PULLMAN – If you want to put the college football season into housing terms, then spring is about building a foundation, summer the framing and roofing, and fall, that’s when you finish up, adding light touches and getting the place ready to move in.
After 15 spring practices the past five weeks, Washington State University is done building the foundation.
“We’ve instilled our culture,” defensive co-coordinator and associate head coach Chris Ball said. “With instilling our culture, the kids understand what to expect out of practice. When we come out here and coach, we’re coaching ball, not coaching how to run on-and-off the field. They’re doing that stuff.”
So just how strong is that foundation?
Let’s look at it piece by piece, bearing in mind we’re just looking at a concrete shell, one that will be shored up during the summer and finished in August, when a freshman class arrives to fill in the gaps prior to the season opener, at home Sept. 5 against Stanford.
And there are gaps. Some were left in place on purpose, as a few returning starters sat out the spring rehabilitating injuries or their transcripts. And other gaps cropped up during workouts, with five more possible starters sustaining bad-enough injuries to limit their participation. Most of those players will be back come August, but there still will be spots for newcomers.
“A lot of that depends on the players who are in the program now, how they come back and how they improve,” coach Paul Wulff answered when asked how many new players will play. “That’s an element. I think that, inevitably, where we’re at right now, I expect it could be anywhere from four to six players that could play in their first year.
“It’s a guess, but I think that’s a pretty good guess right now.”
What follows is a breakdown by position groups, with a player who showed enough in spring to watch closely this fall and what questions still need to be answered for WSU to improve.
Offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy and Ball supply the commentary for their respective sides of the ball.
Player to watch: Zack Williams. At 6-foot-4 and 293 pounds, the junior will start somewhere on the offensive line. He played left guard all spring, but can play tackle if needed. He has the most aggressive, physical nature on the line.
Unanswered question: What’s the lineup? With senior center Kenny Alfred (6-2, 300) and junior tackle Micah Hannam (6-4, 284) out during spring, it was a chance for others, most notably tackles Steven Ayers (6-4, 315-pound sophomore) and Joe Eppele (6-8, 306) to show what they could do. We’ll see in the fall how much they impressed.
What Sturdy said: “We’ve taken some steps … but we’re not where we want to be yet. But our kids are starting to get some confidence. They’re starting to get excited about being physical, getting off the ball and running the football.”
Player to watch: Skyler Stormo. The 6-4, 253-pound redshirt freshman came on strong as spring drills progressed, showing he can block and catch (two passes for 21 yards in final scrimmage).
Unanswered question: Who is No. 1? It may depend on the need. Senior Tony Thompson (6-2, 241) will be the guy at the start, but there are four others who want time.
What Sturdy said: “They are making a (lot) of mistakes yet, because they’re just young. But they’re all going to help us.”
Player to watch: Jeffrey Solomon. There is a chance the 6-foot, 196-pound Solomon, a transfer from Eastern Washington who hasn’t played in more than a year due to his transfer and a back injury, could be a star. He has the hands, the size and the speed to bloom.
Unanswered question: Can Johnny Forzani adjust to American football? The Canadian import showed flashes of brilliance in the spring before a foot injury sidelined him.
What Sturdy said: “Their eyes and ears are open. That’s a good thing. We’ve built some depth. Again, as with everything else, we’re not where we want to be, the coaches, the players too. They realize we’ve got a ways to go.”
Player to watch: Dwight Tardy. In his first three years, Tardy has showed flashes of brilliance. But a knee injury suffered his sophomore season limited him last year. Finally healthy, the 5-10, 208-pound senior is running better than ever and can always be relied on to earn the extra yard, make the right block, catch the tough pass.
Unanswered question: How good is James Montgomery? The 5-10, 202-pound Cal transfer showed a variety of moves and an ability to outrun angles throughout spring practice. But it’s been more than a year since the junior last played in a game.
What Sturdy said: “As with several other positions offensively, we’ve got a situation now where we have some competition. Those kids have all done a great job this spring.”
Player to watch: Marshall Lobbestael. How quickly Lobbestael comes back from his knee injury this fall could be the most important factor in the offense’s success.
Unanswered question: Who’s the starter? With Lobbestael, a 6-3, 206-pound sophomore unable to do team drills in the spring, senior Kevin Lopina (6-3, 234) assumed the mantle. Can he keep it?
What Sturdy said: “The disappointing thing was J.T. (Levenseller’s leg injury), because it got cut so short. He really would have benefited from all those reps. … Marshall’s situation, we got as good a spring as we could get out of his situation. … A year ago, you look at where Kevin and Marshall were and where they are today, they’ve both taken huge, huge steps.”
Player to watch: Cory Mackay. This 6-4, 257-pound freshman, who came to WSU as a tight end, played linebacker during his redshirt season and has found a home on the defensive line, asserted himself early in the spring. As he learns more technique, he should begin to put up big numbers.
Unanswered question: Can Bernard Wolfgramm play? The 6-3, 288-pound junior college transfer redshirted last season, then had back surgery over the winter. Whether or not he’ll be able to go come August is still an open question.
What Ball said: “They’re young. There are a bunch of them who didn’t play for us last year. But I think they have a pretty good understanding of what we’re going to do. They’re stronger. Overall, we’re better.”
Player to watch: Louis Bland. Despite being undersized at 5-10 and 202 pounds, Bland made a mark last season, making 55 tackles in nine starts as a true freshman. A knee injury cut short his spring, but he has a shot to be one of the Cougars’ best.
Unanswered question: Is Alex Hoffman-Ellis the answer in the middle? Before his spring knee injury, the 6-1, 236-pound sophomore was showing he had the speed to fill the role of middle linebacker. Now he has to get the experience.
What Ball said: “Those guys (Mike Ledgerwood, Josh Garrett) got better. It would have been nice to have Andy Mattingly there, but that’s part of the game. Sometime or another those guys that were playing this year (due to injuries) will have to play. It was good experience for them.”
Safeties and cornerbacks
Player to watch: Xavier Hicks. You never know when the 6-foot, 211-pound senior is going to lay out a receiver. The Cougars’ hardest hitter is also their most important defensive back.
Unanswered question: Are there enough corners? With last year’s starter Romeo Pellum suspended all spring and probably headed for a transfer, the corner spots aren’t awash with depth. Junior Brandon Jones (5-9, 178), sophomore Tyrone Justin (5-11, 156), senior Devin Giles (6-foot, 173) and freshman Daniel Simmons (5-10, 187) must hold down the edge.
What Ball said: “We don’t have the depth right now. We’ve got good ones. I feel good about the safety spot with Chima (Nwachukwu), Tyree (Toomer) and Xavier. … Brandon Jones looked really good at corner; I think we’ve got a chance with him, the way he’s come along. At that position, who I was really pleased with was Daniel Simmons. The last two weeks he had a great, great spring.”
Player to watch: Zach Enyeart. No one ever watches the long snapper. But Enyeart (6-1, 265) has turned into a good one as a junior. If he can start adding punt tackles to his repertoire, he’ll be better than good.
Unanswered question: How much did his winning Apple Cup kick help Nico Grasu? The senior kicker seemed to be more confident and displayed a stronger leg all spring. Will it carry over?