PULLMAN – With each spring workout, with each exhausting rendition of “Midnight Maneuvers” winter conditioning, the Mike Leach regime grows a little further from what it inherited.
Among other things, that means most of Washington State’s 2014 offensive line — regarded as one of the Cougars’ chief question marks — will for the first time be the province of Leach’s third-year staff, both signed and coached by it.
The other day, WSU line coach Clay McGuire sounded a note of optimism about the unit, widely seen as the element that might keep the Cougars from having a truly firecracker offense.
McGuire said the group approximates where the 2013 unit was at this time a year ago, and it went on to have a respectable season, cutting sacks allowed dramatically and helping WSU to its first bowl game in 10 years. But this line appears to have significantly more upside.
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“A lot of it’s based on ability alone,” says McGuire. “We’re making mistakes that their abilities allow them to make up for.”
It was during a rousing, nine-day fall-camp stay in Lewiston when the 2013 line graduated from liability to asset, and McGuire is hoping for a repeat.
“If we do our job, and we could be as good as we think we can be, we can be a really good team,” says Cole Madison, one of the fresh faces up front.
Madison, a Kennedy High grad who will be a redshirt freshman in the fall, hasn’t done anything to discourage the notion he’ll start at right tackle.
The center and right guard spots ensure that one side of the line will be new. Rising sophomores Riley Sorenson and Sam Flor, an O’Dea product, are vying at center, and JC transfer Jacob Seydel, a 2013 redshirt, leads at guard.
Holdover starters on the left side, Joe Dahl of Spokane and Gunnar Eklund of Lake Stevens, have stayed put after a surprise, pre-bowl switch that put Dahl at tackle and Eklund at guard. That came after Eklund, dealing with an injury, struggled against Washington’s pass rush last year.
So it will be a mostly new-look line, hardly peppered with high-profile recruits but laced with the same kind of potential that Bob Bourgette saw in Madison several years ago.
Bourgette has been coaching football at Kennedy for 20 years, and the school has seen many Division I players come through, including Paul Arnold, Everrette Thompson and Tre Watson, who succeeded at Washington.
Talking about Madison, Bourgette said, “The whole time he was here, I knew he was a Division I player. Those kids just stand out. He’s a thoroughbred. He’s one of those guys, when he was a freshman, I knew.”
Madison played both ways at Kennedy, including tight end on offense, and was probably under-recruited. Or maybe it was just that he had a deep-seated thing for the Cougars. He heard from the Huskies, Arizona State and UCLA, but says, “WSU was there from day one. I felt like I should be a Coug. I just loved it here. I loved the coaching staff.”
Go back to the early summer of 2012 and WSU’s first football camp under the Leach staff. Madison participated, started up Highway 195 for the drive home and, about the time he hit Colfax, saw a message on Facebook asking him to call assistant coach Eric Russell.
Immediately, he did, and before he was off the phone, he had accepted a scholarship offer.
Madison didn’t even seem to care what position. Bourgette remembers kidding him, saying he was going to find a home at center or offensive tackle.
He heard more of it when he arrived in Pullman last summer, from people like strength coach Jason Loscalzo.
“We kid him a lot,” said Loscalzo. “You can’t spell ‘Cole’ without ‘OL,’ baby.”
For two days in Lewiston, Madison was a 265-pound inside pass-catcher. Then the inevitable happened. Somebody told him he’d have a big chance to hit the field early if he switched to the line, and a career was born.
“It came pretty natural to me,” Madison says.
So, apparently, did adding mass. Madison sat out the 2013 season, put on 10 to 15 pounds by the end of the season, and has added that much again since the bowl game. Now he’s at 295, close to a target of 302, and, says McGuire, “There’s not an ounce of fat on the kid.”
Madison is one of McGuire’s current top eight. Devonte McClain, a JC transfer who redshirted in ’13, backs up left tackle, and Eduardo Middleton, who will be a third-year sophomore, is at right guard.
Take away Dahl and Eklund, and there’s almost no experience. Fortunately, the talent will satisfy that need.
• Running back Aaron Baltazar, who played at Boise State as a freshman last season, has joined the Cougars. In five games, he gained 234 yards on 50 carries before suffering a knee injury that ended his season. Baltazar will redshirt next season and have three years to play at WSU.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281