The WSU Cougars' 2013 recruiting class might go down as one of the best in program history. Their singular goal: To turn the program around.

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When Washington State first expressed interest in senior offensive tackle Cole Madison, the Burien native and longtime Husky fan almost didn’t bother taking a visit.

“I’ll be blunt, I thought (WSU football) was kind of a joke,” Madison says. “I had no drive to come here, to be honest.”

Kicker Erik Powell grew up in-state, in Vancouver, but sheepishly admits to not knowing where WSU’s campus was when the Cougars’ first approached him. Running back Gerard Wicks says he knew “next to nothing” about WSU football aside from the fact that when the Cougars were recruiting him they were dead last in the Pac-12.

That’s how relevant WSU football was in 2012, as Mike Leach’s staff painstakingly worked to compile a recruiting class that would serve as the keystone from which to rebuild a program that hadn’t had a winning season in almost a decade.

WSU’s 2013 recruiting class was the first full class Leach’s staff identified, scouted and lured to Pullman from start to finish.

This class was supposed to springboard the Cougars’ football program up from the depths of the Pac-12 basement it had languished in for years.

Four years later, as 24th-ranked WSU opens its 2017 season against Montana State this Saturday at Martin Stadium, expectations in Pullman are the highest they’ve been in 15 years, and it’s no coincidence that Madison, Powell and Wicks are just three of the 12 fifth-year seniors listed on the Cougars’ veteran-laden depth chart.

Nine of these fifth-year seniors joined the team on scholarship in 2013: Isaac Dotson, Daniel Ekuale, Robert Lewis, Madison, Jamal Morrow, Cody O’Connell, Peyton Pelluer, B.J. Salmonson and Wicks. Three more – Powell, quarterback Luke Falk and linebacker Nate DeRider – came to WSU as walk-ons that summer. Two others, linebacker Dylan Hanser and cornerback Marcellus Pippins, signed letters of intent as part of that 2013 recruiting class though they did not enroll until the following semester in January 2014.

Driven by a shared vision, the 14 from 2013 took a chance on the Cougars in the earliest days of the Leach regime, when things looked bad, and wins were few and far between.

Now, they’re all in the Cougars’ two-deep lineup as they begin their final season together. This class of 2013 represents the nucleus of the team fans hope will complete the reversal of WSU’s fortunes from the 1-11 days of the late 2000s.

“It was a special class here,” says offensive line coach Clay McGuire, who’s been at WSU since Leach’s first season. “In hindsight, you sign that class every year because I’d love to have Cole Madison, Cody O’Connell, Riley Sorenson and all those guys again.”

The 2013 recruiting class might go down as one of the most lucrative in the history of the WSU program.

Aside from the current seniors, several other members of that class also turned out to be significant contributors. Receivers Vince Mayle and River Cracraft, offensive center Riley Sorenson, linebackers Ivan McClennan and Paris Taylor and defensive back Charleston White all played early and left their stamp on the program by the end of their college careers.

What brought these kids to Pullman to join a moribund program, and how did a group of recruiting afterthoughts blossom into the class that has resurrected Cougar football?

Here is their story.

WSU’s fifth-year seniors share their first impressions of the program, the first people who made an impact on them, and what it was like to get their first taste of game action. (The Seattle Times)

A hope and a dream

When you take a college football head coaching job in December, you know your first recruiting class will likely be a hodgepodge of guys retained from the previous regime, one or two flipped from other programs based on prior relationships, and some under-recruited late additions you take a flyer on because neither numbers or time are in your corner.

So even in December 2011, Leach and Co. knew they were playing for the long game, and that the 2013 class was the one they might be able to build off.

The trouble was, in those early days, WSU football was a tough sell. The Cougars were coming off four years in which they’d amassed a 9-40 record, their football facilities paled in comparison to their Pac-12 counterparts, and Leach was making his re-entry into college football after two years away.

Plans to build the $61-million Cougar Football Complex were in the works, but at the time, the program was still housed in the Bohler Gym, along with WSU’s other athletic teams.

What exactly did the Cougars sell recruits that year?

“A hope and a dream,” WSU football Chief of Staff Dave Emerick says, laughing. “The press box was built, so we took them there. A lot of stuff we tried to hide, to be honest with you. Our meeting rooms weren’t ‘our’ meeting rooms – we shared those with everybody, and you couldn’t leave stuff on the wall because the volleyball team would be in there and study hall would be in there or something. You showed (recruits) a lot of plans.”

And some construction equipment.

“There was a crane up,” says Leach. “So I think that helped because they figured the crane was going to do something.”

On the recruiting trail that year, the coaches looked for a very specific type of kid – a visionary of sorts who wasn’t afraid to dream big, and who didn’t mind putting in some hard work to get there.

“We knew where we were at when we got here, and we knew we had to take kids who love football and had to develop them,” McGuire says.

Translated: WSU took a chance on many guys who didn’t pass the eyeball test.

In the eyes of many college recruiters, “Gabe Marks was too slow, Robert Lewis was too small, Jamal Morrow wasn’t fast enough, Gerard Wicks was too stiff. Riley Sorenson, on signing day, had just us (offering a scholarship),” running backs coach Jim Mastro says, rattling off a list of guys in the first two classes he helped recruit to WSU, whom he pegged as having something to prove.

“You’ve gotta find those kinds of kids with a chip on their shoulder,” Mastro says. “You have to know the character is there and know that they can come here and be successful.”

Despite their perceived flaws, Morrow, from Heritage High in Menifee, Calif., and Wicks, from Long Beach (Calif.) Poly High, caught Mastro’s attention because of how fiercely competitive they were.

“They were winners,” Mastro says. “They came from winning programs, they’re both leaders on their teams. You go watch their practice, they’re looked up to. When they speak, everybody listens. That’s what you want. You can develop the skillset, but they’re either tough or not tough. Both those kids were just mentally tough high school players. To me, both those kids were no-brainers. I loved everything about them.”

In hindsight, the Cougars had some misses in that 2013 class too. Quarterback Tyler Bruggman, a coveted four-star recruit from Arizona’s Brophy Prep, left WSU after a year and bounced from Louisville, to Scottsdale College and then Montana State before landing on Texas A&M’s roster as a graduate transfer this fall.

Cornerback DaQuawn Brown struggled to stay out of trouble and was dismissed in December 2014 after two separate arrests. Defensive lineman Emmitt Su’a-Kalio was also dismissed for a violation of team rules after he punched a teammate in a highly-publicized locker room fight.

But the hit-miss ratio in that class ended up being about 3:1.

“Sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong,” McGuire says. “The kids we’ve been able to coach here have for the most part been really good kids.”

Washington State University’s football class of fifth-year seniors have been through a lot together. They look back on the best and worst moments from their time at WSU. (The Seattle Times)

Culture change

In June 2013, a large collection of “chip on the shoulder” kids gathered in Pullman to begin their college football careers.

There was Cole Madison, the 6-5, 240-pound receiver/tight end who would turn out to be an All-Pac-12 offensive tackle

There was Nate DeRider, who walked on at WSU because his only other option was to play at Division III Puget Sound.

There was Isaac Dotson, the high school quarterback who would eventually blossom into an NFL prospect at linebacker.

And there was Luke Falk, the tall, skinny unknown walk-on quarterback who would go on to rewrite the WSU record books.

Be they legacy players with Cougar parents like Dotson and Peyton Pelluer, guys like Wicks and Dan Ekuale who knew little about WSU, scholarship recruits like Madison and Cody O’Connell or walk-ons like Falk, DeRider and Powell, they were drawn to Pullman by a common goal.

“I wanted to be part of something that was turning the corner. That’s what they were doing here and I wanted to be part of that really bad,” Madison said.

“It was a program that needed (to be) turned around, and I felt I could contribute to that,” adds Pelluer, a fourth-generation Cougar. “This program could only go up from where it was. I wanted to be part of a class that could hopefully build a legacy, that started this program from the bottom up and gave it life.”

Change came slowly at first because inertia was the new coaching staff’s biggest challenge.

“There was still too much entitlement when we got here. They still felt like their way was better,” Mastro says. “There were so many ‘non buy-in’ people. We had guys going, ‘We liked the old way better.’”

“Well, you weren’t winning,” Mastro would point out in response.

“I had one player tell me, ‘Oh I don’t care. I just want to be on the team,” Mastro says. “So many were like that, you wanted to beat your head against the wall.”

Leach’s recruits had similar experiences through their first two years in the program.

“When we first got here, there were guys who wouldn’t do workouts and then expect on game day for it to turn out (well) for them. They didn’t work the whole summer, they didn’t last through Midnight Maneuvers,” Wicks says. “Guys were talking bad to freshmen or lowerclassmen or walk-ons and treating them (badly) basically. Instead of teaching them or coaching them up, they would cuss them out.”

“When we were freshmen, those (seniors) didn’t talk to us, they were still that haze-y traditional seniors, like, ‘Be an ass to the freshmen,’” says linebacker Dylan Hanser. “I think it affected a lot of the guys. But it made us as a class realize, ‘It’s on us. These guys aren’t gonna do it.’”

In spite of these early tensions, the coaches saw the light at the end of the tunnel before the players did.

“This is the toughest thing, and the thing I’m most proud of them for,” Leach says. “They had to buy in and have the same vision as the coaches did, and had to persevere at a time where there were not a lot of great examples to follow.”

The 2013 class “came in and immediately made everything more competitive,” Emerick says. “Practices were more competitive, the offseason was more competitive. And that pushed everybody. That helped the older kids because they knew people were competing for their positions.”

But it would take one more season for the youth movement to truly wrest control of the locker room.

“I think this team’s worst days were when we were in that 3-9 season,” Hanser says. “I think that year there were a lot of guys who didn’t care, who didn’t want to compete anymore. A lot of guys who were just happy to be in the uniform.”

The tide finally turned in the offseason following WSU’s 3-9 2014 campaign.

“You really kinda saw it when Luke came in and played the way he did his freshman year those last three games,” McGuire says. “It was a confidence boost, like, ‘Hey, we’ve got a guy that we think can be really good at that position, that has the ‘right stuff.’”

With Falk’s stock trending up, the Cougars returned from Christmas break that year with new leadership and a heightened sense of urgency.

“The kids took the bull by the horns and said, ‘We’re gonna be the ones to turn this,’” Mastro says. “They were sophomores and they said, ‘We’re gonna get rid of the bad apples around here. We don’t care if you’re a senior, we’ve been here. We’re gonna do it the way we’ve been taught to do it.’

“When you have underclassmen taking control of your team, that was when we noticed these guys were pretty special. The (locker room dissenters) just got run right out of here by the players and not the coaches.”

The 12 fifth-year seniors from 2013 share their favorite Mike Leach sayings, and take a stab at guessing which of them will go on to do big things in the years to come. (The Seattle Times)

Completing the mission

Robert Lewis, Powell and Madison say the program’s turning point came at Rutgers in 2015, when WSU rallied from a three-point deficit to beat the Scarlet Knights in New Jersey on a touchdown from Falk to Cracraft with 13 seconds left.

“Until then, we’d been in games where we were so close but couldn’t close it out. Throughout that game, there were mistakes,” Madison says. “But we pulled it out and got the win.

Morrow and offensive lineman B.J. Salmonson think the double-overtime win at Oregon was the true catalyst that transformed the Cougs from league bottom feeders into serious contenders. Hanser points to the win at UCLA in 2015 as the fulcrum, while Falk thinks the program didn’t really earn its legitimacy until the end of that season, when the Cougars beat Miami in the Sun Bowl to deliver WSU’s first bowl win since 2003.

But they all agree on one thing: That 2015 season was special. Through 12 games, the team found its identity and learned how to depend on one another.

“The 2015 season, I think we kinda felt like we turned the corner,” Falk said. “Because then, the expectations last year were higher than we had in 2015.”

If that 9-4, 2015 season gave a young team their first taste of success, the 8-5 campaign in 2016 taught them that the path to success is fraught with pitfalls.

The Cougars’ record-setting eight-game win streak in 2016 was bookended by two losses to start the season, and three to end it.

Losing to Colorado, UW and Minnesota, in succession sent the Cougars into the offseason hungry and those three “L’s” are the reason many of the team’s leaders are hesitant to talk about vague, faraway concepts like legacies and milestones.

“What we did yesterday doesn’t matter,” DeRider says. “We’ve been to bowl games and that’s definitely an accomplishment, but we want to hold ourselves to (the goal of) getting to the Pac-12 championship. We know we’re not entitled to that even though we have a huge senior class and a ton of returning guys. We don’t want to be satisfied going 8-5 or 9-4 or whatever that is.”

With his long brown hair pulled into a messy bun, big Peyton Pelluer looks visibly uncomfortable when asked to pinpoint the best day the Cougars have had in his four years.

“I don’t think we’ve had a best day as a team yet,” Pelluer says, brown eyes glinting with the same intensity opposing running backs see when they deign to cross his path, “I’d say the Sun Bowl. But what did we do? We won the Sun Bowl.”

That, is not enough, Pelluer says.

“We’ve had successful winning seasons the past two seasons, and beat teams that WSU hasn’t beat in a while,” Pelluer says. “But there are still teams we haven’t beaten, and we’re still getting overlooked every season, so I don’t think this program is where it needs to be. And I take that upon my shoulders, and this class’s shoulders. We have unfinished business.”

To a man, this senior class isn’t shy about verbalizing the ultimate goal.

“I want this to be the class that brought a Pac-12 championship home,” Falk says, echoing everyone else. “We have yet to do it, and we have a lot of work to do, and we’ve got to take it day by day, but I would really like to be known for that. There have been a lot of milestones on this journey, and we still haven’t scratched the surface of what we want to do.”

More so than any Leach recruiting class that’s come before or after them, the men of this charmed class of 2013 can say they’ve experienced the highest and lowest moments in this era of WSU football reconstruction.

Now, it’s up to them to lead the Cougars up and over the horizon.

“We’ve seen kind of the night and day of the Cougar football program, and we want to end it the best it’s been ever,” Dotson says. “Not even just getting back to what it used to be, but exceeding that, not putting any limits on what we can do.”

The 12 fifth-year seniors from 2013 go into their final season at WSU with high expectations of themselves and their teammates. Here’s what they want to be remembered for in the years to come. (The Seattle Times)
What’s left from WSU’s 2013 Recruiting Class
Name Position Hgt/Wgt Hometown/High School When he became a Coug: Impact:
Nate DeRider LB 6-1/231 pounds Bellevue, Bellevue HS June 2013 – walk-on 25 appearances, earned scholarship
Isaac Dotson LB 6-1/232 pounds Bellevue, Newport HS June 2013 – scholarship 28 appearances, 12 starts
Daniel Ekuale NT 6-3/305 pounds Pago Pago, Samoa/Nuuuli Tech HS June 2013 – scholarship 38 appearances, 10 starts
Luke Falk QB 6-4/223 pounds Logan, UT/Logan HS June 2013 – walk-on 31 appearances, 28 starts, earned scholarship
Dylan Hanser LB 6-4/236 pounds Billings, MT/Central Catholic HS Signed 2013/Enrolled Jan 2014 28 appearances, 6 starts
Robert Lewis WR 5-9/167 pounds Watts, CA/South East HS Signed 2012/Enrolled Jan 2013 37 appearances, 22 starts
Cole Madison OL 6-5/314 pounds Burien, WA/Kennedy HS June 2013 – scholarship 34 appearances, 34 starts
Jamal Morrow RB 5-9/203 pounds Menifee, CA/Heritage HS June 2013 – scholarship 37 appearances, 17 starts
Cody O’Connell OL 6-8/368 pounds Wenatchee/Wenatchee HS June 2013 – scholarship 26 appearances, 12 starts
Peyton Pelluer LB 6-0/225 pounds Sammamish/Skyline HS June 2013 – scholarship 38 appearances, 31 starts
Marcellus Pippins CB 5-10/178 pounds Richmond, CA/Cerrito HS Signed 2013/Enrolled Jan 2014 29 appearances, 24 starts
Erik Powell K 6-1/202 pounds Vancouver/Seton Catholic HS June 2013 – walk-on 37 appearances, 28 starts, earned scholarship
B.J. Salmonson OL 6-4/310 pounds Everson/Nooksack Valley HS Signed 2012/Enrolled Jan 2013 31 appearances, 1 start
Gerard Wicks RB 6-0/221 pounds Long Beach, CA/Long Beach Poly HS June 2013 – scholarship 35 appearances/22 starts
Other Memorable 2013 Class Members:
River Cracraft WR 6-0/200 pounds Rancho Santa Margarita, CA/ SM HS June 2013 – scholarship 42 appearances/38 starts/2nd all-time, 218 rec
Darius Lemora DB 5-11/181 pounds Port Arthur, TX/Memorial HS June 2013 – scholarship 25 appearances/10 starts
Vince Mayle WR 6-3/240 pounds Natomas, CA/Inderkum HS June 2013 – scholarship 25 appearances/12 starts
Ivan McLennan LB 6-4/223 pounds Hawthorne CA/Leuzinger HS Signed and enrolled in Jan 2013 25 appearances/7 starts
Riley Sorenson OL 6-4/330 pounds Rancho Santa Margarita, CA/ SM HS June 2013 – scholarship 37 appearances/33 starts
Paris Taylor LB 6-3/223 pounds Orlando, FL/Lake Brantley HS June 2013 – scholarship 37 appearances
Jacob Seydel OL 6-6/290 pounds Riverside, CA/ Arlington HS Signed and enrolled in Jan 2013 22 appearances/17 starts
Charleston White DB 6-1/175 pounds Amarillo, TX/Palo Duro HS June 2013 – scholarship 35 appearances/12 starts