With fall practice starting Friday, the Cougars are more than ready to put distractions aside and focus on actual, live football. Here's what to watch for.
PULLMAN – Good luck trying to find a college football team in the country more eager to slip on pads and strap on helmets this week than Washington State.
OK, well, maybe Ohio State. But that’s it.
If there is a word that encapsulates the Cougars’ offseason – one that endured the tragic loss of a beloved quarterback, the departure of six assistants and a mid-June Twitter feud involving the head coach, among other things – we haven’t found it yet.
On Friday, the Cougars open preseason training camp in Pullman with a 2 p.m. practice at Rogers Field/Martin Stadium. Then, WSU players will jam into yellow school buses for their annual jaunt to Lewiston, Idaho, where the Cougars will spend six more days training in triple-digit weather on the natural grass fields of Sacajawea Junior High, and bunking in the dorms at Lewis-Clark State College.
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Before the Cougars do any of that, though, we address five questions for the team leading into the 2018 season.
Who’s throwing it? And part two of that question: when will we know? The two weeks that encompass “fall camp” and the two weeks that follow basically amount to a 25-part audition for three, or perhaps four, Washington State quarterbacks aiming to replace Luke Falk as the Cougars’ starter. It would’ve been a coin flip between redshirt juniors Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon coming out of spring camp, but last week at Pac-12 Media Day, Leach noted that Cammon Cooper “had a really good offseason,” and it makes you wonder if the four-star freshman from Utah has progressed enough to pull back into the competition.
Still, those three could be glaring up at another name on the depth chart come Sept. 1. Gardner Minshew brings 17 games of FBS experience to the Cougars and has a pretty good track record in QB competitions like this one. Minshew didn’t spend the spring with the Cougars, but perhaps that isn’t as much of a handicap as it’s perceived to be. “He came in and it was almost surprising me – he came in as if he’s been on that team for three years,” senior receiver Kyle Sweet said last week at Pac-12 Media Day. “But that’s something we desperately need.”
Nonetheless, Leach will spend much of the next month identifying his fourth starting quarterback at WSU (Jeff Tuel, Connor Halliday, Luke Falk) and for the first time since the coach arrived in Pullman, it’s not inherently obvious who that is.
Where will the sacks come from? It’ll take an, err, Herculean effort to overcome the loss of a player who led the Pac-12 last season in quarterback takedowns, tackles-for-loss and finished his career as a consensus All-American. Don’t look for Hercules Mata’afa 2.0 on the 2018 roster – you won’t find him. Junior defensive end Nnamdi Oguayo rebuilt his body in the offseason – and it wasn’t in bad shape to begin with, either – and should be able to succeed Mata’afa as the sacks leader. Nonetheless, WSU may have to take a more balanced approach to the pass-rush this year.
And not that it’s something they aren’t accustomed to, but the Cougars will once again have to be productive despite a major size disparity. Nick Begg, Logan Tago and Oguayo – the three D-linemen who finished camp running with the No. 1’s – average just 250 pounds, so they’ll have to lean on their quickness and pre-snap movement in order to generate their pass-rush.
Will the receivers be the deepest position? On this WSU team? It sure looks like it. In the Pac-12? Don’t rule it out just yet. Leach typically employs an eight-man receiver rotation in his Air Raid offense. The challenge facing the WSU coach this fall is not finding eight capable bodies to fill those spots, but whittling the rotation down to eight.
The Cougars return a handful of proven pass-catchers: Renard Bell, Kyle Sweet, Dezmon Patmon, Tay Martin and Jamire Calvin all exceeded 30 catches and 300 receiving yards last season and combined for 15 touchdowns. Easop Winston looked like the best wideout of the bunch at times during spring camp, Robert Lewis was granted an extra year of eligibility and early enrollee Rodrick Risher was Martin’s primary backup in spring ball. Then there’s the influx of junior college transfers/high school signees – among them Last Chance U star Calvin Jackson Jr. (Independence Community College) and four-star prospect Drue Jackson, who picked the Cougs over Texas Tech, Wisconsin and Utah. Pay attention to Kassidy Woods and Travell Harris, as well.
What will the offensive line look like/how will it change? At this point last year, the Cougars’ front five was being touted as one of the country’s best. With just 39 starts between the five projected starters, the offensive line will be one of the least experienced in the Pac-12 this season. That doesn’t seem like great news for a team with even less clarity at the quarterback position and one that’s pretty thin at running back, but if the Cougars can give up fewer than 44 sacks (a Pac-12 low in 2017) and rush for more than 884 yards (also a Pac-12 low), it’ll probably be considered a more productive year for the O-line.
Left tackle Andre Dillard, left guard Josh Watson, center Fred Mauigoa, right guard Robert Valencia and right tackle Abraham Lucas made up the first team in the spring – and Leach has indicated those will be the starters heading into the fall – but the Cougars also need to establish depth and locate 3-5 more players who can step in at a given time.
Can the secondary build some depth? During spring camp, first-year defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys repeatedly deferred to the defensive backfield when asked which position group had the most room to improve. No, he wasn’t talking about All-Pac-12 safety Jalen Thompson – or any of the starters for that matter.
Claeys’ concern is that his first flight of defensive backs will have to overexert themselves because the secondary can’t establish depth or build a rotation that’ll allow the backups to spell the starters. So it’ll be important for players such as Marcus Strong, George Hicks, Deion Singleton and Grant Porter to grow this fall and ensure that the Pac-12’s top passing defense from last season can stay competitive in 2018.