Our season preview, the unedited version of which you can read on the post below, dwelt with an esoteric subject, measuring success. This post, which you can read on the link, is more down-to-earth. I wanted to look at a couple of position battles and let you know what each participants has going for themselves. And I wanted to summarize the surprises, positive and negative, from the past three weeks. Interested? Read on.
• Let’s begin with the positions battles. The three I’ve chosen are middle linebacker, left tackle and, of course, quarterback. You have to read through the first two to get to the final one. It’s mandatory …
• Middle linebacker: The participants are redshirt sophomore Alex Hoffman-Ellis and true freshman Darren Markle. The case for … Hoffman-Ellis: Though slightly undersized (6-foot-1, 233 pounds), Ellis can run like a defensive back (OK, a strong safety). His speed and, probably more importantly, his quickness allows him to make plays no one else on the roster could. He’s not all that experienced, having played only two years of football, but his physical skills are hard to find. Markle: Also a little on the smaller size (6-1, 224) the freshman is as strong as you would expect a former powerlifting champion to be. He’s smart and is learning quickly. And though he’s a freshman, he’s got more experience at middle backer than Hoffman-Ellis. But he is a freshman. Who will probably start: My guess is, if he’s healthy, Hoffman-Ellis will be in the middle come Saturday. His spring knee injury and the foot problem he had in fall camp seem to be gone, though they did cost him important on-field time. But he’s probably the guy. …
• Left tackle: This may be the most important position battle of the three. The left tackle plays a key role in WSU’s offense, protecting the quarterback’s blind side. Do it well, and alone, and the offense can perform at an optimum level. Do it poorly and offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy will have to build in help every pass play, limiting what can be done elsewhere. The participants here are sophomore Steven Ayers, freshman Tyson Pencer and junior Joe Eppele. All have used their redshirt year. The case for … Eppele: He is the largest (6-7, 309) of the three, having added some much needed pile-pushing (Kenny Alfred’s term) weight over the offseason. He’s a backup at right tackle and would bring a maturity level. Ayers: The Bellingham native has been with the first team since spring and has been given every chance to grab the job and run with it. Though, at 6-4 and 311 pounds, he may be more suited for guard, he’s shown a more aggressive attitude in the fall and has taken big strides in the last week, according to the coaches. Pencer: The term raw comes to mind here. At 6-7 and 297 pounds, Pencer is the most athletic of the three but also the least experienced. Offseason shoulder surgery slowed his progress, but he’s been coming on. He will play offensive tackle at some point. Who will probably start: It will be Ayers. He’s earned it in camp. But each week Pencer should push to play.
• Quarterback: You didn’t just skip down here, did you? Good. The participants in this high-profile battle are senior Kevin Lopina and sophomore Marshall Lobbestael – we’re not including true freshman Jeff Tuel because, despite his obvious skills, he is a freshman. The case for … Lopina: The senior, who started eight games last season, put on some weight in the form of muscle over the offseason. His injured back seems fine and he’s throwing the ball with improved accuracy as his 9-of-11 scrimmage performance showed. He still can run. The one area that still must improve is his decision-making. When he tosses a pick, it’s not often it’s because it was an off-target throw. Most of the time it’s because it was a throw that shouldn’t have been made. No matter what, cutting down on turnovers has to be job one for whoever wins the battle. If he does start Saturday, it will mark the third consecutive year a fifth-year senior has started at quarterback. Lobbestael: If the sophomore’s knee was 100 percent – and though he says it is, his gait and throwing accuracy belie that – I would say unequivocally he would be the guy. But it isn’t and he’s struggled with some throws, missing a lot of passes high because he’s not getting through the delivery. But Lobbestael is a *@%&%# competitor, the kind of guy who would cut off his left arm and club you with it if it would help WSU win. He’s a tape nut who is always looking for an edge. And, if he does win the job, it can only help the team in future seasons. Who will probably start: Coach Paul Wulff said Friday it would be “one of two guys.” Funny. Sturdy said later it would be a guy whose last name started with an L. Funny. But, when it comes down to it, my feeling is they will name Lopina as the Stanford starter but use Lobbestael as well. And, if they both stay healthy, the battle will continue through the season.
• OK, that’s that. Now I’m going to give you the players and situations that most surprised me during camp. And I’ll explain why. … Carl Winston: This freshman looks so much like a young Steve Broussard (Winston is a stocky 5-8, 197 pounds) that I accused Bruiser of recruiting himself. Winston has been a revelation, a running back with quickness to get through a hole and, when he does, the strength to deliver a blow. … Chima Nwachukwu: Not by his ability but by how much he’s changed personality-wise. The guy is talking on the field. And jawing, most often with Dwight Tardy. He’s become a leader. And he occasionally uses a bad word, something that you never heard the first two years. … Practice tempo: With little time needed to explain themselves, the coaches are able to run practice faster, in shorter, simpler bursts. … Dan Spitz: Though the redshirt freshman won’t be starting, he’s going to play. And if he continues to progress as much as he has since last fall and continues to get bigger, he’s going to be a tough nut to crack in the middle of the defensive line in the future. … Daniel Simmons: Nobody made bigger strides in the offseason than this freshman corner. He was the revelation of camp. Body types; I was shocked when practice started by how much better people looked. But don’t take my word for it. Veteran coach Keith Gilbertson commented on it as well Friday, saying after the scrimmage the Cougars look like football players this year. … Gino Simone: I heard the hype. I knew the skills. I saw the size. What surprised me was how tough he is. He’s going to be good. … Playmakers: There’s a handful. But there still needs to be more. Guys who consistently make a great catch to keep a drive alive. Guys who consistently come up with tackles for loss to kill drives. Guys who break big gains or knock away big passes. There just isn’t enough yet. Thought there might be, but then again, some of those possible type of guys, Brandon Jones, Jeshua Anderson, James Montgomery, have been slowed by injuries.
• That’s what I have today. Usually we would have our practice report, but the coaches told the players after the FanFest they had done well in camp, worked hard and they had the rest of the day off. They will be back on the practice field at 3 tomorrow afternoon.
• Hope that’s enough. We’ll be back tomorrow morning with our usual links. Until then …