PULLMAN – One of the more intriguing aspects of early season college football practice are the position battles.
Every team has them. Two or three players square off through 10, 15, 20 practices, trying to win the starting nod and the most playing time.
Washington State University has its share this fall, but none more important for the team’s success than the one going at middle linebacker.
Three players, all at varying steps of their college career, are squaring off to see who will man the middle in the opener Sept. 4 at Oklahoma State.
Will it be lightly used senior Hallston Higgins? Junior Mike Ledgerwood, who made a name for himself in last year’s Apple Cup? Or will it be the prized recruit, C.J. Mizell, the freshman from Florida who sat out last year before finally deciding to play in Pullman?
“With the guys who are out here practicing, we have to formulate a two-deep some how, some way and they have to perform at a high level,” said coach Paul Wulff on Tuesday following the Cougars’ third practice, their first wearing shoulder pads.
The battle really hasn’t been joined fully as yet because Alex Hoffman-Ellis, penciled in to start on the weak side, has yet to go full speed due to a balky back.
With Hoffman-Ellis not scrimmaging, Ledgerwood has slid over, filling in at a position he’s played in the past. That’s left Higgins, who has opened eyes with his play since spring, starting, and Mizell learning the spot as the backup.
“It’s not a terrible thing because we’ve got some depth there, which means competition is going to be good,” said linebackers coach Travis Niekamp of the battle. “Guys are going to have to come out every day and have great practices.”
So who will win the fight for a position Wulff terms “crucial?” Ask the three players involved and they all have different reasons why they should be the one.
“Played it all my life,” Ledgerwood said. “That’s the one thing I’ve always wanted to do in college football, play middle linebacker. My goal is to play that position.”
“I bring a lot of speed to the middle linebacker position,” said Higgins, who lost 12 pounds since last fall. “A lot of intensity, a lot of heart, will and I’m a headhunter. I’m going to make that hit; I’m going to get the ball down.”
“I’m just going to go all out for the team and do my job every down,” said Mizell. “I’ll give it everything I’ve got.”
At an athletic 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Mizell has a lot to give. He runs better than the other candidates, but at times Tuesday that quickness got him in trouble as he overpursued and lost containment.
“He brings the athleticism you would like to see at that spot,” Niekamp said. “He’s young, he’s got a ways to go yet. (But) he’s got some really good natural instincts.”
The 5-11 Higgins came into fall weighing 210 pounds, five pounds less than he weighed as a freshman out of Magnolia, Texas. This year he has a new number (switching from 53 to 35) and a new attitude.
“I’m just trying to have fun out here, honestly,” he said. “I’m just trying to make the plays that I can. I’m not really worried about it being my last time too much, I thought about that already. Now I’m like ‘let’s go and do it.’ ”
His first three seasons in Pullman, Higgins saw little time, playing in 35 games and making 20 tackles.
“Hallston is consistent,” Niekamp said. “A lot of times guys get to that senior season and they take a step up and he’s done that. He’s really committed himself. He’s lost some weight which is really helping his mobility and speed.”
Ledgerwood is the thickest of the trio at 6-1 and 231 pounds. He’s also had more experience, most of it last year. He came on strong late, with 23 tackles in the final two games, including a team-high 14 against the Huskies.
“He took a huge step at the end of last year,” Niekamp said. “He’s on his way, if he continues to work like he’s been working. He had a breakout game in the Apple Cup and I’m expecting that type of performance from him week in and week out.”
So who will start?
Niekamp said there is no hurry to make a decision.
“Now it’s time to compete,” he said. “Every time you’re taking a rep, you better be busting your butt because it could be the one that makes the decision.”