Washington State freshman receiver Gabe Marks has been sensational in camp and has locked down a starting position, opposite Cougars star Marquess Wilson.
PULLMAN — When ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit unveiled his annual “Herbies” the other day — a list of preseason player superlatives — he named Washington State’s Marquess Wilson fifth among his “best-kept secrets.”
It happens when your team has been losing. Now, just as Wilson’s considerable receiving talents seem about to be unrecognized no longer, here’s a WSU freshman, a split end on the other side, turning heads and stealing attention.
In July, Wilson said Gabe Marks has “got my eye” in workouts. Since then, Marks has only buffed his profile with an extraordinary fall camp, and he’ll start against BYU at the right split-end spot for a team that was thought to be receiver-rich before he got there.
“Gabe’s been a tremendous addition to the receiving corps,” said WSU receivers coach Dennis Simmons. “I’m excited to see him in a game setting. So far, every challenge and expectation we’ve had for him, he’s done more than excel in.”
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Marks isn’t imposing physically at 6 feet and 167 pounds. But he makes great cuts and has rare ball skills, continually fleecing defensive backs who seem to have him covered.
Said Wilson, “He knows how to read the ball in the air very well.”
Marks, meanwhile, said, “I watch Marquess every day. He’s helped me a lot.”
If it was a coup for coach Paul Wulff’s staff to spirit Wilson out of rural central California, it’s a borderline shocker that Mike Leach’s new staff was able to connect so late with Marks, a four-star recruit from Venice High in west Los Angeles.
Marks was committed to SMU but became concerned when coach June Jones flirted with the Arizona State job last December. Then Adrian Klemm, the SMU assistant recruiting Marks, left to join the new UCLA staff.
“I think Gabe felt somewhat jilted,” said Marks’ high-school coach, Angelo Gasca. “He didn’t feel he’d (Jones) stay an additional four years if he was trying to leave already.”
Marks said he had offers from UCLA, Colorado and Utah, and it’s a mystery what happened to the UCLA-Marks relationship with Klemm now aboard. Simmons said he ran into a Bruins assistant on the road in the spring and was told, “Yeah, we missed the boat on that one.”
“UCLA had offered Gabe, but when it came down to the opportunity to re-recruit him, they had some other guys they thought were better,” said Gasca. “However they phrase it, in all honesty, I believe that to be more accurate.
“I’m pretty sure Gabe’s going to prove them wrong over time.”
So this scene has played out time and again in fall camp: Marks making a catch against a WSU defender, shaking his head and muttering, “Too easy. That’s too easy.”
“I’m competitive,” Marks said. “When I win, I like to let them know about it. I think we’re all friends. We’re just working through the days of camp. We just talk a little bit and have fun with it.”
“Do I want him to be a jerk? No,” said Simmons. “Do I want him to be a confident guy? Hell, yeah.”
As Simmons tells it, that sort of competitiveness is a byproduct of his position group, where every film session is preceded by a chart review of how many balls were caught, how many dropped and how many yards gained after catches.
It was within that subset that Marks began to push Wilson.
“Gabe was giving him a challenge,” Simmons said. “They all want to compete, they all want to hear their name called, they all want to be talked about: Who’s going to be the No. 1 outside guy that day? Marquess was like, ‘I’ve got to step it up.’ “
It was in the spring that Wilson — just 58 catches and 362 yards from the top of WSU’s career lists — was aired out by Leach for not showing him a consistent effort, before Wilson responded with a big spring game.
“He was just trying to get me to compete and become the player he knows I could be,” said Wilson. “Just pushing me and seeing how much I could take, how much heart I have to want to become that great player.
“At first, it bothered me, but then I noticed he was doing it for a reason.”
Said quarterback Jeff Tuel, “If you watched tape of last fall camp and this camp, you’ll see a different kid, honestly.
“He blocks his tail off, and he’s really, really working hard with releases and new stuff. He’s committed.”
Now Wilson is popping up not only on Herbstreit’s roster, but on the occasional first-team preseason All-America list. He said he doesn’t like to look at such previews, preferring to take motivation in the belief that “there’s someone out there better than me.”
He never figured that, from time to time, that someone would be a guy in his own huddle.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org