The Cougars are painfully young on offense and have more than a few holes to fill in spring ball. They've got a lot of promising receivers, but the million dollar question is who WSU will have to throw to them.
Which position group is Washington State coach Mike Leach most concerned about as the Cougars begin spring football Thursday?
“All of them. We’ve got question marks at all of them,” Leach said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters. “It’s the central reason we have spring ball.
After losing a loaded crop of starters that included quarterback Luke Falk, running back Jamal Morrow and offensive linemen Cole Madison and Cody O’Connell, Washington State is painfully young on offense in 2018.
The Cougars’ losses on offense were exacerbated by the loss of Tyler Hilinski, their junior quarterback who took his own life in January.
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The Cougars will begin football practices this week for the first time since Hilinski’s death, and the biggest question lies at the quarterback position where not a single player on WSU’s roster has taken a snap in a Division I game.
Help is on its way in the form of former East Carolina quarterback Gardner Minshew, who will join the Cougars as a graduate transfer on May 7, and is eligible to play right away.
But Minshew won’t go through spring ball with WSU, which gives the current group of young quarterbacks a chance to distinguish themselves and try to win the starting job.
Beyond quarterback, expect to see youthful faces everywhere. Three of the Cougars’ five early enrollees play offensive skill positions – RB Max Borghi, WR Rodrick Fisher and QB Cammon Cooper – and Leach said Wednesday that he’s been impressed by the early enrollees.
“I thought this was our best year of early enrollees since I’ve been here,” Leach said.
Here’s a look at who the Cougars have returning on offense, and what holes they’ll have to fill.
OUT — Outside receivers coach Derek Sage, offensive line coach Clay McGuire, running backs coach Jim Mastro
IN — Running backs coach Eric Mele (previously, WSU’s special teams coach), outside receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr., offensive line coach Mason Miller, special teams (and outside linebackers) coach Matt Brock.
OUT – Luke Falk (graduated), Tyler Hilinski (deceased)
Who to watch for?
- QB Trey Tinsley, rs-jr, 6-3, 211 pounds
- QB Anthony Gordon, rs-jr,6-3, 192 pounds
- QB Cammon Cooper, fr, 6-4, 210 pounds
- QB Connor Neville, rs-fr, 6-2, 198 pounds
- QB John Bledsoe, rs-fr, 6-3, 209 pounds
Only one thing is certain for WSU at quarterback this spring: The competition is wide open and there’s no true front runner.
“We want a fierce competition, like we always want,” Leach said, adding that every quarterback will have ample opportunity to compete for the starting job.
Leach’s evaluation system involves running two groups during pass skeleton drills at practice. The top three quarterbacks will rep with the first team. Through constant evaluation, the best quarterback of the second group will get to move up into the first group to show what he can do, and the quarterback who struggles most in the first group will get relegated to the second group.
Juniors Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon will begin spring in that first grouping, with the third member of that top tier to be determined.
“We’ll see where Camm’s at,” Leach said, referring to true freshman Cammon Cooper, the highly touted four-star recruit who enrolled at WSU in January.
Tinsley was WSU’s third QB in 2017 and he has taken on a leadership role since Hilinski’s death. Gordon has a big arm. Neville’s edge over Cooper is that he’s been in the system a year longer, while Bledsoe has the pedigree – he’s Drew Bledsoe’s kid – and the work ethic to mount a dark horse challenge for the starting spot.
OUT – RB Jamal Morrow (graduated), RB Gerard Wicks (graduated).
Who to watch for?
- RB James Williams, rs-jr, 5-11, 195 pounds
- RB Keith Harrington, rs-sr, 5-8, 190 pounds
- RB Max Borghi, fr, 5-10, 195 pounds
- RB Caleb Perry, rs-fr, 5-9, 162 pounds
The WSU running backs room is an intriguing mix of old and new this season, and with Eric Mele now in charge – he gave WSU’s special teams units an identity by christening them “special forces” – they have a new group motto: #AllGas.
Mele and freshman Max Borghi join a room anchored by the creative, entertaining James Williams (964 all purpose yards, 4 TD) and the steady veteran Keith Harrington. Harrington hasn’t played much in the last two years, but has patiently waited to show that he can recapture the form he showed as a part-time starter during his redshirt freshman season in 2015.
Mele says three backs will play this season, though the third will serve a situational role. Williams needs to show he can be a feature back, and he’ll have to fend off eager freshman Borghi, who picked WSU over Stanford, and has a versatile skillset similar to former Stanford and current Carolina Panthers star Christian McCaffrey.
OUT – Tavares Martin Jr. (dismissed), Isaiah Johnson-Mack (transferred), Robert Lewis (graduated), C.J. Dimry (graduated)
Who to watch for?
- WR Tay Martin, so, 6-3, 182 pounds
- WR Jamire Calvin, so, 5-10, 152 pounds
- WR Renard Bell, rs-so, 5-8, 162 pounds
- WR Kyle Sweet, sr, 6-0, 193 pounds
- WR Dezmon Patmon, jr, 6-4, 212 pounds
- WR Brandon Arconado, rs-jr, 5-11, 182 pounds
- WR Rodrick Fisher, fr, 6-2, 195 pounds
Wide receiver is WSU’s deepest position on offense this year.
“We’ve got most of them coming back,” Leach said. “And we’ve got some quality guys who are going to come in in the fall.”
The Cougars see uptapped potential in Martin, who scored six touchdowns and played every game as a freshman and was elevated to the starting X receiver spot after Tavares Martin was dismissed from the team.
Junior Dezmon Patmon is probably the frontrunner at Z receiver, but the Cougars need some depth on the outside and hope to see some young talent step up between now at the season opener.
Jamire Calvin, Renard Bell and Kyle Sweet were a productive rotation at inside receiver last season, and the coaches also like what they see from Brandon Arconado, a walk-on whose blocking skills and soft hands won him a spot behind Bell at H receiver last season.
OUT – RT Cole Madison (graduated), LG Cody O’Connell (graduated), RG B.J. Salmonson (graduated), Cedric Bigge-Duren (left program)
Who to watch for?
- OL Andre Dillard, rs-sr, 6-5, 306 pounds
- OL Noah Osur-Myers, rs-jr, 6-4, 295 pounds
- OL Abraham Lucas, rs-fr, 6-6, 281 pounds
- OL Josh Watson, rs-fr, 6-4, 292 pounds
- OL Liam Ryan, rs-so, 6-5, 281 pounds
- OL Fred Mauigoa, jr, 6-3, 315 pounds
- OL Robert Valencia, rs-sr, 6-6, 291 pounds
The Cougars’ offensive line struggled last season, particularly on the interior. They’ll miss some of the senior leadership lost to graduated, but this spring presents a chance to rebuild under the vision of a new coach, Mason Miller.
Left tackle Andre Dillard is a potential NFL draft pick, and he’ll anchor a starting five that will likely include Fred Mauigoa at center.
The other three positions are up for grabs. Noah Osur-Myers, who saw extensive time as a sub last season, is an emerging starter at one of the guard spots. And the coaches say Archbishop Murphy alum Abe Lucas is progressing ahead of schedule. He could compete for the right tackle spot along with Josh Watson and Liam Ryan, who were backup tackles in 2017. Also in the mix, Robert Valencia, who transferred from City College of San Francisco last year but did not play last season due, in part, to injury.
OUT – K Erik Powell (graduated), K Mitchell Cox (graduated)
Who to watch for?
- K Jack Crane, rs-so, 6-2, 190 pounds
- K Ryan Henderson rs-fr, 6-0, 220 pounds
- K Johnan Zetterberg, rs-fr, 6-2, 220 pounds
- K Blake Mazza, rs-fr, 5-9, 173 pounds
Erik Powell saved his best season for last, kicking his way to Lou Groza Award semifinalist honors, and 317 career points – third in WSU school history. Now, the Cougars have to start over in their hunt for a reliable kicker.
Jack Crane, from Skyline High in Sammamish, is a tall, rangy lefty who handled kickoffs in six games for WSU last season. But he’s never kicked a field goal in a college game. Neither has Archbishop Murphy alum Ryan Henderson, who was perfect on extra points and went 12 of 14 on field goals, including a 56-yarder, during his senior year of high school.
Blake Mazza was a walk-on at Arkansas last season but did not play in a game. He transferred to WSU and is immediately eligible because he was not on scholarship at Arkansas.
Zetterberg is a walk-on who redshirted in 2017.