As the Cougars open fall camp, Mike Leach says there's no glaring weakness on his team — but here's which position battles to watch throughout camp.
Going into his final fall camp, Washington State’s starting quarterback Luke Falk epitomizes the makeup of the team he leads, says Cougars’ coach Mike Leach.
More precisely, Falk, like the Cougars, will open camp in Pullman on Wednesday with a well-balanced skillset and no discernible Achilles heel.
“He’s kinda like our team,” Leach said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon. “He’s a great presence as far as focus and achievement, and I don’t see that he’s got any glaring weaknesses, as far as he’s steadily improved at everything.”
That’s how Leach views the Cougars too. Now entering his sixth season as head coach, and coming off back-to-back bowl appearances, Leach has rebuilt WSU to the point where there’s a plethora of experienced talent returning at every position.
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“I don’t have a position that I think is a real weak position,” Leach said. “Everybody is trying to get better and improve. It’s not one position, you have to improve all of them. I don’t see an area where we have a glaring weakness.”
This season, the Cougars will be the Pac-12’s most experienced team, with 18 returning starters – seven on offense, nine on defense and two on special teams – including Falk, their third-year starter at quarterback.
However, even though the Cougars don’t have any “glaring weakness” among their position groupings, some are deeper than others.
Here are the three position groups that will likely feature the fiercest position battles through fall camp:
1. Wide receiver
This is a no-brainer. With the dependable River Cracraft and the prolific Gabe Marks gone, WSU will have to fill some holes at both inside and outside receiver.
“We do have some tall, fast guys who showed promise in spring,” Leach said. “We’re looking forward to seeing what unfolds there. If they’re as good as they were in the spring, we’re going to be decent. If they improve at all – and I will wear them out to improve – we have a chance to be even better.”
On the outside, sophomore Isaiah Johnson-Mack is “getting better and better,” Leach said, adding that Dezmon Patmon, another sophomore, “had a great spring and his improvement was very sudden.”
He also highlighted junior Tavares Martin Jr., sixth-year senior C.J. Dimry and junior Kyle Sweet as players who stood out in the spring.
The coaches are still trying to figure out what to do with versatile junior college transfer Easop Winston.
“We’re still sorting out what Easop can do,” Leach said. “Easop seems to be very versatile and looks like he can do a lot of good things on the inside and I thought he had a very explosive spring.”
Of course, this doesn’t include the intriguing group of freshmen receivers who joined the team this summer. Jamire Calvin, Travell Harris and Davontavean Martin combined present an eyebrow-raising blend of speed and size. Leach’s early assessment of their talents: “I would say it’s overall the fastest class of receivers we’ve brought in,” he said.
2. Defensive line
Robert Barber has graduated, and Ngalu Tapa (junior), Danny Bender and Lyric Bartley (redshirt freshmen) have all left the team this offseason.
But, as Leach said, “We didn’t lose anyone who played much other than Barber.”
Of the three lineman who are no longer with the Cougars, Tapa is the only one who might have factored into WSU’s plans this season.
“I think in some cases, it’ll be a definite addition by subtraction, and I think you work through guys and guys step up,” Leach said. “We’ve got a young core there.”
Look for Dan Ekuale to try to lock down the starting nose tackle spot, and for Kingston Fernandez to push him.
The Cougars have some young pass rushers developing at end and tackle – Hercules Mata’afa and Derek Moore come to mind. But they desperately need to find some quality depth in fall camp.
3. Defensive back
Shalom Luani played free safety and nickelback and was the only Cougars senior selected in the 2017 NFL draft.
WSU will miss Luani’s hard-hitting ability, veteran smarts and innate defensive instincts, and the Cougars have yet to decide whether junior Hunter Dale is the best player to slot into the nickel back position in place of Luani.
The good news is that WSU has options in the secondary.
“We’ve got some guys coming back, and a lot of bodies,” Leach said of the defensive secondary. “It’ll be a very competitive position. … you want to get out of the whole ‘try out’ phase as quick as you can in the fall and see who claws their way to the first and second positions there.”
Cornerbacks Darrien Molton and Marcellus Pippins, and safeties Robert Taylor and Jalen Thompson are the incumbent starters. But don’t be surprised if Marcus Strong, Sean Harper and Zaire Webb put up a stiff challenge.
WSU Fall Camp Schedule
Practices from August 2-13 are open to the public.
2017 WSU Football Practice Schedule:
Date Time Location
Wed., Aug. 2 2 p.m. Pullman
Thurs., Aug. 3 2 p.m. Pullman
Fri., Aug. 4 2 p.m. Lewiston
Sat., Aug. 5 2 p.m. Lewiston
Sun., Aug. 6 2 p.m. Lewiston
Mon., Aug. 7 2 p.m. Lewiston
Tues., Aug. 8 2 p.m. Lewiston
Wed., Aug. 9 2 p.m. Lewiston
Thurs., Aug. 10 2 p.m. Lewiston
Fri., Aug. 11 2 p.m. Lewiston
Sat., Aug. 12 No Practice
Sun., Aug. 13 3:30 p.m. Pullman
Mon., Aug. 14 3:30 p.m. Pullman
Tues., Aug. 15 3:30 p.m. Pullman
Wed., Aug. 16 3:30 p.m. Pullman
Thurs., Aug. 17 2:30 p.m. Pullman
Fri., Aug. 18 3:30 p.m. Pullman
Sat., Aug. 19 No Practice
Sun., Aug. 20 8 p.m. Pullman
Mon., Aug. 21 No Practice (School Begins)
Tues., Aug. 22 3:30 p.m. Pullman
Wed., Aug. 23 3:30 p.m. Pullman
Thurs., Aug. 24 3:30 p.m. Pullman
Friday, Aug. 25 3:30 p.m. Pullman
Sat., Aug. 26 1:30 p.m. Pullman
Sun., Aug. 27 8 p.m. Pullman
Mon., Aug. 28 No Practice
Tues., Aug. 29 3:30 p.m. Pullman
Wed., Aug. 30 3:30 p.m. Pullman
Thurs., Aug. 31 3:30 p.m. Pullman
Fri., Sept. 1 4 p.m. Pullman
Sat., Sept. 2 vs. Montana State 7:30 p.m. Pullman