some time,” Head Coach Mike Leach said of Hilinski’s spring. “I think some of it has to do with the fact he was a quality player to begin with and has just continued to improve. And it hasn’t been all that surprising, how he started out, how he’s continued to improve.”

Hilinski committed to Leach on the heels of a (3-9) season in the coach’s third season at the helm. In an era of athletes transferring from the program they signed their letter of intent with, Hilinski said the thought of transferring out of Pullman never crossed his mind. Even though he has played behind incumbent starter redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk, Hilinski said loyalty within the program has enabled both him and the team to improve.

“After I committed, the team went (3-9),” Hilinski said. “The next year we went 9-4, and got to go to El Paso. I think the big thing with this team is loyalty. I didn’t de-commit, I don’t believe in any of that stuff. We’ve got a good thing going here.”

In a post-practice interview on April 15, Leach said Falk and Hilinski were neck-and-neck with one another for the starting job, despite the fact that Falk started games the past three seasons. However, all three individuals insist no rivalry between the two quarterbacks exists, and Falk and Hilinski’s relationship off the field only enhanced Hilinski’s development.

“Off the field, Luke and I are buddies,” Hilinski said. “We’re always telling jokes, hanging out. He’s really been such a help to me adjusting and I’ve learned so much from him.”

Leach also said Hilinski’s stat-laden spring, throwing for more yards than Falk in the spring game and both scrimmages leading up to Saturday’s contest, gives him depth at the position and made practices even more competitive on offense.

“He’s had a couple years under his belt, had a real good example in Luke to follow, and I’m pleased but I’m not surprised,” Leach said.

In Falk’s opinion, the former walk-on said in an interview on March 28, Hilinski’s spring was a long time coming.

On the Martin Stadium turf, Hilinski attributed his evolution as a quarterback to being able to adapt a consistent approach at the line of scrimmage and progressing through his mechanics.

“I want to get better at going through my reads, making the correct read, getting us into good runs, and overall just being the best I can be for my team,” he said.

Hilinski also said he has focused on becoming a more vocal leader and ensuring the patented Air Raid offense he operates moves at a fast tempo. Humble in the face of media praise and attention, Hilinski deferred recent success to his offensive linemen and WSU’s quartet of running backs, whom he declared the “best in the conference.”

Ranked a four-star recruit out of high school according to rivals.com, Hilinski’s ascension from a relatively unknown backup to a starter-in-waiting arguably began during WSU’s 69-7 win over Arizona on Nov. 5. Hilinski completed 15 of 17 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns, but to those working inside the program, his outburst has not been sudden. Rather, it has been a byproduct of his practice habits and work ethic.

As Hilinski works through his progressions in scrimmage series, calmly dodging exercise balls launched at him by outside receivers Coach Dave Nichol in an agility drill and delving into offensive sets with Leach and Falk, his work is a mirage of the humble but confident personality he employs on the field. Hilinski tunes out the white noise on the outside, and instead focuses entirely on the team.

“I don’t really listen to any of that stuff,” he said. “A lot of people come up to me talking about it. I just try to do my job.”