PULLMAN – As Steven Ayers sees it, playing offensive tackle is a lot like being a star in New York City.
“If you can succeed there,” the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Ayers said of playing alone on the outside of the offensive line, “you can succeed anywhere.”
It’s a challenging role, Ayers said Tuesday after the final week of spring practice began, but one he wants.
“That’s why I like it,” he said. “That’s why I want to play it.”
Ayers may never be a Broadway star, but he and bookend Joe Eppele, a 6-8, 306-pound junior from Vancouver, British Columbia, know at least one of them must be able to play a lead role for the Cougars come fall.
That’s when two-year starter Micah Hannam will return from offseason shoulder surgery to battle for his right tackle spot. But the left side, held this spring by Ayers, has to be solid if Washington State is going to move the ball.
“For our team to continue to improve next season … those guys don’t have a choice, they have to perform well,” coach Paul Wulff said, repeating a statement he made before spring started.
Ayers and Eppele understand.
“At tackle it’s a little more obvious, just because if we don’t block, or don’t pick up a blitzer, or we get beat pretty badly, anyone can see it,” said Ayers, a sophomore from Bellingham. “When we give up, we give up kill shots. … That’s not just a sack, it’s a second-team quarterback.”
“In one of the interior O-line positions, you generally are going to have a guy on either side that helps you out,” Eppele said. “But when you are on the edge, you don’t have as much help on most of the plays.”
Both have improved this spring, Wulff said, with their biggest strides coming in their consistency and understanding of their assignments. Not that Wulff didn’t expect it.
“They’ve made steps and they’ve improved through spring,” he said. “They’re both young enough in their playing time in their career there is no excuse for those guys not to continue to improve as football players.”
With the injuries to Hannam, starting center Kenny Alfred (hip surgery) and guard Brian Danaher (shoulder), the remaining linemen have been getting more time – something that’s worked in their favor.
“It has helped a lot,” Eppele said. “We’ve been able to get a lot more reps at tackle. Some days, it kind of gets to you when you are out there and you’re drained, but that’s when you learn the most, when you’re drained but you’re able to push through it and still make improvements.
“With the amount of reps we’ve been able to get this spring, I think all of us on the O-line have made big strides this spring.”
But there is also a foundation built over the winter that’s paying dividends.
“ ‘Physical’ is a word we like to use, and a lot of that you can attribute to our offseason lifting,” Ayers said.
“It’s been a big focal point, trying to get a lot more thud off the line,” Eppele said.
Will the improvement continue into the fall?
“A lot of it goes back on to them,” offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy said. “The key will be leadership. … We’ve come a long way in that area. We’ve got kids who are very eager, a lot of kids who are very excited, that are doing good things in the area of leadership.”
NCAA rules mandate three spring practice days be held with players in helmets and no other pads. The Cougars opened spring drills with back-to-back helmet-only days and held their third Tuesday. The near-record heat made the lack of pads appreciated. “Actually, they just lucked out on that one,” Wulff said of the timing. “It’s not even that hot out here. It was a great day, actually.” … Middle linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis, who has missed the past week, said he would be undergoing surgery today to clean up his left-knee injury. … Practice included a session of special-team work split into four stations, with each group working on different aspects of open-field blocking, tackling and other aspects unique to the special teams. Long snapper Zach Enyeart participated in the drills. Not to be outdone, the kickers participated in some running back drills later. … Receiver Johnny Forzani showed his deep speed again, getting behind cornerback Shane Thomas and outbattling Thomas for Marshall Lobbestael’s long scoring pass in a skeleton passing drill. … Jeffrey Solomon made the catch of the day, going high in the back of the end zone to haul in Kevin Lopina’s touchdown toss in a goal-line drill.