The Cougars' veterans decided to guide their freshmen through summer workouts instead of just throwing them into the fire. Will it pay off?
Once upon a time, incoming freshmen football players would report to Washington State in late June for the start of summer school and summer conditioning, then, while adapting to new surroundings, new coursework and new teammates, they were handed brand new playbooks and told to jump right into the veterans’ summer workouts.
“We came in, you were just thrown into the fire in 7-on-7 and expected to learn the signals. They just gave you a playbook,” said senior receiver Robert Lewis.
This year, however, the Cougars’ senior leadership decided to switch things up. On a suggestion from strength coach Jason Loscalzo – who oversees summer workouts – the Cougars’ revamped the way they orientate their freshmen, and as fall camp revs up this week, it appears to be paying off.
This offseason, “our guys got a lot of work in,” WSU coach Mike Leach told WSU IMG’s Matt Chazanow Wednesday after the Cougars’ first fall camp practice. “They look like they’re in good shape and appear to be today, there’s pretty good endurance out here. And I also think it seems like, with a little more experienced guys (there’s been) a little more skill development with the young guys maybe.”
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Instead of lumping the freshmen into regular summer 7-on-7 drills with all the returners, the Cougars’ upperclassmen started a separate freshmen-only session designed to help ease the newcomers into things.
“Last year and the years before, everyone is out there together and we waited for the freshmen to get out of class,” senior quarterback Luke Falk said in an interview last month. “This year, we got our stuff done, then the freshmen come out and we take them through stuff, whether it be learning our offense, or 7-on-7 or a bunch of drills.
“We’re just doing things more personalized and not waiting around, disorganized, with 85 people out there.”
The bulk of the team would start 7-on-7 drills in the early afternoon., and the freshmen were invited to join the upperclassmen whenever they got out of class.
“We’d tell them to come out when they’re done and see how it’ll be done in the fall, see the tempo and speed, the communication and competitiveness, so they can get a good look,” Falk said. “Sometimes we’d mix a few of them in, but we’re really just kinda keeping the freshmen with each other and getting them to learn at a high level.”
Then, several veterans from each position group stayed out on the practice field to put the freshmen through their paces.
WSU is senior-heavy this year, with 20 players on the roster in their final year of eligibility, and many of these guys hold starting spots on the team. That gave the Cougars lots of volunteers to help coach the 29-member strong freshman class this summer, during a period when the real full-time coaching staff isn’t allowed to work with the athletes.
“We teach them,” Lewis said last month. “We’re like, ‘Here’s the playbook, this is what you have to do, this is the signal for this.’ With us, it was, ‘Here’s the playbook, here you go, you have to learn it.
“Right now we’re out there, and if they have questions, we tell them, so they’re picking it up pretty fast.”
Did these extra freshman-only sessions expedite the newcomers’ acclimation to WSU’s system and understanding of the playbook?
It’s tough to say definitively, but as early on as the first week of July, Falk lauded highly rated freshman wide receiver Jamire Calvin for picking up the offense within two weeks of his arrival in Pullman.
Even Leach seemed surprised by Calvin’s comfort level with the offense when the Cougars started fall camp.
“I would have to say he came out a little more knowledgable and a little more ready to play than I expected,” Leach said of Calvin after practice on Friday evening. “I thought he’d be good, but I thought it would take a little more time to evolve. He’s got a lot of work to do, no question, but I think he’s ahead of schedule.”
This freshman class has also impressed Loscalzo.
“We’ve got some dudes that obviously have studied tape and watched some film,” Loscalzo said. “They come in and they’re pretty sharp in terms of what we’re trying to do offensively and defensively. I think the freshman class is a good crew. A blue collar group. And they work hard. But they’ve got a long way to go.”