PULLMAN – If Washington State’s football team wants to rejoin the Pac-10 Conference’s elite, the Cougars know they must discover hidden gems in the recruiting mines.
This year’s Hope Diamond: Alex Hoffman-Ellis.
The 6-foot-1, 236-pound sophomore was a late find last season, coming in after fall camp started. But he sparkled enough during his redshirt year to be named the starting middle linebacker heading into spring.
And he’s the definition of an unpolished nugget.
“He’s very young as a football player,” said Washington State head coach Paul Wulff. “One year of high school football and one year of junior college.”
Hoffman-Ellis attended Los Angeles’ Hamilton High, but only played his senior year because of academic deficiencies. That, however, was enough. He was bit by the football bug.
“When people say they eat, sleep and breathe football, that’s what I do,” he said Friday. … My mind never leaves football.”
Despite the lack of experience, his potential earned him a chance at suburban Moorpark JC. Being fast – he said he was timed in 4.54 seconds in a 40-yard-sprint in JC, though he admits he’s “gotten a lot bigger since then” – didn’t hurt.
After one year playing for Moorpark, Hoffman-Ellis was surprised to discover his high school grades and test scores made him eligible immediately at a four-year school. And when another California junior college player, defensive lineman Josh Luapo, failed to finish needed work last summer and had to delay his enrollment at WSU, a scholarship was available. It went to Hoffman-Ellis.
Now he’s the heir apparent to four-year starter Greg Trent.
“It’s going to be very tough to fill Greg Trent’s shoes,” Hoffman-Ellis said.
There’s no guarantee the shoes are his to keep.
“There are definitely no starting positions set in stone,” Wulff said. “Everything is in pencil. … The players are going to set the depth chart by their performance, and you never know, we could move a more experienced player into the middle.”
There might be more experienced players, but it would be tough to find one more dedicated than Hoffman-Ellis.
“Last night, after the first day of spring ball, I couldn’t go to sleep without thinking in my head, ‘Hoffman, Hoffman, where should you be?’ ” he said. “I just kept thinking this in my head and I lost sleep over it.
“I think about football so much and I think this team can do great things.”
•Defensive backs Tyrone Justin, who started six games last season; Kevin Frank; Daniel Simmons; and Deon Ford, a linebacker, all missed practice, having been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules, according to Wulff. Starting cornerback Romeo Pellum, whose suspension was announced Wednesday, also sat out.
Wulff wouldn’t go into specifics, but a defensive backfield that was supposed to feature intense spring competition was suddenly less crowded. It didn’t help that California transfer Brandon Jones, battling for a starting corner spot, was limited after breaking a bone in his right hand last week. He’ll be in a cast a couple of weeks.
How were things going for the offense Thursday? Anthony Houston caught a Kevin Lopina pass, turned to go upfield and had the ball knocked loose. It popped forward into Aaron Gehring’s hands, and the tight end turned and took off upfield. … The best catch of the day was made by junior transfer Johnny Forzani, who got behind the defense but had to stretch out to gather in Marshall Lobbestael’s scoring pass. … Senior defensive end Kevin Kooyman didn’t practice the first two days while recovering from a strained back.
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