Jeff Tuel’s career appeared to be on the fast track during his first two years at Washington State.
The quarterback became just the second true freshman in program history to start a game when he arrived on campus in 2009, an accomplishment previously only achieved by Drew Bledsoe.
As a sophomore, Tuel (pronounced tool) started all 12 games, making the All-Pacific 10 Conference honorable mention list after throwing for 2,780 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
From there, however, injuries and inconsistency derailed a promising first two collegiate years. Tuel, though, remained on the radar of NFL teams, including the Buffalo Bills.
Just minutes after last month’s NFL Draft, the Bills signed Tuel as an undrafted free agent. He’ll report for the start of the team’s rookie minicamp Friday as the “other” rookie quarterback in town – the Bills used a first-round draft pick on Florida State’s EJ Manuel – but one the team believes has untapped potential.
“He’s got a lot of tools to work with,” said Bills West Coast scout Matt Hand, pun not intended. “There’s a lot of upside with him.”
Tuel’s junior season was sunk by injuries. He didn’t start the season opener because of a stomach virus, then threw just two passes after coming into the game before suffering a broken left collarbone. He missed the next four games, then returned for two before reinjuring his collarbone and missing the rest of the season.
Before his senior year, the Cougars replaced head coach Paul Wolff with Mike Leach and his “Air Raid” offense.
The transition did not go smoothly. Tuel, who admitted during the season that he was initially not comfortable with the scheme, was in and out of the lineup, getting benched at times in favor of backup Connor Halliday.
“Honestly, I haven’t thought too much about it,” Tuel said this week of what went wrong in his senior season. “Washington State is in the past and I’m heading to be a Bill now. I want to concentrate on that.
“There’s not really one thing that I can attribute to not having the numbers that I did my sophomore year as my senior year. There are a lot of things. You could say new coach, new system, blah, blah, blah ... but I’m ready to move on and looking to the future here. I’m excited about it.”
Tuel, a Fresno, Calif., resident, finished 2012 going 211 of 332 (63.6 completion percentage) for 2,087 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. Playing behind a shaky offensive line, he was sacked 35 times in 10 games.
“They switched the system this year, and he did have a hard time settling in. You go back to the [2010 season’s] tape and the other system that was probably a little more of a pro system, he did better,” Hand said. “He’s got a real strong arm, but he has a case of holding on to that ball a little too long. Doesn’t recognize some things as fast as he should, but he’s got a lot of potential.”
Both offenses Tuel ran at Washington State had him operating mainly out of the shotgun formation, but Hand said there were more similarities to the pro game under Wolff.
“You’d like to see him do good in both. That’s the concern. If you’re top of the line, you should be able to just go from one to the other and make it,” Hand said. “He did have some difficulties switching over, but as far as an athlete and things to work with, he’s got it.”
Tuel told reporters at Washington State’s pro day in March that he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.55 seconds. The Bills were the only team to which he made a pre-draft visit.
“I had a great time with the coaches, really got along with them great,” he said of the visit. “They’re really young and energetic. I really like what they’re doing with the offense.”
Before going through the system change at Washington State, Tuel played for four different high school coaches in four years, so he’s got a handle on how to learn a new offense.
“Just forcing yourself to have to learn a new system, no matter how minor of a change it may be, it’s still having to learn something new,” he said. “It will definitely help me pick up this new system. I think I’m a smart player and understand the game. I have the ability to make plays with my feet and arm. I’m able to keep the play alive and make things happen. I want to continue to build on learning the game, getting better with anticipation and reading defenses.”
As for competing with Manuel – along with veterans Kevin Kolb and Tarvaris Jackson – for playing time, Tuel’s ready for the challenge.
“It’s exciting for the organization to bring in a guy like EJ and bring that first-round potential. My first thought is that’s a great deal for the team most importantly,” he said. “As far as my side, it’s still my job to go in there and compete and push him – or whoever – for the starting job and just try to do my best out there. We’re all coming in there to compete, so if I can make any of the quarterbacks in front of me better by doing anything, then I will.”