We break down the WSU offensive depth chart as the Cougars open fall football camp in Lewiston on August 6
As Washington State racked up win after win last season and the fan base started to realize that something special was happening on the Palouse, the question the Cougars’ players and coaches most frequently got was, “What changed?” What led to this revival that resulted in a 9-4 season and WSU’s first bowl win in more than a decade?
Almost to the man, last year’s players said the seeds of WSU’s success was planted in the offseason, when quarterback Luke Falk and some key leaders took over the team, rallied everyone for offseason workouts and organized a number of team-building activities that brought the squad closer together.
Falk now returns for his junior season with a talented supporting cast around him, and as the Cougars prepare to open fall camp, WSU football coach Mike Leach was asked how this offseason compared to the productive 2015 offseason that proved to be a harbinger of things to come.
“I think it’s been even better,” Leach said, once again crediting his quarterback for shepherding the team through a rigorous series of summer workouts.
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“I think first of all, (Falk’s) done a better job just through the steadiness of experience, and there’s a lot of support now too with the guys around him, a lot more assertive support,” Leach said.
The Cougars begin camp at Sacajawea Junior High School in Lewiston, Idaho on Saturday afternoon, and will practice daily through in Idaho through August 14 before returning to Pullman to finish off their final week of pre-season preparations.
Here’s the first of a two-part position-by-position look at the Cougars’ depth chart going into camp:
After leading the nation with an average of 380.5 passing yards per game last season, Luke Falk returns for his second year as the Cougars’ starting quarterback. Leach says his quarterback is a well-rounded player who doesn’t have any “glaring weakness, he just needs to get incrementally better overall.”
The backup quarterback position, however, is more of a question mark. Peyton Bender, last year’s No. 2 QB, is now playing at a junior college in Mississippi, and redshirt freshman Tyler Hilinski is the favorite to win the No. 2 job behind Falk.
“Hilinski had a really, really good spring,” Leach said. “He doesn’t get sacked very much, he has good feet in the pocket, he pushes the ball downfield, he’s a pretty smart guy and in the huddle, he energizes the whole thing.”
Bellevue’s Justus Rogers and City College of San Francisco transfer Anthony Gordon also hope to work their way into the mix.
The Cougars have an embarrassment of riches at running back. Veterans Jamal Morrow (347 rush yards, 4 rec TD), Gerard Wicks (610 rush yards, 3 rush TD), Keith Harrington (238 rush yards, 2 rush TD, 3 pass TD) all return, but redshirt freshman James Williams showcased his immense talents in the spring and has forced the coaches to open the running back competition in camp.
“This is the best group of running backs I’ve ever had,” Leach said. “And the other things is, they’re young too. Those guys are gonna have to fight and claw and scratch to get to the top because we don’t have enough reps for four running backs.”
The coaching staff isn’t opposed to moving one or two of their four starting-caliber backs to another position – likely inside receiver. But the question is: Which one?
Gabe Marks (1,192 rec yards, 15 rec TD) returns for his senior season at Z receiver, and has become one of the unquestioned leaders on the offense.
“I never thought I’d say this, but Gabe Marks literally might be the hardest-working player I’ve ever coach,” Leach said Friday.
Sophomore Tavares Martin Jr. leads the competition at the ‘X’ receiver position, but has to show that he’s established a rapport with the quarterbacks and can go up and hunt down the ball.
Also in the mix – freshman Isaiah Johnson, walk-on Kaleb Fossum and freshmen Dezmon Patmon and Grant Porter.
After only a year, former Clemson transfer Kyrin Priester has left the team. However, the Cougars have enough depth to cushion the effect of his departure.
Senior River Cracraft (615 yards, 4 rec TD) has clutch ability, but needs to stay healthy through an entire season. Sophomore Kyle Sweet (222 rec yards) got valuable game-time reps last season as a freshman and could see an expanded role this year. Robert Lewis (490 yards, 1 rec TD) and John Thompson (255 yards, 1 rec TD) also factored into the offense last year and will jostle for starting spots in camp.
The Cougars return three solid starters – right tackle Cole Madison, right guard Eduardo Middleton and center Riley Sorenson, and have clear front runners at the positions vacated by left tackle Joe Dahl and left guard Gunnar Eklund.
Redshirt sophomore Andre Dillard stood out at left tackle in spring ball and earned praise from coaches for his athleticism. At left guard, 6-foot-8, 351-pound junior Cody O’Connell brings a huge presence and 11 games worth of experience from last year.
Noah Osur-Myers, B.J. Salmonson and Cedric Bigge-Duren have to show that they can fill in for the starting unit with minimal dropoff in standard of play.
“We have a good group to pick from,” Leach said of his offensive line. “As always, we’re worried about depth.”