PULLMAN – When you’re recruiting at Washington State University, it isn’t a matter of just walking around and picking up jewels.
Recruiting to Pullman takes hard work. You have to drill deep to find those high school stars others have overlooked. It’s like looking for diamonds in a coal mine.
Nobody on WSU’s current roster illuminates that process more than starting offensive left tackle Tyson Pencer.
It’s not like Pencer is hard to see.
Coming out of high school, he was 6-foot-6, weighed 230 pounds, played tight end and linebacker and once had 25 tackles in a game. A typical recruit for the football powers, right?
Not really. Pencer was from the football hotbed of Delta, British Columbia, a Vancouver suburb, and was basically unknown to college recruiters. He’s played football since he was five years old, but only started playing the American version in 11th grade.
When former WSU football coach Bill Doba offered Pencer a scholarship, only one other school did the same, Colorado.
But Washington State is a lot closer, so Pencer headed south in the summer of 2007 – and quickly headed back to Canada.
“I was here, I think, a week of summer camp,” said Pencer, who got his first extended action against SMU last week. “There were problems with my eligibility, so they sent me home.”
His grades, translated from the Canadian system to the U.S., were accepted by WSU. But they were rejected by the NCAA Clearinghouse.
Pencer went home to get the paperwork cleared up. He expected to get back soon.
“I was planning on grayshirting,” Pencer said. “But by the time for grayshirting came around, they still hadn’t figured the problem out.”
When Pencer got it fixed and was ready to return to WSU, the Cougars had a new coach and a different staff. Pencer, who was ticketed to play tight end under Doba, had a new position.
“He’s the type of player we want to bring in to play the tackle position,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said this week. “He’s extremely athletic with great feet.”
While Pencer was getting his grades worked out, he got bigger – he weighs 297 and has grown an inch taller – but he kept his athleticism, making him seem like a perfect tackle for Wulff’s system. Except nobody knew for sure.
“About three weeks of camp, that’s when my shoulders blew out,” said Pencer of last season. “Both of my shoulders.”
After undergoing surgery twice, Pencer was forced to redshirt. The fall was lost, winter went by without any lifting and then spring came.
Pencer could finally join his teammates on the field again, albeit in a restricted manner.
“Even when I started lifting again in the March, April area, it wasn’t full lifting,” Pencer said. “I was just trying to get the shoulders back.”
They came back. After lifting all summer and doing voluntary drills, Pencer was ready for a fall filled with learning and making strides. He has. Big ones.
“He was a little bit behind with the shoulder surgeries and stuff,” offensive line coach Harold Etheridge said. “You saw the athletic ability and talent, but he didn’t get a lot of reps.
“Honestly, this summer, in the offseason, is the first time he actually ran the scheme with the guys on his own. (When practice started) he was so far ahead, he had learned a whole lot of the offense.”
This fall Wulff would watch practice – he also works with the tackles most every day – and then rave about Pencer’s potential. He was just waiting for Pencer’s command of the position to catch up with his physical attributes.
But an injury – Zack Williams’ high ankle sprain against Hawaii – moved Pencer up the depth chart. Last week, against SMU, the plan was to use Pencer at tackle for 25 to 30 plays, moving starting left tackle Steven Ayers to left guard at times. But when right guard B.J. Guerra suffered a knee injury on the game’s fourth play, the plan changed.
Brian Danaher moved over to right guard, Ayers moved inside and Pencer played every play until the end.
“The first couple plays, the first couple series, I was hyped up, trying to relax,” Pencer said. “By the third quarter I was relaxed, in the groove and feeling good.”
“It took him a while to settle in,” Etheridge said. “Then he got going.”
With Guerra out for another four weeks at least and Williams out against USC on Saturday, Pencer is going to get his chance to show what he’s learned since crossing the border three years ago.
“He’s got an opportunity to take this position and run with it,” Wulff said.