Editor's note: This article was first published on November 26, 2019.
PULLMAN, Wash. — Zero stars. Zero scholarship offers.
Unwanted and unrecruited. Overlooked and ignored.
From zero stars as a high school recruit to four years of not playing a significant snap of major college football to this analysis from an NFL scout of Washington State's first-year starting quarterback and fifth-year senior Anthony Gordon:
"I was on the field about a month ago, watching him throw," the scout says. "The ball jumped off his hand. … His release, just unreal. I haven't seen anything like it in years. I kind of laughed to myself because this whole thing is such an inexact science. I mean, how did everyone miss on him?"
That might just be the biggest mystery of the college football season.
Gordon, who threw for 606 yards and six touchdowns in Saturday's win over Oregon State, leads the nation in passing yards and touchdowns. And it's not particularly close. He is ahead of the second-most prolific thrower, Heisman and No. 1 NFL pick front-runner Joe Burrow, by 906 yards (a Pac-12-record 4,920 to Burrow's 4,014) and four touchdowns (a Pac-12 record 45 to Burrow's 41).
And his live, strong arm and accuracy have NFL scouts flocking to the West Coast to witness it up close.
Some of the observations from a handful of scouts B/R spoke to:
• No one in the country throws a better deep ball.
• Gordon's multiple release points—overhead, three-quarters, sidearm—remind some scouts of Patrick Mahomes.
• Gordon plays with the attitude and fearlessness of a guy who has started four years.
• He's lanky (6'3" and 210 pounds) and needs to bulk up, and…
• He might just be a "system quarterback."
"A system guy?" says Washington State coach Mike Leach with a laugh. "Those [scouts] will never learn."
NFL scouts said the same thing last year about Gardner Minshew II after his one season at Washington State, when he was second in the nation in passing after a relatively obscure four seasons of college football.
But as strange as Minshew's path was to the NFL and viral stardom in the first half of this season as the Jacksonville Jaguars QB, Gordon's path to leading the nation in passing is downright surreal.
He didn't get one lousy offer from any college at any level after putting up record-breaking numbers at Terra Nova High School in Pacifica, a small beach town in Northern California. He was drafted in 2015 by the New York Mets to play baseball, but instead he chose to play junior college football at City College of San Francisco.
Gordon led CCSF to the "mythical national championship" for junior college football in 2015, by again putting up big numbers, while Minshew led Northwest Mississippi Community College to the National Junior College Athletic Association's national championship trophy that same season.
Once again, Gordon received no offers. A few schools showed interest—former Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin showed up at CCSF for 20 minutes and left, and Michigan assistant Jay Harbaugh came to ask Gordon to walk on—but no one had a scholarship for him.
So Gordon planned to play a second season at CCSF until one late May morning when he was riding his bike to his friend's house and a number he recognized popped up on his cellphone. It was from Pullman, Washington.
Washington State had been recruiting him, but he never visited the campus and really didn't think it was serious.
Then, on the line, he heard Leach's voice.
"Ahem…uh, Gordo? Yeah, Anthony Gordon, right?" Leach said. "OK, that's going to take some getting used to."
And there it was, Gordon's first offer.
It only took three more seasons of waiting and not playing to bring us to this improbable season at Washington State.
Gordon could have left Wazzu after the first of two seasons sitting behind Luke Falk, the Pac-12's career passing yards leader. He could have transferred to another school, like so many quarterbacks these days do.
He could have left Washington State before the start of last season, too. Leach brought in Minshew to compete for the job, and Gordon lost a camp battle that Leach now says was so close he believes the Cougars—not minimizing what Minshew accomplished (including setting the yardage record that Gordon just broke)—"could have won 11 games with Gordo at quarterback last season, too."
He could have left in February as a graduate transfer, when Leach again recruited behind him, landing celebrated FCS transfer quarterback Gage Gubrud—a two-time Walter Payton Award finalist out of Eastern Washington—to compete for the job. But Gordon stayed and won the job and threw for 420 yards and five touchdown passes in the season opener, his first game as a starter. And from there, he went on to a season that could leave his name at the top of the NCAA's record books for passing completions, yards and touchdowns.
With Friday's Apple Cup, against Washington, and then a bowl game to play, Gordon needs 96 completions, 914 yards and 14 touchdowns to become the all-time leader. Too ambitious? Maybe, but he had 50, 606 and six this past Saturday alone.
From zero stars to a zero-doubt star. Gordon finally was allowed to show he can play at the highest level in major college football.
And that he can play in the NFL, too.
"If someone told me last year that I had the chance to play in the NFL, I would've said, 'Man, you're crazy.' I wouldn't have believed it," Gordon says. "Not because I don't think I'm good enough. It has just been unthinkable with this path I have taken."
Dan Hayes has been coaching offense at City College for more than 40 years. A legendary quarterbacks coach at a legendary school that has won 10 mythical national titles and placed hundreds of players in Division I football.
He coached Anthony's dad, Ryan, years before Anthony showed up. And he's coached all the other Gordon men who played at Terra Nova High and moved on like clockwork to CCSF. He has coached countless elite quarterbacks, most recently Zac Lee (Nebraska) and Jeremiah Masoli (Oregon) and current Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich.
Early on, after Anthony arrived at CCSF, Hayes and head coach Jimmy Collins stood behind him when he was throwing in practice, and an uneasy feeling filled the moment.
"I stood behind a lot of quarterbacks for a long time—this is my 42nd year—and a lot have gone on to play at a high level," Hayes says. "I don't know that I've ever stood behind any of those guys and just marveled as much as I did with Anthony."
This, of course, leads to the obvious question: How did everyone miss on Gordon?
"He was 6'3", 175 pounds as a senior, and I think he may have been too skinny for some programs," Hayes says.
He stops here, and this is important, because it gets to the core of the who and the why of Anthony Gordon—and of the how of college coaches being paid all of those millions of dollars yet failing to find him.
"You could put together a video of Anthony Gordon and show it to quarterbacks at every single level, and it could describe footwork, getting the lower half of your body aligned and making everything balanced so you maximize velocity and accuracy. Release, getting the ball out, everything. Show it to all quarterbacks, including NFL quarterbacks. This is how it's done. This is how you can help your game.
"Now, I know people will say, 'How is that possible for a guy who wasn't even recruited?' Those NFL guys will stand behind him when he throws for them after this season. Or they'll see him at the combine. They'll do the same thing we did when we first saw him, and they'll look at each other and say, 'Did you just see that?' They'll look around and want to catch eyes with someone, and say, 'Did he just do that?'
"His football IQ, his everyday IQ, is off the charts. You have to be as talented between the ears as you are with a strong arm. That's why Anthony will play a long time in the NFL."
How about this for a throwback: Ryan Gordon had a tire swing in the family's yard when Anthony was growing up in Pacifica.
That's right, an old, bald tire with rope tied around the lip and strung over a big branch on a backyard tree. Ryan would swing that thing over and over, back and forth while young Anthony threw tight spirals through the small, moving hole.
Ryan did the same for years as a kid. So did his brothers, and so did in turn his three sons. They all played quarterback at Terra Nova, and year after year, decade after decade, they'd break each other's school records.
"None of us were as natural as Anthony," Ryan says. "He does things on the football field none of us could."
There's a board on the wall in the weight room at Terra Nova where all the names and photos of specific statistical record-holders are placed. It's a Who's Who family tree.
Terra Nova isn't exactly a hotbed for college football recruiters, another reason Anthony and Leach believe everyone missed on the tall, lanky kid who could've used a few pounds but had more than enough oomph in that powerful right arm.
As far as Ryan Gordon can tell, a Terra Nova player has never signed with a major college football program. He blames himself for Anthony's recruiting slight, because despite sports being a big deal in Pacifica, the typical route is playing at Terra Nova and, if you're good enough, playing at CCSF. No one really thinks about a more ambitious path, because that's not how it's worked in the past.
Ryan played two years at CCSF and had offers from Division I-AA (now FCS) schools in the Big Sky Conference. But he had five concussions in six years of football, and his girlfriend (and current wife), Gina, got pregnant and they got married and had a son named Anthony. And life comes at you quick, and football doesn't mean as much anymore.
"In hindsight with Anthony, we didn't realize how important these recruiting camps are," Ryan says. "If I could've got him to those camps and he stood toe-to-toe with those 4- and 5-star guys, his arm would've done the talking."
Another reason everyone missed on Anthony: He didn't begin playing football until his freshman season at Terra Nova. Ryan was concerned about concussions, and Anthony was an elite baseball player, focusing on potentially playing professionally.
By his junior year at Terra Nova, he had tied the school record for passing touchdowns. A year after that, he broke it—and the Central Coast Section's records, with 4,899 passing yards and 49 touchdowns.
"Everyone who lives in Pacifica is either a surfer, a skater or a fisherman," Anthony says. "We have good sports programs, but a lot of people just go through high school and think, 'Well, I'll go to work now, because I want to be able to surf and skate when I feel like it.' My closest friends growing up are now a plumber, an electrician, a firefighter and an elevator repairman."
He smiles and runs his hands through his long black hair on an unseasonably chilly October morning in the Palouse. He's sitting in the posh, multimillion dollar football facility at Washington State, a lifetime away from virtually no college coaches knowing who the hell he is.
"If it didn't work out for me here, this last season," Anthony says, his voice trailing off, "I would've gone back home and been a plumber."
Jordan Genato played wide receiver at Terra Nova and is best friends with Gordon. Genato caught 111 passes in their senior season, for more than 2,000 yards and 24 touchdowns.
And no stars. No scholarship offers. Just a 5'11," 175-pound receiver no one cared about.
Now he's an elevator repairman, lives outside San Francisco and pays $2,800 a month in rent to live in a tiny in-law apartment behind a home.
"That's what you do in Pacifica, you just go to work," Genato says. "Earn an honest living."
When Washington State played at Cal earlier this season, Genato went to the game to see Anthony play—and Anthony completed 45 of 58 passes for 407 yards in a loss to the Bears.
Sitting in the stands, Genato saw a Cal receiver he had played against in high school. He had better numbers and was faster.
"I was thinking, That should be me out there," Genato says. "I know I was better than him, but I'm just this small guy from a high school that never really had players signing with big schools. I know that's what Anthony dealt with, too. Imagine how many of those schools regret not signing him now."
That's what makes this season so special. Ryan admits he's living vicariously through his son, trying to recapture his glory days at CCSF and the idea of what it would've been like to play in the Big Sky.
Anthony's friends who grew up and played baseball and football with him are doing the same. They got together and watched the season opener against New Mexico State, and it was like high school all over again.
No one had an answer for the lanky quarterback throwing rockets all over the field.
"Anthony is probably not going to like me saying this, but he's the clumsiest guy," Genato says. "He's this elite athlete who can do anything on the field, and he'll trip over anything."
It should come as no surprise, then, that a defining moment in the friends' lives together played out in Anthony's first career start against New Mexico State.
Anthony has never had a rushing touchdown, and it has always been a joke among the friends. Not in high school, not at CCSF, not in the scant backup minutes he played behind Minshew last season.
Early in the game, with Washington State in a goal-to-go situation, Anthony extended a play outside and headed for the goal line.
"We were screaming at the television. 'Get in! Get in!'" Genato says. "And sure enough, he tripped over his foot near the goal line and didn't get in."
Anthony's final rushing line that game: two carries, minus-seven yards and a long carry of one yard.
Leach is annoyed, and he's not exactly the type of guy to hold his tongue.
This time, like many other times, what's got him on edge is NFL scouts.
They all made fun of the Air Raid offense Leach and his mentor, Hal Mumme, concocted all those years ago at tiny Iowa Wesleyan and then brought to the NCAA's lower divisions at Valdosta State and eventually to Division I (now FBS) at Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Washington State.
A gimmick, they said.
Now, nearly everyone in college football is running some form of the pass-happy offense, and the NFL is, too. You can't go an NFL Sunday without hearing an analyst talk about trendsetting offenses of Andy Reid or Sean McVay.
They're all running Air Raid principles—only now, it's "trendsetting" in the NFL.
"Will never work in our league," Leach says. "Yeah, like they have some kind of unique football plays that only they can use. Shoot, the Patriots have been doing it for 10 years."
When the subject of Gordon and the NFL arises, Leach gets serious, because, really, the pushback is getting ridiculous.
"Last year, they ask: 'Can [Minshew] make all the throws? Does he understand the passing game concepts?'" Leach says. "I'm thinking to myself, Do you guys watch tape? Then they say: 'Well, what about this, or what about that?' My response is the same every time: Watch the tape. Then Gardner goes and wins games for an NFL team as a rookie. Go figure."
It won't change much this offseason. Gordon might have the strongest arm of any QB in the long line of record-breakers Leach has coached (B.J. Symons, he says, would give him a run for it). But he will be asked about his ability to "make all the throws."
Scouts will ask about his slender frame (he's 210 pounds on his best day) or why he didn't play prior to this season. Is that a red flag? Does he really know the position?
"It's all garbage," Leach says. "As sure as I'm sitting here, Anthony is going to play in the NFL for a long time."
Gordon is savoring the last few weeks of this season. It hasn't gone exactly as he had planned, but Washington State's late push has made the Cougars bowl-eligible at 6-5, giving him an extra game to show what he can do.
To try to break all the records. Just like he did in high school.
Zero stars. Zero scholarship offers.
And now, zero doubt.
"I'm proud to be the guy who stayed to the very end and didn't leave when he could have," Gordon says. "Washington State was the only school to believe in me. Why wouldn't I believe in them?"
All he needs now are a couple more big games and to wait for an NFL team to see and believe.