Washington State quarterback Marshall Lobbestael sets up for a pass against… (Ron Chenoy / US Presswire )
The depth chart placed him a notch or two behind his teammates, and he moved up only when there were injuries.
But this season, when Washington State's Marshall Lobbestael was given first-string status after starting quarterback Jeff Tuel broke his collarbone, the fifth-year senior was ready to shine.
And he has.
Lobbestael, who replaced Tuel early in the season opener against Idaho State, has led the Cougars (3-1, 1-0 in Pacific 12 Conference play) to more wins this season than they had in any of the previous three.
Entering Saturday night's game against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, Lobbestael is second in the Pac-12 in yards passing (333.8 a game) and third in pass efficiency (168.3 rating).
Considering those statistical rankings exist in a league loaded with top-notch quarterbacks — Stanford's Andrew Luck and USC's Matt Barkley, to name a couple — Lobbestael is among lofty company.
"When people mention me with those guys," he said, "it's a big honor because those guys are all great players."
Lobbestael, nicknamed "The Lobster" for his surname and red hair, has played great. But if he was always capable, few knew it, because he wasn't getting any playing time.
The 6-foot-3, 209-pounder was third-string as a freshman when two quarterbacks went down in the same game.
He stepped in. His first two passes were for touchdowns.
But much of the time he was scrambling behind a porous offensive line. It caught up to him. A few games later, against Oregon State, a hit tore ligaments in his left knee, ending his season.
Lobbestal learned a lesson that day that proved invaluable.
"It taught me what everyone had been saying was very true and you need to be ready at all times," he said.
An off-season of rehabilitation was stained by an alcohol citation issued outside a Pullman police station. After a few unproductive starts the following season, Lobbestael was replaced as the starter by Tuel, then a freshman. The Lobster rarely played after that.
"I was more focused on accepting that role and not letting my disappointment affect what my role was for the team," he said.
He had a mentor in Jack Thompson, the legendary Cougars quarterback who set an NCAA record with 7,818 career yards in the mid-1970s.
Thompson shared advice, telling Lobbestael, "Don't count your reps, make your reps count."
So when Tuel went down, Lobbestael stepped in but more ready this time, more mature and with a better offensive line.
"The 10 guys around him are much improved and Marshall's much improved," Cougars Coach Paul Wulff said.
The Cougars are giving up 1.83 sacks a game this season, down from the nearly four a game they averaged the last three. But Lobbestael has taken enough hits that he's used to them now.
"He's a tough kid," Colorado Coach Jon Embree said of Lobbestael after the quarterback engineered a 10-point, fourth-quarter comeback by throwing two touchdowns in the final 2:35 to beat the Buffaloes, 31-27, last week.
Playing behind poor blocking also helped Lobbestael establish a mental clock in terms of how long he can hold the ball.
"He takes very little protection time," UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel said.
Wulff, then, is fortunate to have perhaps the best and most prepared backup quarterback in the Pac-12. "He's a perfect leader in so many ways," Wulff said.
Wulff is lucky Lobbestael is playing at Washington State at all.
At Oak Harbor High in Washington, Lobbestael drew little attention from college coaches.
But after a big game his senior season in which he threw a school-record six touchdowns, one of his teachers, an art instructor, contacted the Washington State quarterbacks coach, whom the instructor once taught in high school.
The instructor sent an email, making small talk, and mentioned that Oak Harbor had a pretty good quarterback.
They got in touch. The coach wanted to see film. Then he wanted to see more.
Soon, Washington State offered a scholarship, the only Pac-12 school to do so.
"I wasn't recruited by anyone," Lobbestael said.
But an art teacher helped change that.
And for Lobbestael, his first full season has, thus far, been a masterpiece.