The Front Row with MARK NELKE July 1, 2012

When it comes to directing an offense, Gesser has been there, done that

Jason Gesser plays quarterback with youth players during a recent football camp in Post Falls. Gesser, the University of Idaho's running backs coach last year, is taking over as the Vandals' offensive coordinator this season.

Roughly a decade ago, when the Washington State football coaches headed home after a long day of game-planning, a young guy thinking of his future often walked out of the building with them.

It was Jason Gesser, the Cougars' starting quarterback.

Counting his redshirt season, Gesser spent five years in Pullman. He was asked to teach the offense to the younger quarterbacks as they came into the program. He graduated in 3 1/2 years, and took just enough classes after that to remain eligible, which left him a lot of free time as a junior and senior to pick the WSU coaches' brains about the inner workings of the game.

"So I was basically in the (coaches) office from 9 in the morning to 10 at night, and with the coaches all the time," Gesser said earlier this week in Post Falls, where the Vandal coaches were putting on a football camp for area youth. "Doing that, I saw what it was all about. I liked the interaction, the game prep, all the little details that go into it, and it was then I knew that I was going to go into it (coaching) one day."

Last year, Gesser was hired as running backs coach at Idaho by head coach Robb Akey, who was an assistant at WSU when Gesser played there. This year, Gesser, 33, was promoted to offensive coordinator, and is quarterbacks coach.

So while this is Gesser’s first season in charge of an offense at the college level, well, he’s been performing duties similar to this for years.

“So everybody says, this is his first time as a coordinator, but, that’s simply by title,” Akey said. “He was part of that game plan and process when he was a player.”

AFTER HE left WSU, Gesser kept in contact with Akey and former Cougar head coach Mike Price in particular. He kept asking them — should I keep playing, or begin my coaching career?

“And they were both like, ‘Play as long as you can play. Play until they kick you out,’” Gesser said. “Those guys are my mentors. Those are the guys I looked to for guidance, and they guided me down the right path.”

Gesser played for the Tennessee Titans, then the Calgary Stampede of the Canadian Football League, then the Utah Blaze of the Arena Football League.

During his playing career, about the time Akey was taking over at Idaho in 2007, Gesser contacted Akey and told him he wanted to coach for him.

Akey’s reply — keep playing. One day you will be a coach, and then I will hire you.

Gesser’s playing career ended in 2008. He then went to Eastside Catholic High in Sammamish, Wash., where his 2010 team went 6-4 and broke 11 school records.

Washington State hired him as something called a quality control coach — a low-paying assistant’s job, but at least it was his start as a college coach. But shortly after starting there, a former Cougar teammate, ex-Sandpoint High star Jeremy Thielbahr, asked him about the Eastside Catholic job. Thielbahr was an assistant at Idaho at the time.

Gesser put in a good word for Thielbahr, who was hired for the Eastside Catholic job. That created an opening — a higher-paying opening — on the Vandal staff, and Akey hired Gesser in 2011.

“I fooled him; I tricked him into hiring me on,” Gesser said with a laugh.

So essentially, Gesser and Thielbahr replaced each other — though Gesser said that wasn’t his intention when he left the high school job.

“It was kind of weird how it ended up,” Gesser said.

“You go back and look at Jason Gesser as a player and you remember his competitiveness,” Akey said. “He willed some of those teams to victory. He was a leader, and his team responded well. That’s what us coaches were as players.

“I thought he did a great job as a position coach a year ago, and I think he’s doing a fantastic job with obviously greater responsibility this year.”

WHEN SPRING ball ended at Idaho in April, Vandal coaches had not decided on a quarterback between juniors Dominique Blackman and Taylor Davis. Gesser said one week one of them would emerge as the front-runner; the next week, the other one would look like he should be the guy.

In other words, check back during fall camp in August.

“He may not have the biggest arm,” Gesser said of the potential Vandal starting QB. “He may not be the most accurate. He may be a freshman. Whoever can drive our offense, and run our offense the best, will be our starting quarterback.”

One of those incoming freshmen quarterbacks is Chad Chalich, the former Coeur d’Alene High star. Chalich has expressed his desire to redshirt, but he and fellow frosh QB Austin DeCoud will also get a look this fall.

“I’m excited to see what he can do,” Gesser said of Chalich, who along with fellow Coeur d’Alene grad Deon Watson is working out with the Vandals this summer in Moscow. “He’s going to get a chance; he’s a bright kid.”

GESSER IS being asked to jump-start an offense which ranked 111th out of 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total offense, 107th in scoring offense and 102nd in rushing offense.

“Last year we struggled a little bit, but more than anything, it was a mindset,” Gesser said. “We couldn’t finish games last year. And our confidence got a little bit shot. The problem was, when something went wrong, our team was like, here we go again.”

This year, Gesser is singing the praises of the running backs and wide receivers. But more than anything, he says the improvement this year needs to be mental.

“We’re not going to stand for anything this year,” he said. “We’re not going to make any excuses about hey, we lost guys on our line, this guy’s injured ... one way or another, we’re going to figure out how to put points on the board, and we’re going to do it every single weekend.”

And the Vandals will try to do it this fall, in what could be the final year of the Western Athletic Conference in football, with the future of the conference uncertain in 2013 and beyond.

SO, IF there’s any pressure on Gesser this year, well, he’s used to it.

“That’s been the story of my life,” he said. “That’s just what I’m used to. It’s not a pressure, it’s just my job. It’s what I do. Ever since I was little — ‘You’re too small,’ ‘You’re too skinny,’ ‘You can’t play.’

Even at WSU — “‘He can’t get into the NFL.’”

The 6-foot-1 Gesser, of course, was a first-team All-America at WSU, a Pac-10 offensive MVP, led the Cougars to back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history, and in 2002 finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting.

So he’s pretty much proven that he can.

“I don’t feel that it’s pressure, I feel that it’s an opportunity,” Gesser said. “And I’m anxious to show what I can do, not only myself, but to show what we can do as a team.”

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter at CdAPressSports.

Jason Gesser will be the new quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for the Vandals.

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