The battle for playing time on the offensive and defensive lines might be more intriguing than at any other position this spring, if coach Mike Leach’s assessment is accurate.
The quarterback position isn’t exactly settled, either.
When Washington State begins spring football practices on Thursday at 3 p.m., it will do so with the intent, in part, to figure out who is going to be throwing passes when the season starts in late August.
And like last year, it’s a two-man race. Like last year, redshirt junior Connor Halliday is one of the participants. Unlike last year, his counterpart is Austin Apodaca, a redshirt freshman who spent last season running the scout team.
But Leach will take a long look at both during WSU’s spring session, which includes 15 practices and concludes April 23.
The quarterback competition, Leach said, should be a “pretty good contest, because neither one of them has an overwhelming amount of experience.”
Halliday and Apodaca are currently the only two scholarship quarterbacks on WSU’s roster, though heralded freshman Tyler Bruggman – along with versatile athlete Aaron Dotson – will join the team in the fall.
For now, the position could see an even split when it comes to practice repetitions, unless either player begins to separate himself from the other.
“If somebody’s starting to take control of a position, in the past I’ve tried to go two-thirds, one-third,” Leach said. “Starting out, they’ll be 50-50.
“I do want someone to secure and lock down the position. So I am going to get them as many reps as possible. It’ll be 50-50 for a period – I would anticipate half or more of spring … but I do have quite a bit of reps, because I don’t have a third guy in the thing working in right now.”
A 1-on-1 race would have been the ideal situation last season, too, when senior Jeff Tuel was supposed to split reps with Halliday in the spring before Halliday aggravated his liver injury on the first day of practice.
Tuel took the momentum he gained from taking most of the spring snaps into the fall, when he officially won the starting job.
Leach doesn’t typically hype position competitions, stressing that every position is up for grabs at all times. The best player will play. That type of thing.
But he will admit to some excitement about finally having enough depth on the offensive line to add extra incentive for those players to fight for their jobs.
WSU returns five players – center Elliott Bosch, guard/tackle John Fullington, guard/tackle Jake Rodgers, guard Matt Goetz and tackle Gunnar Eklund – who started or played regularly last season.
The Cougars had precious few others available last year, though. Now, they have redshirt freshmen like Denzell Dotson and Eduardo Middleton available, as well as transfers Joe Dahl, who redshirted last season, and Jacob Seydel, a junior-college transfer who could contribute immediately.
Also returning is Rico Forbes, a senior tackle who may have started last season but tore his ACL at the beginning of fall camp.
“We expect to have more bodies involved this year,” Leach said. “We have more bodies available right now on the O-line than we did all season last year.”
That simple truth could foster an attitude change.
For example, Leach said, “if you’re a guard, we’d like it to be a total battle between three people instead of some process of elimination thing. I don’t think it was always as competitive last year as it could have been. … It’s like, ‘Well, they have to play me anyway.’ Well, we need to change that.”
WSU returns 16 starters – eight on offense, eight on defense – and figures on a smoother start to this spring than last.
“The biggest thing (is) we’re trying to get a bunch of reps in to polish our skills, but also evaluate each player at each position,” Leach said.
“Everybody already knows where to line up and how to do the drills. I think we can get into the evaluation part of it quicker.”