Washington State faces far more uncertainty than last spring, and maybe that’s a good thing.
A year ago the Cougars entered spring practice and everybody knew that Connor Halliday was going to start at quarterback, that Kalafitoni Pole and Xavier Cooper were the guys on the defensive line and that, for a while at least, Darryl Monroe was WSU’s starting middle linebacker.
This spring, nothing is set in stone. Sure, Luke Falk seems to have a firm grip on the quarterback job, but freshman Peyton Bender is getting equal opportunities in practice to prove that Falk shouldn’t get the job handed to him. Basically every position on one of country’s worst defenses is up for grabs.
Who is going to be the team’s starting punter? Well, if you’re sound of mind and foot and have a year of eligibility left, go ahead and forward your résumé to football chief of staff Dave Emerick.
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A year ago the Cougars hoped that the experience returning from the team that broke WSU’s bowl drought would help them take the next step as a program. That team finished 3-9. So this spring the gloves come off and every position is up for grabs.
“I think it’s healthier because there’s more competition,” coach Mike Leach said. “This is kind of a hungrier group that isn’t caught in some, you know, occasionally you get individuals that get caught up and think their role is special. We don’t have anybody that thinks they’re special. Everybody’s out here battling and enjoys competing at, I’d say, a little higher level.”
Nowhere will that competition be more pronounced, at least on offense, than at wide receiver. For starters, the Cougars have to replace more than 2,500 yards and 21 touchdowns in departed seniors Isiah Myers and Vince Mayle alone.
Then you’ve got the return of Gabe Marks, who missed last season but was the team’s best receiver in 2013 and can play either inside receiver or outside. The coaches expect big things out of Calvin Green and moved him to outside receiver, opening up a spot inside for someone to take, maybe even a freshman. After all, Marks, River Cracraft and Green all started as freshmen at inside receiver, so there is a tradition to uphold.
“It’s a lot more electric. Everybody’s a lot more in sync, a lot more energy. It’s way different from last year’s spring,” said outside receiver Dom Williams, who will start — probably. “There’s no spot that can’t be took, so everybody’s coming out here and giving it everything they’ve got.”
Opposite the receivers is the offensive line, where all five starters return and any backups willing to compete will have to unseat an incumbent.
But on the defensive side, new coordinator Alex Grinch’s clean slate for everyone has given every player an added incentive to compete, either to win a spot that previously seemed unwinnable or to fend off all these new would-be challengers.
David Bucannon, for example, spent the first three years of his college career notorious only as the little brother of former All-America safety Deone Bucannon, and was unable to crack a safety rotation so thin that at times underclassmen walk-ons were playing in Pac-12 football games.
During a recent practice, the third of 15 allowed each spring, Bucannon was a defensive terror and the two cringe-inducing hits he laid on his teammates surely caught his new coordinator’s eye.
Leach said before practice began that Falk probably played the five best games of any freshman quarterback ever last season when he stepped in for the injured Halliday. Of course, Leach was being hyperbolic. Either that or he forgot two of the last three Heisman Trophy winners were also redshirt freshman quarterbacks.
But the fact that Leach says he thinks so highly of Falk, but is still willing to give valuable reps to another thrower despite Falk’s lack of experience, shows just how much importance the Cougars are placing on competition this spring.
“It’s always fun to have a guy pushing you and you’re constantly making each other better,” Falk said. “I can learn a lot from what he’s doing and I think he can learn a lot from me. Ultimately us pushing each other will make the team better.”