LEWISTON, Idaho — The beginning of preseason football camp is all about adjustments. Like the one Deone Bucannon made Friday on the bus before Washington State’s first practice.
Yes, the Cougars are riding buses to practice — big, yellow school buses, just like the old days.
“It brought me back a little bit,” Bucannon said. “You know how you have to push the things to open the window? I was trippin’ out.”
For good reason. Those things almost never work.
Next year, WSU will move into what is expected to be a state-of-the-art football operations building, the construction of which is taking up space on the Cougars’ practice field.
So they’re practicing here at Sacajawea Junior High School, a spacious locale with thick, natural grass fields — a space larger than the entirety of Rogers Field — and plenty of space for coach Mike Leach’s team to conduct its business.
After the conclusion of the opening day of camp, players joked about the modest confines of their camp destination — a residential neighborhood is situated a few feet from the field where the offense practiced — though they seemed to be OK with it.
“I just heard we were coming to a middle school. I was like, ‘All right,’ ” sophomore receiver Gabe Marks said with a laugh. “Typical Leach. Come to a middle school. Pac-12 team. Let’s have camp here and not at our school.”
Marks said he enjoyed playing on a grass field and added: “I used to go to Cowboys training camp (in Oxnard, Calif.) when I was younger, and it looks like that.”
And while nobody will mistake the Cougars for the Dallas Cowboys, Leach said he thought the Cougars’ performance on this first day exceeded what he saw at the start of last year’s camp.
“We got here this morning and kind of didn’t miss a beat,” Leach said as a bus full of his players roared away, headed back to the dormitories at Lewis-Clark State College. “Our transitions will get quicker. We’re not used to quite this much space, so it’s kind of fun
to have it. I thought it went good.”
The defense seemed to get the better of the offense for a good part of the day. But that might have been because the offense ran only two or three different plays throughout the team session and 7-on-7 drill. Also, with players wearing just helmets and shorts — they are not allowed to wear pads yet — running plays were problematic.
Leach said the offense ran “an awful lot of verticals,” and that their completion percentage on such routes worked out to a number more than 50, whereas last season’s first-day mark was somewhere around 35.
But the highlights were mostly defensive. Junior defensive lineman Toni Pole busted through for a pair of quarterback sacks, and Damante Horton snagged a clever interception off quarterback Austin Apodaca when he batted the ball away from a receiver and into his own hands.
“It was definitely a good day for the defense,” said Bucannon, a senior safety. “We went out there and did everything we wanted to do — fly around, and that’s what Cougar defense is about, flying around, getting to the ball and creating turnovers.”
Bucannon didn’t mind practicing on grass, though he said it took some getting used to.
“It’s deep, and you have to make sure you pick up your feet, or you’re going to slip getting in and out of your cuts,” Bucannon said. “For the most part, you make your adjustments, and it’s not too bad. It’s nicer landing on it, falling on it.”
But WSU certainly won’t break any speed records practicing here.
“This is a certifiably slow surface. I don’t know if there is a slower surface,” said Leach, who then launched into a story about his days coaching at Kentucky and how speed-laden SEC teams would complain about the length of the grass on the Wildcats’ field.
“The way I’ve always looked at it, one surface may be fast, one surface may be slow, but the fast guys are still faster than the slow guys, so there’s a relative quality to it.”
CRACRAFT DRAWS PRAISE
Wide receiver River Cracraft has practiced exactly once as a college player, but quarterback Connor Halliday already envisions big things for the freshman receiver from Trabuco Canyon, Calif.
“I’d say River’s going to be in a place to battle for a starting position,” Halliday said.
Junior linebacker Chester Su’a was not at practice, and Leach did not say why. “We’re only talking about the guys that are here, so that will have to remain a mystery,” he said. The coach said the same of offensive lineman Matt Meyer, who was the only incoming freshman not present. Senior offensive lineman John Fullington, who spent most of the spring practicing with the No. 2 unit, worked mostly with the starters Friday.