PULLMAN – A post-spring meeting with defensive coaches spelled the end of Ian Knight’s career at Washington State.
If there is ill will on Knight’s part, it is undetectable during a Wednesday morning telephone conversation from his new residence at Virginia University of Lynchburg. But Knight is matter-of-fact about why he left WSU.
There was, quite simply, no future for him here.
“When I had my exit meeting with the defensive coaches,” said Knight, a defensive end/linebacker recruited by former coach Paul Wulff, “they didn’t see any way I was going to play, and they were going to try to start the younger players they brought in.”
So Knight transferred to Division II Lynchburg, where he plays regularly and has recorded 28 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss this season.
He’s one of 19 scholarship players with eligibility remaining – along with a bevy of walk-ons, some recruited by Wulff and some who simply wanted to give Pac-12 football a shot – who have departed WSU’s football program since the end of last season, when Wulff was fired and Mike Leach was hired to replace him.
The level of attrition became more publicized last week when star receiver Marquess Wilson, the school’s all-time leading receiver, quit the team and alleged in an open letter that WSU’s coaching staff abused players verbally and physically.
Wilson’s claims prompted an investigation by the school and the Pac-12, both of which were still ongoing as of Thursday night.
But a review of WSU’s exodus doesn’t necessarily paint an abnormal picture. Every first-year coach prepares for attrition of some kind, Leach said, though few run into an exit as messy and public as Wilson’s.
For example, the Seattle Times detailed in July 2010 – the summer between coach Steve Sarkisian’s first and second seasons as Washington’s head coach – that 18 of previous coach Tyrone Willingham’s recruits had left the program.
Of the 19 scholarship players who are no longer with WSU, four – linebackers C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi, and defensive tackles Anthony Laurenzi and T.J. Poloai – were dismissed for rules violations.
And four of the 19 gave up football due to various injuries. Linebacker Louis Bland battled knee injuries the past two years. Defensive end Skylar Stormo was forced out by a weight-lifting injury. Safety Max Gama spent most of spring practices on an exercise bike and eventually chose not to return. And offensive lineman Alex Reitnouer chose not to return after he missed the entire 2011 season with a back injury.
Then there are players such as Knight and receiver Blair Bomber, another Wulff recruit who chose to transfer after reading the writing on the wall, so to speak.
“At the end of the day, it was all about whether I was OK with just being a guy on a team, being a practice guy,” said Bomber, who missed the 2011 season with a torn ACL, “or if I wanted to try to be somebody and do something with my career before it was too late.”
The Lynden, Wash., native opted for the latter, asking coaches for his release a few weeks after the season started. He plans to transfer to Eastern Washington, which recruited him out of high school.
“They were really delicate about that whole thing,” Bomber said of Leach’s coaching staff. “They would pull guys aside and say, ‘Hey, you haven’t gotten a lot of time. If you want to leave, we’ll help you out. If you want to stay, it’s fine. But for now, your playing time’s not looking great.’
“I don’t think they ever pushed anybody out the door or said, ‘You need to leave.’ They didn’t say that to me.”
Usually, Leach said, a player will make that decision for himself.
“If he’s really a football player and really loves the game, he wants an opportunity to go out and play,” Leach said. “And that’s the thing – you’ve got just kind of a narrow window and you want to take advantage of that opportunity and get out on the field. There’s times people just transfer.”
Playing for Leach was more physically demanding than playing for Wulff, Bomber said, describing a series of workouts – from “midnight maneuvers” in the winter to grueling exercises in the sand pit to the dog days of fall camp – that “was something none of us have really experienced. That was a reality check. … It was probably the hardest however many months that was of my entire life.”
Knight didn’t feel as physically challenged – “I felt like we just switched up the tempo a little bit,” he said – but others might not have seen it that way.
“They did definitely try to belittle certain players and try to force some guys out,” Knight said.
If players don’t like how things are being run, Leach said, so be it.
“We’re not changing,” he said on Nov. 5. “This isn’t a democracy. We don’t say, ‘Hey you 125 guys, so how do you want practice to be and what direction do you want this or that to go?’ We don’t do that. So we’re not changing. Our standards are what our standards are, and we’re going to hold them to those standards.”