The Cougars begin the first of 15 spring football practices Thursday, and will practice three times a week up through the Crimson and Gray Game on April 23 at Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane.

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For Washington State coach Mike Leach, spring football is where you build the foundation for success in the fall.

That’s why he lauds this time of year in the same breath with which he scoffs at the attitudes some of his colleague take going into spring ball.

“I don’t understand coaches who diminish spring,” Leach said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters. “Some are full of hot air. (Those who claim) ‘All I care about in spring is nobody getting injured’? That’s crazy.

Three story lines to watch

1. Which receivers will step up to the plate?

Mike Leach’s offense always features a bevy of capable receivers. Tavares Martin, Kyrin Priester and Kaleb Fossum all showed flashes of their talent last season. Who will step up to join River Cracraft and Gabe Marks as the new stars of this receiving corps?

2. How will Justus Rogers do?

The former Bellevue quarterback signed with the Cougs as an early enrollee, and he’s already been through winter conditioning and is participating in 7-on-7 activities with the team. Rogers was recruited as an athlete, but Mike Leach said Wednesday that he will be working with the quarterbacks in spring ball.

3. What kind of progress will Alex Grinch’s second year bring?

Grinch made an immediate impact last year in his first season as a defensive coordinator. Under his guidance, the Cougs’ defense finished with 24 turnovers forced — triple the number from 2014. The pass rush improved, and WSU allowed 10.9 fewer points per game than it had the season before. Can that improvement carry over in his second year?

Stefanie Loh

“We have huge practices in spring, our longest practices of the year. Spring is when you lay a foundation for your team to be as good as they can possibly be.”

The Cougars begin the first of 15 spring football practices Thursday, and will practice three times a week up through the Crimson and Gray Game on April 23 at Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane.

WSU is coming off a 9-4 season that culminated in a win over Miami in the Sun Bowl. Offensively, the Cougars return eight starters, including All-Pac-12 quarterback-receiving duo Luke Falk and Gabe Marks.

Marks, who finished last season as the Pac-12 leader with 1,192 receiving yards, opted to return to WSU for his senior season instead of declaring for the NFL draft.

Falk led the nation’s top passing offense, and will likely be a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate going into his junior season this fall.

On defense, the Cougars return six starters and will be anchored by linebacker Peyton Pelluer, who had a team-high 101 tackles in 2015 and a veteran secondary that features Athlon’s third-team freshman All-American cornerback Darrien Molton, high-energy cornerback Marcellus Pippins and free safety Shalom Luani, who led the team with four interceptions last season.

WSU’s youth in 2015 – the two-deep roster for offense and defense features 24 underclassmen who saw significant playing time — means the Cougars don’t have a lot of holes to fill going into this season.

“We don’t have any gross imbalances,” Leach said. “We have a very young team, and we have an awful lot of our team back.”

But there are some position groups that need replenishing:

Offensive line: The team will need to find new starters at the left tackle and left guard spots vacated by four-year starters Joe Dahl and Gunnar Eklund, respectively. Fortunately, they return center Riley Sorenson, right tackle Cole Madison and right guard Eduardo Middleton.

Defensive line: The Cougs lost starters and leaders in tackles-for-loss Darryl Paulo and Destiny Vaeao to graduation. Both provided pass-rushing oomph and a ton of consistency. Sophomore Hercules Mata’afa will likely move into the end spot alongside senior Robert Barber, but there’s an opening for an eager young player on the opposite side.

Linebacker: A significant portion of the Cougs’ pass-rushing came from Ivan McLennan (9 TFL, 6 sacks) and Kache Palacio (10 TFL, 5 sacks). WSU will also have to replace inspirational Will linebacker Jeremiah Allison, who was in many ways the leader of the defense.

There are also some under-the-radar players worth keeping an eye on, including:

• Redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Andre Dillard, a Woodinville High alum, will have the inside track at the Cougs’ vacant left-tackle spot. Dillard played in three games at left tackle last season when Dahl was out with a foot injury. He’s put on 20 pounds since last season despite weathering an illness this winter, and he’s now up to 290 pounds.

• Redshirt freshman running back James Williams has been drawing raves since last season, when he wowed everyone as a member of the scout team. The Cougars return with a crowded backfield due to the presence of juniors Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow and sophomore Keith Harrington. Williams is a fast, elusive runner who could give the coaching staff a good problem to have this fall.