It had been just two hours since veteran Kevin Kolb slipped on a rubber mat as the team moved between practice fields at St. John Fisher College. Kolb’s injury catapulted Tuel into the No. 2 spot among Bills quarterbacks. Kolb, listed as day-to-day, is in a battle with rookie first-round pick E.J. Manuel for the starting spot.
The former Washington State signal caller is forthcoming when asked about the transition to the NFL
There’s the new offense, the defensive linemen he describes as “freaks” based on their size and speed, but the biggest change is the faces in the locker room.
“... This is going to sound silly -- the first day of OTAs when you’re in the locker room with all the vets,” Tuel told Cougfan.com after this past Saturday’s practice. “You just see how old everyone is. You’re used to getting dressed with 16, 17, 18-year-old kids, and then you get in the locker room with guys in their low 30s or high 20s, and it’s just a whole different feel.”
Tuel said his goals this season are simple.
“Earning a spot on this team and just earning the trust of the players and the coaches, where if something like [Kolb’s injury] does happen, I can step in and they can trust me,” Tuel said. “And I want to be a guy that they can fall back on as the third guy right now, so just really trying to, like I said, earn that trust and be good when I go in.”
In the Bills’ scrimmage yesterday, Tuel had a hot hand early and later told Buffalo Bills.com “I had a blast out there.”
On Saturday, taking over Kolb’s spot, Tuel was nothing less than stellar, leading the first-team offense in 11-on-11 drills for 27 plays. He had been getting about eight reps per practice before Kolb’s injury.
Among those 27 turns a trick-play touchdown pass to tackle Sam Young, who spiked the ball with authority.
Tuel raised his arms in celebration as he walked off the field to cheers from the crowd.
“It’s one of those things I was ready for,” Tuel told CF.C that day. “As the third quarterback right now, you don’t get the physical reps as the other guys do, so I’ve been taking my mental reps and paying attention so if a situation like this happens, I’m ready to go and I can just roll with it.”
After ensconcing himself in the WSU record books as the most accurate passer in school history, Tuel signed with the Bills as an undrafted free agent. It looked like a very steep climb, given the depth in front of him. Then the Bills released former Seahawks starter Tarvaris Jackson, automatically moving Tuel into the No. 3 spot behind Manuel and Kolb.
Three or four other teams were calling Tuel frequently – the 49ers and Buccaneers most interested among those suitors – but he told the other teams he had made up his mind: Tuel wanted to play for the Buffalo Bills.
The 6-foot-3, 221-pounder from Fresno said he and the Bills fell in love with each other in a pre-draft interview.
“I loved the coaching staff; I loved the energy,” Tuel said. “It just felt good. I felt like I had a good opportunity to earn a spot on this team.”
His opportunity to earn a roster spot now seems very real.
Though Kolb’s current knee ailment does not appear to be serious, the veteran has a history of injury problems (he played just six games with the Cardinals last year, the last of which came Oct. 14 against the Bills , and has had nagging injuries since 2010).
Buffalo dressed only two quarterbacks last year, and roster spots are tough to come by, but that was an old staff. Now former Syracuse coach Doug Marrone, in his first year as an NFL head coach, is the man in charge.
The majority of NFL teams keep three quarterbacks on their active roster, while others keep two on that squad and one on the practice squad. Either way, it seems Tuel could have a spot with the Bills if he continues impressing the coaching staff.
Marrone addressed Kolb’s injury after training camp Saturday and complimented Tuel’s ability to step up.
“I think the first thing you look at is obviously when an unfortunate incident happened with Kevin [Kolb], you look to see how EJ [Manuel] and Jeff [Tuel] would react, both of them, to see where you are,” Marrone said. “It was a very smooth transition, which is a positive. It’s one of the positives from both of those players. And the team just went on with practice.
“And I think that certain other situations when you have that quarterback and those things happen, it can affect a team. Where I didn’t see that [today]. And I didn’t see it affect the two guys behind him. So that’s a positive.”
The quarterback group is pretty close-knit, Tuel said, and Kolb has acted as a mentor.
Escapability is one asset of all three Bills quarterbacks, and Tuel said he’s been able to display his mobility a few times throughout camp. His athletic ability is one reason why the Bills made him one of their top three undrafted free agents.
Tuel prepared for the draft in Mission Viejo, Calif., with renowned quarterback coach Bob Johnson, father of former Bills quarterback Rob Johnson. Tuel said Rob Johnson called him after the draft and advised him to join the Bills. He said it’d be a good fit.
And so far, it looks like the prophecy has been accurate. Tuel believes he learned a lot from a challenging senior year at Washington State, in which he finished with eight touchdowns, eight interceptions and 2,087 yards.
With Mike Leach’s system almost all shotgun and one- or three-step drops, he’s working on getting more comfortable under center. But the Bills’ new system is similar in many respects to the Cougars’, which is making the transition to the pro game easier.
He has accepted a challenge from offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who came to Buffalo with Marrone after serving as the OC at Syracuse from 2011-12.
“Coach Hackett challenges us to know [the playbook] better than he does, and that’s how you can really master the offense,” Tuel said. “So that’s been my mission; it’s going to continue to be. I’m sure it’s going to take some time, but to truly just master the offense and know it just as good or better than Coach Hackett.”
As for coming in undrafted, Tuel isn’t fazed.
“I think some of the best quarterbacks that have ever played the game have been underdogs and been underrated,” Tuel said. “It’s something that I’m not ashamed of and I embrace. It’s easy to come in and have it done the easy way, but when you have to earn your spots and really push yourself to earn scholarships for college and to get invites to camp like this, it means more.”
Tuel has not yet been the subject of any rookie jokes or pranks, but he expects that to change.
“I haven’t had to buy anyone breakfast,” Tuel said. “It hasn’t been too bad, honestly, so I’m expecting it to get worse.”
Tuel said he is one class short of a bachelor’s in communications, and fully intends to wrap it up.
At age 22, Tuel definitely looks more kid than seasoned vet. But he has the early workings of a beard – a long goatee and full sideburns. Though some hairless patches in between are emblematic of his youth.
Just prior to reporting for camp, Bills rookie receiver and former Eastern Washington star Brandon Kauffman flew to Tuel’s home in Fresno and the two worked out together and pored over plays. Tuel also spent some time following OTAs in the spring working out with Marquess Wilson, who is now with the Bears.
Tuel said he visited New York City once as a kid, but until joining the Bills had never been farther east than Dallas, with the Cougars, since then
The last quarterback to lead the Bills to a winning season was CouGreat Drew Bledsoe. He and the 2004 Buffalo team finished 9-7 but missed the playoffs by losing their final regular season game to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tuel has met Bledsoe a few times – all of them in Pullman – and said a handful of people in Western New York have brought up that Wazzu connection to him.
Tuel originally petitioned for a fifth-year of eligibility at WSU but backed off when, as he told The Seattle Times, the NCAA pressured him into claiming he was somehow medically mistreated by Paul Wulff’s staff at Washington State and rushed back into action after a broken collarbone in 2011. “I just thought that after my senior year, I thought I’d have a better year and a lot of good things could come from a fifth year, but it just turned out that it wasn’t going to work out,” Tuel said, “so I just moved on from it and got myself ready for the next level.”