PULLMAN – The first spring of the Mike Leach era has concluded at Washington State University.
“The biggest thing, we need to give them as many tools as we possibly can to go into the offseason and work on and polish their skills on,” Leach said. “If they do that and work really hard, then we’re going to come back when we start camp significantly better than we are now, and that improvement’s going to be key for this team.”
Here’s a position-by-position look at what the Cougars accomplished during their 15 spring practices.
Quarterback: What figured to be a competition between Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday for the starting job turned into a one-man show on the first day. Halliday, still recovering from the lacerated liver that ended his 2011 season, took an incidental shot to the side during WSU’s first practice of the spring, and didn’t participate in any team sessions after that. That meant Tuel took all of the reps with the No. 1 offense, capping a strong spring by completing 19 of 21 passes in the Crimson and Gray Game. Leach has said that once Halliday is healthy in the fall, he and Tuel are expected to square off for the starting job. Walk-on David Gilbertson emerged as a capable backup in Halliday’s absence.
Leach jokes that his running backs all look the same from behind. That is to say, they’re all short. And they’ve all been given quite a few reps during the spring. Sophomore Marcus Mason was with the No. 1 offense when it took the field for its first series of the spring game, but Rickey Galvin, Carl Winston and Leon Brooks also saw time. Perhaps most importantly, Leach says that each of them can catch the ball. That could be key in determining playing time, as the Cougars place a large emphasis on the screen game in Leach’s offense. Brooks, a junior, seemed to be particularly effective in that aspect. But Mason and Galvin appear to be the front-runners.
One of the deepest positions on the team heading into spring, and it remains that way. Dominique Williams, Marquess Wilson, Isiah Myers, Kristoff Williams (though he’s been injured) and Drew Loftus all were productive at times on the outside, though Leach has made it clear that he expects better effort out of Wilson and Dominique Williams. On the inside, Andrei Lintz, a tight end in his previous life, emerged as one of the stars of the spring. His size and speed had Leach raving from the first week. Bobby Ratliff, Bennett Bontemps, Blair Bomber and Gino Simone are also in the mix. WSU will introduce five freshman receivers in the fall.
If there was one position group that needed a rest, it was the O-line. They were without some key players for much of the spring, such as senior Wade Jacobson and center Matt Goetz. By the end of the spring, the starting offensive line featured, from left to right, John Fullington, Zack Johnson, Elliott Bosch, Dan Spitz and Rico Forbes. But that figures to change once Goetz and Jacobson return. Goetz was starting at center prior to his injury, and Jacobson can play either tackle or guard.
Lenard Williams, Anthony Laurenzi and Xavier Cooper played much of the spring as the starting unit, though Williams missed time with injury and Matthew Bock stepped in to replace him. Cooper showed the promise the previous staff often spoke of, pressuring the quarterback well during scrimmages. The arrival of freshman nose tackle Robert Barber in the fall could change the dynamic of this group.
This was the biggest question mark on the team heading into the spring, but there’s been a bit of resolution. Mike linebacker Darryl Monroe was able to practice at full speed for much of the spring before being shut down toward the end as he recovers from his Achilles injury. Eric Oertel’s quickness and athleticism earned him starting reps at sam linebacker. Chester Su’a, before a hand injury ended his spring, had taken the reins at the will spot. And star senior Travis Long is the team’s buck linebacker, a hybrid DE/LB position in coordinator Mike Breske’s 3-4 base defense. Darren Markle, Cyrus Coen and converted fullbacks Corey Laufasa and Jared Byers could factor in. WSU adds five freshmen at this position in the fall.
Damante Horton and Daniel Simmons worked as the starters at cornerback from day one. Same with Deone Bucannon at strong safety. Anthony Carpenter wound up seeing a bunch of reps with the starters at the other safety position after Tyree Toomer missed most of spring with an undisclosed injury. Casey Locker missed the final few practices after apparently injuring his hand.
Junior transfer Mike Bowlin has laid claim to the kickoff and punting duties, while Andrew Furney figures to have the place-kicking job locked up. Bowlin showed a strong leg this spring, at times booting kickoffs through the back of the end zone. Rahmel Dockery, Brooks, Bomber, Wilson and others have tried their hand at kickoff and punt returns. Dockery was back there during the spring game.