PULLMAN – The most rousing play on an afternoon that featured jarring winds, snow flurries and sunshine – just a normal spring day on the Palouse – came near the very end.
Matthew Bock, a 266-pound defensive lineman, leapt to deflect a pass at the line of scrimmage. But Austin Apodaca’s throw settled into Bock’s hands, and the senior-to-be chugged 30 yards to the end zone, where he did a little jig with his teammates.
Mike Leach and the Washington State coaching staff didn’t seem bothered by the celebration – not after the way the Cougars shrugged off the elements Thursday for more than two hours in their spring football opener.
“We had a wide variety of weather, and nobody really batted an eye at that,” Leach said. “So I thought that they did good.”
Starting their second spring with Leach in charge, WSU’s returning players now know what to expect. That brings a comfort level that wasn’t there last season, when the team went 3-9.
It also helps that the Cougars went through a winter conditioning program in which linebacker Tana Pritchard said the team was far more cohesive than in 2012. Pritchard pointed to a better work ethic and energy during workouts, not to mention more progress.
“We had to kind of weed out a couple of the players last year who weren’t all bought into the program,” he said. “And after that happened, we kind of started this chemistry that was all positive and it really trickled down to the offseason.”
Slogging through training during the winter months also makes spring practice, even in nasty weather, a pleasure by comparison.
“It’s been a lot of weightlifting and running at 6 in the morning,” said Gabe Marks, the Cougars’ third-leading receiver as a true freshman last sason. “I’m happy to just get out and play football again. It’s what I like to do.”
Marks said he’s stronger and more explosive after working with WSU strength coaches over the winter. Thursday, he stood out with his downfield catches and sturdy hands.
At times, he and other Cougar wideouts looked in sync with Apodaca and Connor Halliday, the only scholarship QBs on WSU’s roster who alternated reps. But Halliday bemoaned the number of dropped balls, and he and Apodaca threw several passes nowhere close to their intended targets.
The wind and wet conditions didn’t make it easy. Nor did the new footballs the quarterbacks were using.
“We’ve got new footballs that Nike brought here, so they’re slippery as heck,” Halliday said. “But taking everything into account, we threw it pretty well today.”
There was a mix of solid and shaky plays during deep passing drills, position work and light scrimmaging. Interceptions from Bock and safety Mitchell Peterson were intermingled with long connections to Marks and Dominique Williams.
Pritchard also showed his athleticism with pass breakups and plays in the middle of the defense.
“We’ve had a good offseason to this point,” Leach said, “and I think some of that shows.”
Even through the snow and wind gusts.
WSU will return to the practice field on Saturday at 10 a.m. Its first partially padded practice will be Tuesday. … The Cougars are splitting practice time between Martin Stadium and Rogers Field with construction underway on the Football Operations Building.