Note: This is the seventh of eight position previews of Washington State University’s 2010 football team. Today: Linebackers. Sunday: Defensive line.
PULLMAN – Ask Washington State University linebackers coach Travis Niekamp which of his backers has surprised him the most this fall, and he hems and haws.
He really doesn’t want to heap any more praise on Alex Hoffman-Ellis.
“Alex impressed me the most,” Niekamp said after finally relenting. “The reason why is, where he was at the end of the year and where he is at right now, he’s a lot better player.
“I know there’s a lot of, not hype, but there’s a lot of people who think he’s the guy and this and that. And last year, he was good. But I think he’s really made a lot of progress.”
Hoffman-Ellis, a junior, led the Cougars in tackles last season with 84 while mainly playing the middle, or Mike, spot. But his speed, on display during a 52-yard interception return for a score against SMU, seemed more suited for the outside, which he played some at the end of the season.
Not allowed by his family to play football until his senior year at Hamilton High in Los Angeles, Hoffman-Ellis also played one year at Moorpark College, where his speed caught the WSU coaching staff’s attention.
A YouTube video of Hoffman-Ellis running down on kickoff coverage, outdistancing his teammates by some 10 yards, and upending the ball carrier, was talked about incessantly.
But that was the “skinny” Hoffman-Ellis, who weighed less than 220 pounds, was part of the school’s 4x100-meter relay team, long jumped and threw the javelin.
A workhorse in the WSU weight room, he’s up to 241 pounds and hasn’t seemed to lose much of his speed.
Now he’s using it at a position he favors, the Will linebacker, an outside spot used in blitzes and pass coverage. It demands the strength and agility to bull rush or sidestep a tackle and the speed to run with a slot receiver.
“I love it,” Hoffman-Ellis said of the position switch. “It’s my comfort zone, the outside. I’ve played that position most of my brief football career.
“I get more chance to ‘go’ – that’s the perfect way to describe it.”
With Hoffman-Ellis on the outside, that opened up the middle. Junior Mike Ledgerwood, who emerged with a team-high 14 tackles in last season’s Apple Cup, and senior Hallston Higgins battled for the spot through the spring before being joined in the competition this fall by true freshman C.J. Mizell.
The decision on who will start has been made.
“Mike will start the game for us,” Niekamp said. “But Hallston deserves the right to play, too. Plus, the circumstances are going to allow it, with all the up-tempo (Oklahoma State) is going to (play).”
Senior Myron Beck will man the other outside spot, using the speed of a converted safety – he started nine games there in 2008 – to cover the Pac-10’s tight ends and roam the open side of the field.
Behind Beck and Hoffman-Ellis are two redshirt freshmen, Arthur Burns and Darren Markle, who have put together solid camps, Niekamp said. Their emergence has given him some semblance of calm.
“I trust them,” he said. “I trust the six we got. That’s huge. They are going to try to do what we ask them, they are going to try to put themselves in position to make plays.
“Then it’s on them from there.”