PULLMAN – Marquess Wilson had a pretty decent freshman year.
The Washington State wide receiver from Tulare, Calif., burst on the scene with a 48-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Tuel in last season’s opener against Oklahoma State, had more than 100 yards receiving in five of his first eight games and was a consensus freshman All-American.
He finished with 55 catches for 1,006 yards – a record for a WSU freshman – and six touchdowns.
But it was only prelude to what’s happening in his sophomore year.
In three games Wilson has caught 15 passes. One covered 80 yards, another 78. His 429 receiving yards lead the nation. So does his 28.6 yards per catch, for players with at least 15 receptions.
Wilson has taken a huge step. He’s now the guy opposing defenses have to account for in their game plan.
Come Saturday, before some 50,000 people in Colorado’s Folsom Field, the Buffaloes will make it their priority to know where No. 86 is.
“He’s real explosive,” Colorado coach Jon Embree said. “He’ll take a screen pass and go the distance or he’ll run by you.
“He’s a guy you’ve got to tackle, he’s a guy you have to aware of where he’s lined up at.”
So what has propelled Wilson to this level? Ask him, and the reserved, always-smiling, 6-foot-4, 183-pounder will quietly talk about working harder at practice, focusing on execution, blocking with a purpose.
But those are all byproducts of learning from his failures.
“I realized what I didn’t do last year, and how that really hurt the team a lot,” Wilson said.
Blocking was part of it. Being pushed off routes another. Things that had their roots in not being strong enough. And things that have changed.
“He’s a better overall player,” said quarterback Marshall Lobbestael, who, filling in for usual starter Tuel, has benefited greatly from Wilson’s improvement. “He’s got a year in the weight room, working out with (strength coach Darin) Lovat. And he’s got a year of experience too.
“It helps him, too, working with Jared (Karstetter, WSU’s senior receiver). Marquess’ routes have gotten better because of it. All around, I think he’s just a better receiver.”
Wilson’s favorite route is the bubble screen, a play in which he catches a short pass from Lobbestael and works his way back to the middle of the field, using another receiver’s block to spring him.
It was that type of play Wilson took 78 yards for a score against San Diego State, catching the ball on the left side of the formation and weaving his way across and down the right sideline.
“I would rather have a screen, honestly, being able to go behind those big lineman and know they’re going to pick up their blocks,” Wilson said. “It just feels good to be able to catch the ball and turn up field.”
But he’s also effective working down the field, stretching the defense with his speed. It was a route that didn’t work as well last season, when defensive backs would often force Wilson to the sideline and out of bounds.
“(Receivers coach Mike Levenseller) always preached that to me, to get an edge and hold the edge,” Wilson said, talking about keeping a cornerback far enough inside on the long fade route that there is room to drop the ball inbounds. “Last year I couldn’t really do it. Now that I’ve gotten a lot stronger, it’s a lot easier to get back into the DB and get a perfect edge.”
As the season wears on, Wilson knows coaches will start trying to shut him down. But that’s easier said than done, as Embree sees it.
“They do a good job of moving him around so you can’t just sit there and say, ‘OK, we’re going to double cover him,’ ” Embree said. “We definitely have our work cut out for us.”
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