Note: This is the second of eight position previews of Washington State University’s 2010 football team. Today: Wide receivers and tight ends. Tuesday: Offensive line.
PULLMAN – For a guy who has been on Washington State University’s football coaching staff for the past 19 years, Mike Levenseller had thought he had seen it all.
But what he’s witnessed the past five months is new to even him.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it,” he said Sunday. “All of a sudden I’ve got options. There’s depth.”
Just last April the Cougars were paper-clip thin at the receiver spot, with only four scholarship players – Daniel Blackledge, Jared Karstetter, Gino Simone and Jeffery Solomon – available for spring practice.
“Levy changed some things up on us,” said Simone of the spring workouts, “and, as a group, we didn’t necessarily perform as well as we wanted to. But the changes he put on us have helped us, we’ve grown from them, and that’s been seen throughout fall camp.”
But the biggest change since practice opened two weeks ago was the influx – and influence – of a group of young receivers.
“The younger kids, the freshmen, are coming along nicely,” said Levenseller. “Even the kids that I’ll probably redshirt are doing a nice job.”
The headliner thus far in camp has been Marquess Wilson, a 6-foot-3, 173-pound freshman from Tulare, Calif., who made his teammates take notice last Saturday with a five-catch, 110-yard performance in a scrimmage against the starting defense.
“It’s exciting just because I know what he’s going through,” said Simone, who started 11 games last year as freshman, catching 36 balls for 330 yards. “He’s just coming out looking to make plays, just like I was last year. He’s going to play a big part for us this season.”
“College football is way different from high school football,” Wilson said. “It’s a quick transition from not-as-quick corners to guys up here, they’re a lot quicker and a lot stronger.
“I just have to get used to that.”
He seems to be. What Levenseller sees in Wilson, and all the freshmen really, is a maturity not usual in the class.
“Marquess, he’s playing way beyond his years right now,” Levenseller said.
So was 6-2, 201-pound Kristoff Williams before he was sidelined recently with turf toe, which gave 6-1, 185-pound Bobby Ratliff a chance to shine. The three freshmen, along with another newcomer, 6-1, 190-pound junior college transfer Isiah Barton, gives Levenseller a core group that he sees as being at least seven deep.
“Generally, you use a group of about five,” he said. “This is easily the deepest we’ve ever been. And it goes from being the leanest ever, just that quick.”
The depth not only breeds competition, it allows someone like Karstetter, who led the team with 38 catches for 540 yards last season, to take his time returning from off-season surgery. And it allows the offense to keep attacking tiring defenders with fresh legs.
“We’re able to keep our tempo up,” said Simone, who is nursing a sore hamstring. “There is no excuse anymore for having lack-of-effort plays because we’re going to get the rest we need.”
There were numerous games down the stretch last season when the Cougars excised the tight ends from the game plan.
The group, decimated by injuries, just wasn’t getting the job done.
That shouldn’t happen this season.
“We’re coming along,” said sophomore Skylar Stormo, who was battling another sophomore, Andrei Lintz, for the starting job until Lintz sprained an ankle recently. “We took big steps in the spring. Now, in fall camp, the competition is getting better and we have more continuity.”
WSU’s tight ends have to be hybrids. Not only do they line up at the usual spot, on the line outside one of the tackles, most also have to be able play in space as an H-back.
In that role, they start behind the line and usually go in motion, either to block on running plays or sneak out into the flat to catch a pass.
It’s not an easy transition.
“It’s a big difference,” said Stormo, who caught three passes last season. “You have totally different footwork, you have different keys, a lot more responsibilities. It’s pretty tough.”
The Cougars suffered a tough break last week when 6-foot-5, 237-pound freshman Aaron Dunn suffered a wrist injury. He’ll have surgery soon and be out for the season.
“He was quick on the ball, knowing his stuff,” Stormo said. “He picked up stuff quicker than I did as a freshman. I was surprised. It’s a tough blow.”
But with seniors Aaron Gehring and Zach Tatman practicing, but in limbo, until the NCAA rules on a sixth-year request, as backups on the line and sophomore Jared Byers and senior Marcus Richmond able to handle the H-back spot, Stormo thinks the Cougars are OK.
“We’re finding our roles, what we do best,” he said. “We want to be on the field as much as anyone else, just get on the field and get playing time.”