More depth, more experience and more knowledge of coach Mike Leach’s system made this year’s spring football practice session more efficient than Leach’s first.
And while the Cougars have more answers than they did at this time last year, a few questions still remain, such as: who’s going to start at quarterback? And who’s going to protect him?
Here’s a look, position-by-position, at where WSU stands heading into summer workouts:
Quarterbacks: The division of repetitions went about how Leach said it would, with Connor Halliday and Austin Apodaca seeing just about equal time under center. Halliday typically played with the No. 1 offense during team sessions, though Apodaca certainly had a few snaps with that group, too.
Leach said Halliday, a fourth-year junior, might have had a slightly better spring just because of how much experience he already had with the offense, but that Apodaca, a second-year freshman, looked pretty poised considering his youth. This is a competition that will go into the fall.
Running backs: Teondray Caldwell might still be the best bet to start out as WSU’s top option, but Theron West and Marcus Mason were each given a decent amount of repetitions in the spring, too. West, who redshirted last season, will be a fourth-year junior, and fits Leach’s desire to play shorter, shifty backs with more speed than power.
The Cougars are also expected to add Arizona transfer Daniel Jenkins in the fall. He’ll be a senior and would likely factor into the competition right away.
Receivers: There’s more experience here than at this time last spring, simply because many of the same players are competing for the same spots. Gabe Marks had a strong showing and figures to lead the pack at one of the outside receiver positions, and players like Dominique Williams and Bobby Ratliff helped themselves out, too. Ricky Galvin, who missed most of last season with a broken arm, returned healthy and is a front-runner to nab one of the inside receiver positions.
Junior college transfer Vince Mayle, who will arrive this summer, should compete for a starting job on the outside, and junior Kristoff Williams had a strong performance in the spring game and scrimmages prior.
Offensive line: The difference between last spring and this spring at this position is perhaps as stark as any on the team. For starters, they actually have some bodies. And Leach spoke frequently about the development of walk-on Joe Dahl, who took over the left guard position with the No. 1 unit and held onto it until the end of spring. Rico Forbes is also back from injury and played the entire spring as the starting right tackle.
Returning senior Elliott Bosch, sophomore Gunnar Eklund and senior Matt Goetz – all players with starting experience – typically filled out the rest of the No. 1 group. But keep an eye on second-year freshman Eduardo Middleton and junior college transfer Jacob Seydel, each of whom drew praise from Leach and offensive line coach Clay McGuire throughout spring.
Defensive line: There are two ways to look at this group. The first is that they had so many injured players this spring, it’s hard to evaluate where they stand heading into the fall. But the second is that because of those injuries, certain backups earned enough repetitions to develop some depth. So, yes, nose tackles Ioane Gauta and Toni Pole missed most of the spring with knee injuries, and Robert Barber and Destiny Vaeao didn’t do much either.
But that meant more reps for players like Darryl Paulo, a third-year sophomore who moved to nose tackle from defensive end and performed admirably.
The injury situation isn’t thought serious for any of the aforementioned players, which means WSU should have a deeper crop of linemen to compete for playing time in the fall.
Linebackers: This was a young, inexperienced group last season, one that began the year as the most untested of any unit on the team. There’s more experience now, and the spring set the stage for what should be some interesting competition in the fall.
One of those is between senior Justin Sagote, last year’s starter at WIL linebacker, and Tana Pritchard, a third-year sophomore who saw the field more toward the end of last season and impressed new linebackers coach Ken Wilson this spring.
Kache Palacio, a sophomore who mostly played on special teams last year, appears to be the leader at the buck linebacker spot with junior Logan Mayes out this spring with a leg injury. Mayes will likely challenge Palacio for that position in the fall, though he’ll play some defensive end, too.
Darryl Monroe, a third-year sophomore, appears the starter at mike (middle) linebacker, and Cyrus Coen seems to hold an edge over Eric Oertel at sam (outside) linebacker. Jeremiah Allison and Jared Byers have added depth up the middle, and junior college transfer Ivan McLennan showed promise taking reps behind Palacio.
Defensive backs: Maybe the most improved group on the defense, though there’s still plenty to figure out. Damante Horton, Nolan Washington and Anthony Carpenter have competed for the two starting cornerback positions, though second-year freshman Rahmel Dockery may have improved the most at that spot.
Senior safety Deone Bucannon is the surest thing about this defense, though he missed most of the spring with an undisclosed injury (it’s not thought serious). That left senior Casey Locker and sophomore Taylor Taliulu as the starting safeties with the No. 1 group for much of the spring, and they’ll likely compete for the remaining starting spot alongside Bucannon when he returns in the fall. Leach was complimentary of Taliulu’s improvement throughout the spring.
Special teams: Andrew Furney, obviously, will kick field goals, and Mike Bowlin will continue punting and kicking off.
Special teams coach Eric Russell said the team is still looking at a few different players at the kickoff and punt return spots, such as receiver Brett Bartolone, Caldwell and running back Leon Brooks, as well as freshman receiver Robert Lewis. That position figures to be sorted out during the fall.
Apodaca and Bowlin have worked as the primary place-holders, though Apodaca appears to have the edge in that competition.